The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
"'You weren't the same person when you came out as you you went in. Houdini's first magic act, you know, back when he was just getting started. It was called 'Metamorphosis'. It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation.'"
The entry below will openly analyse Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.
Back in 2007, author Bret Easton Ellis called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay one of the three greatest novels of his generation; a strong statement by an author who is himself greatly admired by many. While the man is certainly welcome to his opinion, I can't help but feel that the praise is exaggerated.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a vibrant chronicle of the most exuberant and tremulous periods of a quintessentially American art form, the comic book. It is a portrait that is both inseparable and disparate from one of the darkest epochs of history, World War II and the Holocaust.
Chabon's novel is concerned with escape: From the physical, choking restrictions and dangers of Nazi-occupied Prague, from the innermost secrets of ourselves, from the painful struggle of domesticity, from the hard truths of reality, and from past escapes that in their new reality have morphed themselves into traps of their own. Yes, it's a novel about escape, but more importantly it's a novel about how our escapism is not, as we often perceive it to be, disparate from our reality but rather intimately involved in shaping it. It is a notion that Chabon makes manifest in the characters of Carl Ebling and Tracy Bacon who become physical embodiments of the fictional characters within the world of the novel.
The notion that Kavalier and Clay is Chabon's magnum opus is accurate. It insists upon escapism's importance in our lives, and that the "lower" crafts (television, comics, genre fiction, etc) are in no way inferior to their "loftier" peers. It's a belief that Chabon has enacted upon since the publication of Kavalier and Clay with The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road, and the Yiddish Policeman's Union. This is the battle Chabon has devoted himself to, and in Kavalier and Clay there is a passionate, articulate argument for it.
All this may seem rather incongruous considering where we began. Make no mistake, Chabon's novel is a work of exquisite plotting, and literary deftness; it is very enjoyable, and undeniably the technically best of his work I've read, likely of all his work; it is a novel worthy of the Pulitzer it won but it is very often a work that lacks emotional resonance. That is a criticism that sounds harsher than I intend it to be. For myself, the hallmark of a work of genius, the stories that inevitably become my favorites, are those that move me to emotional extremes or are of staggering technical impressiveness. Chabon's novel fails to reach either of these extremes, but it is absolutely a great read.
Up next: James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room