By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
A wise and esteemed author once said that people aspire to be writers because they want to be famous, to travel the world, to attach some degree of glamour to their problems with alcohol and drugs and to be thought of as insightful and brilliant individuals. They want to be perceived as passionately typing out page upon page of epic prose that will be received with both wonder and praise. What these potential writers don't want to do is actually sit down and write.
Several other esteemed writers believe this to be the case. I am not one of them. I doubt Michael Chabon is, either. I say this because his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is at its best when describing the type of frenetic passion that so often accompanies the blossoming and cultivation of talent, and the diligence that goes into most creative endeavors. Chabon's prose possesses the type of lyricism that few other novelists, alive or dead, can consistently produce, page after page, without seeming gratuitous. His references are inserted in a masterful way that does make one think that his novel is researched extremely well (which it is), but that his primary characters are part of larger historical narrative—the appearance of occasionally obscure figures are not there to show off his knowledge, but to engulf you, the reader, with the world occupied by his characters. True, diehard fans of comic books will get a kick out of the cameos of pioneers like Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, but these figures are just part of the scenery, and an encyclopedic knowledge of comics (which I don't have, though I was a big fan of anything with an "X" in the title growing up, particularly X-Force) is not at all required to enjoy Chabon's work.
The plot of the novel is far less expansive than one would think upon hearing that chunks of the book are set in Prague, New York City and Antarctica, and that some brief chapters take place in real locations such as the Jersey Shore, and replica cities, such as Empire City, a fictionalized New York that was created by the novel's two protagonists, Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay, and one in which many of the heroes they create operate. To say that it is linear would certainly be a mistake, as these two characters have very different trajectories, but their stories are both intertwined and deeply reliant upon one another.
Kavalier, a Jewish artist and protégé of a Houdini-inspired escape artist, begins his life in the Old Country, is smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Prague in a coffin occupied by the Golem of Prague, and finds himself in exile with his grandmother, aunt and cousin, Sammy, in Brooklyn. Sammy, a comic enthusiast who works for a novelty and pulp magazine, recognizes the talent his cousin has as an artist, and then talks his boss into giving them a shot at producing a full book of comics. As Superman had only been around for about a year at this point, and had become wildly successful, his boss, Sheldon Anapol, decides it's in his best interest to see what they can do. Within a few hours they have concocted not only Empire City, but the origin story of the Escapist, as well. He is not merely a superhero with the ability to break any chains that may bind him; he is, more importantly, tasked with freeing the oppressed peoples of the world from the chains of tyranny. The Escapist is a massive success. Many of their other heroes and heroines, such as The Monitor and Luna Moth, inspired by one of the novel's most integral characters, Rosa Saks, prove to be just as successful. The boys, Sammy the writer and Josef (Joe once he's been in the States long enough) the artist, have a knack for this type of thing.
This portion of the novel is where Chabon's genius is really on display. While the rest of the book is a masterwork of foreshadow and resolution, one that frequently refers to themes introduced early on and fleshed out as the narration gains in complexity and depth in the later portions of the book, I was personally drawn to the earlier chapters of the book that dealt with the anthesis of the two young artists. It was incredibly familiar, that feeling of sitting for hours on end working on a project without sleep or any more sustenance that what can be drawn from the day's thirtieth cigarette or tenth cup of coffee. There is something romantic about suffering while slaving over a piece of writing, primarily because it's not actually suffering at all. It's a burden one takes on voluntarily, that one strives to perfect for reasons that are not particularly rational, are rarely lucrative and, more often than not, are destructive with regards to social relations and the ability to function between the hours of nine and five.
While The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is most certainly a fantastic novel that sets an incredibly high bar for expansive literary fiction, particularly at a time when long novels are often derided for their superfluity, it reinforces the idea that there is something beautiful in the very act of writing and creating, and this is what I took away from Chabon's work. It is a reminder of the passion that generates excellent literature; more importantly, it is a celebration of that passion.