The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (by Michael Chabon) is a hard book to classify. Its speculative elements, while important, are so small that a non-genre reviewer could easily be baffled by those who consider it a genre work; its details are precisely realistic, but its tone is ironic, and its arcs are fantastic in extent and form. It attempts to argue for the compatibility of two different modes of literature (and life), and exemplifies their co-existence in its own nature: it is, on the one hand, a hyperbolic, implausible, accessible, rollercoaster popular adventure novel; and yet it is also a meditative, incisive, psychologically and socially critical literary realist novel. It does not, in my opinion, quite succeed at being either, but even the attempt at synthesis, and the extent of its success, are noteworthy.
Amazing is the tale of two Jewish teenagers in New York: wise-cracking semi-cripple native, Sam Clay, comic-book devotee and aspiring novelist, and his melancholy, introspective immigrant cousin, Joe Kavalier, whose passions have been directed into stage magic, escape artistry, amateur radio, and finally the fine arts. Together, the two of them concoct a superhero, “the Escapist” and seek to have him published; the novel spans about twenty years, from the mid thirties to the mid fifties, but mostly takes place during the Second World War, charting the highs and lows of the two men, their partnership, their careers, love-lives and families, and, as the title suggests, their amazing (if never quite impossible) adventures.
This was my second reading of the novel, and as it followed no more than a couple of years after the first, it was perhaps a little dulled by familiarity. The review quote on the front page, for instance, (just above the ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize’ sign) promises that the reviewer knows of no book that has made him cry more than this one – and yet on a second reading I didn’t cry at all, though my eyes became damp at one point.
Because this is, in many ways, a brilliant novel, it may be best to talk just about where it goes wrong. To begin with, the pacing of the initial section of the book is deeply flawed. It is not giving much away to summarise the initial chapters: we see Clay being introduced to Kavalier, the new arrival, before flashing back for the story of his escape from occupied Prague, moving on then to some brief back-story for Clay, and then the endeavour to create a superhero character.
None of these parts are, by themselves, flawed. Indeed, the Prague sections – a complex adventure which gives the feeling of Joe’s escape not only from Prague itself but also from out of the labyrinth of nested flashbacks itself, the pace slowly gathering from the imprisoned beginning to the tense, breathless conclusion – rather overshadows the subsequent, New York, events, and it is not until the second half that the writing rises to the same quality. Put together, the impression is of troubled engine trying to start: it coughs, it splutters, it roars into life in Prague, it dies, it builds again, it drops out, it struggles to find a gear… and it takes too long to get going again. I’ve recommended this book to many friends, and several have given up at some point in the first half; and, although this is an error on their part, it is an error for which the uneven pacing of the novel provides too many opportunities.
Related to this is the authorial voice – ironic, whimsical, apparently callous. It is brilliantly judged in its tone – in the darker and more serious sections, when the characters are older and the stakes are higher, where the light, detached touch provides a perfect counterpoint to both the tempestuous events (which might otherwise be painfully melodramatic) and the painful introspection (which might otherwise be leaden, didactic, mawkish or depressing). In these places, the whole assumes a Mozartian quality – a synthesis of playful delicacy and deep, enduring suffering; and yet Chabon is either unwilling or unable to vary his voice to match the words, and when, as in the earlier sections, the subject-matter is mostly light, ephemeral or joyous, the ironic prose often struck me as pompous and affected. This unnecessary thickness of tone adds considerably to the initial slowness. It does, however, come into its own in creating the distinctive mood of the middle portion of the book, which is one of hope and pleasure mingled with foreboding – although the hope and pleasure could have done with a softer touch, the foreboding is well-served by the ironic cautiousness, sprinkled with well-judged premonitions and foreshadowings. Unfortunately, as I knew what was being foreshadowed already this time, I was able to brace myself, which made both the ramp and the fall less affecting.
A more controversial complaint I have is with characterisation. By this, I do not mean that the characters are unbelievable, or that they are shallow, or that they lack the life-spark of authenticity; they do seem to have depth and reality, but we are not shown enough of it. Both the central characters are isolated and habitually private – they are not prone to showing their innermost feeling through their action; this, indeed, is in large part the point of the novel; but it makes it difficult for us to live their lives with them – instead of being shown how they feel, we must all too often simply be told what they think. This is a problem that Chabon does not have the talent to consistently overcome; in the later stages, he breaks through by so layering his prose with parallels and symbolism and metaphor that the whole world around the characters is infused by their inner conflicts, and we cannot help but live experience them; but in the earlier parts, his justified desire to keep things light (in the sense not of levity but of simplicity and of not weighing on the stomach) closes this avenue to him, and the characters’ moods and actions can seem opaque or detached. This is particularly a problem with Joe, who is in any case the more alien and the more dramatic figure, and although his mental state is developed superbly in the second half of the novel, the initial ‘setting up’ of that state seems too forced, too required by the plot, and too detached from the reader; Sam’s experience is closer to that of the readers, and as a result more familiar and inhabitable – and yet, appropriately but damagingly, Sam’s story feels continually overshadowed by that of his more charismatic, more flamboyant, more melodramatic and romantic cousin; it is as though, partway through the novel, the author has fallen so in love with Joe that Sam has been relegated to the shadows and the intermissions. Combined with the distance between the reader and Joe, this creates something of a… well, not perhaps a void, but at least a rarefaction of the emotional content.
