An Epic Comics Yarn: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

downloadMichael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an epic novel well worth the 600+ pages that it takes up. I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical of the novel, especially given some of the less-than-stellar prize winning books that I have read this year. However, Chabon’s novel is top-notch stuff that fully deserves the Pulitzer Prize it received after its publication in 2000. Amazingly, there are no illustrations or drawings in a novel that is primarily about comics and their ability to allow their readers to escape their realities. I suppose that I assumed that somewhere along the line an editor or head honcho would have floated the idea. Given that the novel is already more than 600 pages long, I can see why they chose not to. Anyways, that’s just a random thought I had while flying through the book.

Chabon’s narrative centers on Joe Kavalier, a Czech Jew who manages to escape from the country before the Nazis clamped down on the movement of Jewish people leading up to World War II. He moves in with Sammy Clay, his New Yorker cousin, and together they dream up a plan to get rich using comic books as their means. Of courses, the fact that Kavalier trained as an artist for a few years plays a role while Sammy’s own ability to craft narratives quickly and with skill also helps. Together they create the Escapist, a Jewish superhero whose ability to escape any kind of confinement or predicament helps him to defeat the thinly-veiled Nazi enemies he faces. Amazing Adventures then spins outwards, detailing the rise of Kavalier and Clay in the Golden Age of comics along with the decline of the business following the war and Kavalier’s inability to save his own family. The novel throws a number of twists and surprises throughout its labyrinthine narrative. I loved it from the first few pages and I did not stop loving it by the time it ends.

What I think Amazing Adventures also does remarkably well is to tell a story about the Holocaust without becoming either too depressing a read or crafting a completely implausible triumphal narrative a la Schindler`s List. Instead, it takes on the Holocaust through Kavalier who is always haunted by his absent family caught in the Czech Republic as the Nazi party takes power and executes its genocidal plan. *Spoiler alert*  At a few points Chabon hints that Joe may be able to save his younger brother or his family, but he does not do so. Having taken a graduate seminar in Holocaust fiction a few years ago, I had sworn off any literary takes on the Holocaust because good Holocaust fiction is inevitably soul-crushing. Simply put, nothing good can ever come of 6 million plus people being murdered. Any survivors or people who knew those killed are left with a massive historical weight that can easily become a fatal albatross around the neck. Chabon carries this weight in front of him, yet he does manage to craft a narrative of survival. The emotional complexity of Joe`s journey from a poor escapee to a successful cartoonist and beyond is a testament to Chabon`s writing skill and to his ability to tell a story without needing to sugar-coat it. For the first time since that graduate seminar, I found myself enjoying a Holocaust novel (although Amazing Adventures is not just a Holocaust novel, it is a lot more too). Thank you Chabon!

I highly recommend this book to readers of American literature, comic books, Holocaust literature, Jewish literature, and almost anyone else. This is an amazing  book!

Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2000. Print.

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