This is good story-telling, and for me, a welcome relief from much of the po-mo fare that takes itself too seriously and sacrifices plot for technique. I know that Chabon has been criticized for being too expositional, but I never found his lengthy explanations off-putting, nor did they slow the story down at all. If anything, there was too much plot in the plot -- not extra detail, not description -- but a story that deviated from its original strong premise and wandered off down paths that ultimately led nowhere.
I perhaps started this with expectations that were too high, so the following might be overcritical.
At the core, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
is a story about people who are, themselves, creating story and attempting to bring legitimacy to a new art form, i.e. comic books. This is an interesting, artful and original premise. Joe and Sammy are fighting evil vicariously through the comic book heroes they create, while simultaneously confronting and attempting to escape from their own real-life demons.
Meticulously researched, Chabon enlists real-life characters of the time (Salvador Dali, Harry Houdini, Orson Welles) and creates composites (Sammy and Joe are said to loosely be based on Jerry Siegel & Joe Schuster of Superman
fame) to tell his story. The dialogue sparkles, and leaves me scratching my head as to why they haven't made a movie of this one yet (I read that the project has stopped and started several times).
Sticking with the positives: the dialogue is compelling; the characters even more so. Chabon even creates footnotes to allude to the real-life basis upon which The Escapist
is built--I was never sure if these were fact or fiction. All of it comes together giving an epic feel to the story, and rooting it in a particular time-and-place, New York City in 1939, at the genesis of our now well-known comic book superheroes. Very evocatively rendered.
Another thing that works well is the way the story is told: traditionally, with foreshadowing and flash-backs that are well-placed and neatly inserted into a plot that moves steadily forward for the first half of the novel. I enjoyed those chapters that described one or another of the comic book scenes that Joe/Sammy were creating, layered on top of the story and illuminating different aspects and themes.
The language and, especially, the sentence structure are unnecessarily complicated at times. Nice for building vocabulary, but some of Chabon's Dickensian sentences felt like stepping off an escalator a little too early. This book should come with a machete for hacking your way through some of those paragraph-long clunkers.
300 pages in, this story was well in 5-star territory for me. It felt reminiscent of two other novels, which happen to sandwich it in the Pulitzer line-up: The Hours
, for its underlying tone of anxiety and impending doom; and Middlesex
, for its historical scope and galloping story line. But as it went on, my enthusiasm flagged, mostly because the doom never really happened.
Huge chunks of the action are almost stories within the story but ultimately, I wondered what they added and whether they were necessary. Sammy's sexuality and the beach-house scene seemed pivotal--but to what end? Joe's Antarctic experience was similarly obtuse--what was it for? What element of character, plot or theme did it reveal that we didn't already know? Both of these scenes seemed designed to create a reason or add resonance to scenes that came later--Sammy's testimony and questioning at the Senate Sub-Committee Hearing, which reveals his "shameful secret"; Joe's long absence and then return, and his disconnection and inability to reconnect with Sammy, Rosa and especially, his surrogate little brother/son, Tommy.
These scenes seemed to waylay the original conflict, i.e., Joe's desire to get his family out of Prague while simultaneously using the development of The Escapist
character and comic book as a metaphor for fighting the evil Nazis.
At the beginning, the premise was set up beautifully: Joe's schooling as a magician and escape artist and his real-life drama of escaping from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia inside the coffin of the golem--itself a symbol of magic and an avenging protector. The lightness and romance--even tawdryness--of the comic books Sammy and Joe were creating played off nicely against the dark and dangerous backdrop of the beginning of WW II. The central conflict and character motivations are established well.
As Joe and Sammy are developing story lines, there's an important exchange between them about "what is the why?":"Why is he doing it?"
"Dressing up like a monkey or an ice cube or a can of fucking corn."
"To fight the crime, isn't it?"
"Well, yes, to fight crime. To fight evil. But that's all any of these guys are doing. That's as far as they ever go. They just...you know, it's the right thing to do, so they do it. How interesting is that?"
"Only Batman, you know...see, yeah, that's good. That's what makes Batman good, and not dull at all, even though he's just a guy who dresses up like a bat and beats people up."
"What is the reason for Batman? The why?"
"His parents were killed, see? In cold blood. Right in front of his eyes, when he was a kid. By a robber."
interesting," Sammy said. "See?"
Chabon loses the why
for Joe when he lets us know the fate of Joe's brother, Thomas, and from then on, the plot loses focus. It becomes less about escape from evil, and more about the rise and fall of the comic book industry. Ironically enough, it loses the "why" that made the story interesting. Despite the contrivance of any number of set-pieces--including the Antarctic scene--it seems to limp to its final conclusion. The most dramatic moments were foreshadowed and then underplayed, sapping them of any energy or tension. Turning points in the plot--Bacon's departure; Joe's return to NYC; the revelation to Tommy of his father's identity--felt listless. Lots happened, some of it quasi-dramatic, but none of it seemed relevant or heading anywhere important.
The conclusion, when it finally comes, with its suggestion of domestic bliss and happily-ever-after, is as predictable and boring as the suburban setting in which it takes place. The arrival of the golem, now a pile of dirt inside a pine box, seems incongruous and even beside the point. It's a sad denouement to a story that started off with such a bang and then turned to dust.
5 stars for the first half, the beautiful language, the galloping plot and premise
3 stars for the second half and the ending that started in the middle and fizzled out altogether about 150 pages too late
Being generous, averaging it out at 4.