Posted on | April 24, 2011 | 7 Comments
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is well – amazing. Not only does this book celebrate the “great, mad, new American art form” and pays a tribute to the spirit of Americana in the 1930s, it simultaneously depicts the despair in Europe during the second World War, and how incredibly disconcerting the war was – both, for the people who had to live it, as well as the people who managed to escape it.
Eighteen year old Josef Kavalier flees Prague in the golem’s coffin, leaving his family behind, and ends up in Brooklyn, New York, where he’s forced to bunk with his seventeen year old cousin, Samuel Klayman (Clay). The cousins, both aspiring artists, hit it off immediately, and Clay introduces Kavalier to the wonderful world of comic books – in an age where Superman has just hit the stands, where the comic book obsession is rampant, and where there’s big bucks to be made, the cousins decide to create their very own super-hero to rake in the money.
And so, The Escapist is born, inspired by the boys’ fantasies of freedom and liberation, in the face of the Holocaust and their admiration for Houdini. With Kavalier’s artistic talents and Clay’s plot-building genius, The Escapist kicks-off and is a massive success, followed on with radio episodes, TV and merchandise. Time and again, they send the Escapist to battle against Attila Haxoff (a fictional character meant to represent Hitler), and the “Razis”. Kavalier saves enough money to bring his family to America, and spends most of his time hating the Germans and brooding and introspecting about the situation he is in, while dreaming of the day he will be united with his family. His creativity is inspired by his circumstance, and he makes no effort to tone it down:
There were just two principals, the Escapist and Hitler, on a neoclassical platform draped with Nazi flags against a blue sky. […] His [The Escapist’s] musculature was lean and understated, believable, and the veins in his arm rippled with the strain of the blow. As for Hitler, he came flying at you backward, right-crossed clean out of the painting, head thrown back, forelock a-splash, arms flailing, jaw trailing a long red streamer of teeth. The violence of the image was startling, beautiful, strange. It stirred mysterious feelings in the viewer, of hatred gratified, of cringing fear transmuted into smashing retribution, which few artists working in America, in the fall of 1939, could have tapped so easily and effectively as Josef Kavalier.
At the heart of every super-hero’s success though, lies tragedy. Superman’s planet was destroyed, and Batman’s parents were murdered – what does fate have in store for Kavalier? and Clay? Their early success passes them by, and they grow up, struggling to find their place in the world – to find their calling. Kavalier finds his love interest in Rosa Saks, a warm affectionate artist, whose world revolves around Kavalier – in fact, she’s the only real female character in the book (discounting the mothers of the cousins, both of whom have short fleeting roles), and automatically, one roots for the happy ending that Kavalier deserves with her.
But, in this pre-war New York (pre-war as America still hadn’t entered the war), things aren’t always fair, and along with the happiness, beauty and joy, there lies anger, despondency and helplessness. As the blurb at the back of the book says:
Joe can think of only one thing: how can he effect a real-life escape for his family from the tyranny of Hitler?
And one can’t stop turning the pages to figure out how it all ends.
This book covers a lot of ground: from magic to Houdini, from pop-culture to homosexuality, from comic books to the warfront, from the grand escape to living with hope and despair, from loving to losing, from 1930s to the 1950s, from war to post-war, and the underlying tragedy at each step, despite the humour, romanticism and passion that the protagonists have, makes it a fantastic read.
It’s also an eye-opener into the world of comics, and how much effort and talent really goes into it – the story, the backdrop, the “why” – every super-hero has a story, and the way these stories are concocted and created are mind-blowing. Many book-lovers that I know disregard comics, presuming it’s not “all that” but, this quote from the book says it all, really:
For that half-hour spent in the dappled shade of the Douglas Firs, reading Betty and Veronica, the icy ball had melted away without him even noticing. That was magic – not the apparent magic of the silk-hatted, card-palmer or the bold, brute trickery of the escape artist, but the genuine magic of art. It was a mark of how f*****d up and broken was the world – the reality – that has swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised.
This book was quite chunky, at 600+ pages. However, I really did not want this book to end, as I reached the last hundred pages… and I think that stands as testament to how incredible I thought this book was. It’s been ages since I’ve read something as fantastic and captivating as this, and I can’t wait to read another book by Chabon.