Superheroes, history, magical realism
The story follows two young Jewish cartoonists who create the superhero The Escapist. You know how superheroes have a tragic past? Batman lost his parents; Superman’s planet was blown up. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay base The Escapist on their own tragic experiences. Their own lives are marked by confinement and escape, and so their hero The Escapist is born. We see how Kavalier escaped the Nazis to live in the US, where he meets his cousin Sammy and helps him escape from Brooklyn into success. In the first chapters, Kavalier escapes from German-occupied Prague with the help of a Golem, a clay figure of mystical origin. It is no wonder that when he teams up with Sammy in New York, that Sammy is named Klayman, and they help each other escape from new situations.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a love letter to the superhero as it was invented in the 30s in the US. But more importantly, Chabon shows how the superhero represents the experiences and hopes of the people to lived or emigrated to the US, and so the superhero embodies, perhaps, the soul of the nation. The book reads a bit like a comic book as well. It is fast-paced and dashing. It is flamboyant and has many little asides. It even adds a bit of Jewish mysticism to the mix and flirts with elements of magic realism.
What is so great about Chabon’s novel is that he switches between two levels of reality: the world within comics and the real world. The thing about a lot of fantasy stories and especially superhero stories is that they are idealized stories of courage, strength and personal transformation. Like the myths of old, heroes are born out of dark circumstances and share their newfound power with the world. Superheroes are like a consumerist version of that, simplified, multiplied. The real world, meanwhile, is complex and circumstances are never so clear cut with simple solutions. Emotions come in subtle mixtures and can be confusing. Chabon deals with both realities in Kavalier and Clay, and shows how the difficult real world with all its complex twists and emotions are translated by Kavalier into purer and simpler comics about courage and personal triumph.
Chabon exaggerates both levels of reality: the real world in Kavalier and Clay is filled to the brim with complexities, facts and difficult mixtures of feelings, while the comic stories are the theatrical and simple origin stories of heroes who break through the limitations of their lives. If you’d rather read a comic book instead of this more complex novel, then the tension and the connection between the two levels of reality will also still make sense to you here.
And Chabon goes a step beyond: it isn’t just personal struggles in so-called average lives that Kavalier and Clay deal with in their real world. It is the story of Kavalier escaping Nazis, becoming an immigrant and part of the fabric of American life. So, the very soul of many of the people that make up the United States and the decisions and movements of the country are also personified in the simpler origin stories of superheroes in the comics. Does that make comics a form of therapy? An expression of a country? What is nice is to regard comic books a little more seriously than simply stories for teenagers. This book explains why.
Chabon’s writing is not so much rich as it is crowded. Crowded with facts and descriptions of things only loosely connected to the plot. You would think that it is hard going, but his sentences flow very naturally. His paragraphs evoke rich worlds that feel as if they exist, as if they are actually lived in. Chabon has a huge vocabulary and his paragraphs are like bags of Halloween candy with all sorts of colorful, striking stuff coming your way. He might be going on tangents quite often, but his little detours have a surrealist or magic realist feeling to them, and that fits very well with the whole superheroes theme. The New York of this book is the New York of caricature businessmen and parties thrown by Salvador Dali. Chabon shows that real life can approach comic book surrealism quite closely if you look at it in the right way.
Moving up a level from the text to the general flow of the story, Chabon has a really keen eye for dramatic situations and characterization. He chooses just the right scenes and touches on just the right impressions that makes a story come alive with excitement. And he makes it seem so natural. Three chapters into the story are already enough to conclude that Chabon is a master writer and storyteller. It feels comforting to be in the hands of someone who is a master craftsman, so that I can let down my guard and just get carried along on the adventure.
What we have here is a book that succeeds on every level. Chabon is a wordsmith on the level of text, a dramatist who builds up his story like an excited personal orator, and his story has deeper thematic material that touches on the interesting element of superheroes and a more serious story about the psyche of the United States. It is simply a masterwork.