It’s like Superman coming out of a phone booth

For all its hurt, Kavalier & Clay is an optimistic book – Chabon’s protagonists show us that a superhero is a very human thing.

Chabon, Kavalier & Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay · Michael Chabon · 2000
Random House, 2012 · 704 pages, paperback

Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a novel about the creation of one’s own life, the constant molding, assessing and reassessing in pursuit of some very individual version of the American Dream.

Two young artists, Sammy Clay and his cousin Joe Kavalier, have their alter egos in their Escapist, a comic book superhero inspired by both of their childhoods. More than a coming of age story, Kavalier & Clay is a full-color generational story that rescues those people who were left behind or dealt a bad hand.

Chabon’s novel opens with Sammy living at home in New York with his mother and grandmother, having side-lined his creative ambitions for a job writing ad copy at a company that sells cheap novelties. Joe is struggling to get out of 1930’s Prague. Bureaucratic knots, tied through the new administration’s attitude toward Czechoslovakia’s Jews, has left him sans visa. It takes the act of a magician’s magic to set him free.

It’s the golden age of comic books. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman alighted on drugstore shelves in 1938, shortly followed by Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman in 1939.

Chabon writes just enough of comic book history as is necessary into his novel. The facts of the industry are unobtrusive and act as his own kind of Bristol board, a foundation for his story.

Chabon certainly shares with his young protagonists an appreciation for comic books as an art form, but there lingers also a general disregard for comic books as an inferior, if not dangerous,  means of entertainment for the escapism they provide.

In fact, escapism through any means is in Chabon’s novel given a tincture of kitsch.

The house party that Longman Harkoo, the father of Joe’s girlfriend, Rose, throws for Salvador Dalí is ridiculous down to its host’s very costume of shawls and beads and the artist’s near asphyxiation in a diver’s costume in the very dry ocean that is Longman Harkoo’s living room.

Comic books are their very own kind of surrealism; each brand of art proposes to accomplish the same dilution of reality.

And when reality means a drowned brother and the vaudeville existence of a mother and father in Theresienstadt or the poverty love that Sammy allows himself in an era when homosexuality was a prosecuted crime, then existence outside of reality becomes the end goal in every action.

But a hero’s work isn’t in his feats of daring escape; these feats are mere background, bolstering his image of strength and wit, padding his legacy. His real work, and the work for which he is beloved and admired and relied upon, lies in his acts of saving, of freeing those who need setting free.

Sammy and Joe show us that heroism means accepting hard truths, accepting the past in order to fulfill a future. Escapism is as necessary as the Saturdays and Sundays of our weeks, a period of recovery but one that must end for it to lend us any benefit.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is America. Or rather, it is the Jewish immigrant’s mid-century America. It is cigarettes and bar/bat mitzvahs, cheeseburgers and comic books and being screwed over, redemption and escapism; it is foregone pork chops and Studebaker cars and Hollywood and radio deals; it is ambition and dreams and Surrealism, prefab houses and suburban lawns and family bonds; it is disillusionment, lost hopes and found purpose.

Kavalier & Clay. Kavalier and Klayman. Josef and Samuel. Joe and Sam.

It’s about identity and becoming something out of nothing or rather, becoming something out of the raw materials in one’s past, whatever these materials may be.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay · Michael Chabon · 2000
Random House, 2012 · 704 pages, paperback

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