This low density is not filled by the supporting cast, perhaps because there barely is any. The third character of the novel grows and strengthens as the book goes on – it is her entry that really marks the beginning of the story – but she never gets full billing with the star pair, and she retains throughout a degree of inscrutability and aloofness – an aloofness not above the other characters, but above the plot and themes of the book itself (those themes could well have been applied to her as well, but here, surprisingly, the parallels are left unstated and the themes quiescent, but for the barest of suggestions here and there). Aside from her, there are no real adult characters available for us to empathise with – and this lack is not at all forced on us by the exigencies of the plot. Sheldon Anapol could have been a protagonist – but he is too stock, too little vivified and made unique; Jack Ashkenazy is barely a plot device. George Deasey at times plays with assuming his proper role as a central protagonist, but he remains – appropriately but frustratingly – almost entirely outside the limelight, while other characters – Longman Harkoo, Tracey Bacon, James Love, and Shannenhouse to give a few examples to those who have read the book – are either too little seen or too little explored to fully display their considerable dramatic and emotional potential. All these characters could have enriched the book by being given more screentime, yet the author insists myopically on focusing tightly on the central pair, with a little room for the third character now and then.
The overall result is that the characters are not poor in themselves, but are inadequately presented, as though they are all real people trapped behind a thick, distorting glass that makes everything appear blurry. This is exaggerated by the ongoing difficulties with dialogue. Although bountifully supplied in other areas, Chabon has not been given the gift of an ear for dialect and region, and in a novel so eclectically populated as this, that hurts – what should be a riot of speech is instead rather flat. This flatness is made more noticeable by the style of the book, in which large, often flamboyant and portentous, periods of prose are bullet-marked by flashes of dialogue – in which, unfortunately, the density of prose tends to put more weight and expectation on the dialogue than it can fully bear. This is particularly the case with Joe, whose adequate but intentionally stilted and unnuanced immigrant English is occassionally funny, sometimes even poignant, but too often is a shackle on the surrounding prose. It feels like a play where one actor always comes in late – however good his lines, the little extra wait for them makes us place on them too much scrutiny. A similar problem occurs with the child characters in the novel, who lack the sophistication of adult speech without ever really capturing the feeling of childhood, often talking in a way more adult and more polished than their actual thoughts as we are given them.
Adrenaline: 4/5. Despite the pacing problems noted above, by and large the book is gripping and high-velocity, with really unexpected twists alongside inevitable, foreshadowed, developments.
Emotion: 4/5. Although above I have complained about emotional distance from the characters, this is nit-picking. At first read, this would have been 5/5; however, the very fact that the impact does rely to a degree on the shock value of certain events, and will thus be reduced on re-readings, fairly detracts from the score here.
Thought: 3/5. Nobody could accuse this of being a braindead read, as the author effectively ties the adventure story into deeper themes with real significance; but I never felt either that the themes were strikingly novel or that I was being compelled to think about them in any depth. There’s enough content here to make my brain feel that it’s had a nourishing meal, but not enough to wake it up and let it distract attention from the more visceral level of enjoyment.
Beauty: 4/5. The prose is often peculiar in its word-choice and in its prosody, but that doesn’t prevent it from being elegant, polished and nuanced. The imagery is extremely striking, from the level of metaphors to the level of plot events.
Craft: 4/5. There are some flaws, but they are only scratches on the face of what is truly a professional work. Prose, plot, imagery, foreshadowing and theme are all solidly under control throughout, and particular mention must be made of the extensive research put in by the author (there is a two-page list of reference works acknowledged) which make the setting immersive and thoroughly convincing – a verisimilitude which produces a large part of the overall experience of the book.
Endearingness: 4/5. Here, the slight disconnect I experienced with the characters (which is not entirely the fault of the author) hurts the book, as otherwise this would have been perfectly adorable. Even with that half-inch of separation, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading and would recommend to all.
Originality: 4/5. There are no completely original elements: the characters, the episodes, the themes, are all things we’ve seen before. However, as a whole, the novel is unpredictable, individual and possessed of a unique character.
Overall: 6/7. Very Good. For those keeping track, this is tied with Leibowitz as the best book I’ve reviewed (though not the best I’ve read), and I think that for first-time readers it is likely to be even better.