This book is a crazy, hot chick. Not “crazy hot,” as in “very hot,” but “crazy, hot,” as in crazy and also hot, independently. For those who have never had the pleasure/misfortune of dating a beautiful/insane woman, let me explain the dynamic. This is a girl who is physically attractive enough to make you set aside any misgivings and warning signs and date her, until one morning you wake up next to Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction, and you realize this was a mistake. That’s how I felt when I put the book down after having finished it. This was a mistake.
The novel concerns itself with chronicling the rise and fall of two fictionalized comic book creators during the Golden Age of the late 1930’s-early 1940’s. The two writers in question are the eponymous Kavalier and Clay, the former being a Jewish refugee from Prague, and the latter being a Brooklyn bred closet homosexual, also Jewish. I myself love comics, and am currently working on one with my podcast partner Deprava, so, conceptually, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay seemed like it would be my cup of caffe latte (I don’t like tea, so I’ve changed the expression to suit my tastes. I also don’t like right up my alley, since I don’t have an alley. Quite frankly, I don’t know what kind of person would own an alley, and then store activities that would potentially suit him there.) Plus, it had a cool cover, and lots of literature awards and fawning reviews graced the entire outer surface, front and back. At first glance, this girl was hot.
The problems began when I opened the book and started reading it. The novel is wordy as hell. There’s no reason for it to be over 600 pages of super-tiny font long. I’m not kidding, Dickens would roll his eyes at the unnecessary length. Nothing is stated directly in the book. Every sentence is in passive voice, and employs 2-3 adjectives per noun. For example, if the goal was to say “The cat was hungry, so it ate a fish,” Chabon would write “Lucille was a single mother, as most Atlantic Bluefin tuna women tend to be. Having your eggs fertilized on the bottom of the sea floor by dozens of ejaculating males doesn’t lend itself to building strong, monogamous relationships. But she made do working several jobs; she even put all her children through private school. With so little free time to herself, Lucille’s days tended to fall under a strict, immovable routine. So imagine her surprise when her daily grind was irrevocably altered by a large fishing net trawling through her neighborhood. Fortunately for poor Lucille, she passed into the beyond long before her lifeless body was dragged up onto the fishing boat, packed away to a distribution plant, and dissected into savory steaks destined for American dinner tables. Parts of little Lucille fed 7 different American families, including the Smiths of Hattiesburg, VA, who often fed leftover scraps to their magnificently spoiled cat, Thomas. Thomas, also a single parent…” See what I mean? Ridiculous. In addition, every chapter starts with a self-important and over-generalized life observation, in the vein of the immortalized “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ” The difference being Tolstoy, though he had no qualms against writing a book that would take longer than the average human lifespan to read, also knew to keep iconic life observations to 1 per book. Conversely, Chabon hurls them at the reader chapter after chapter, like an aging hooker desperately throwing herself at less and less appealing customers in an effort to turn tricks and earn that dollar her sagging tits can’t bring in on their own anymore. There is such a thing as trying too hard.
Despite the wordiness, the novel starts out promisingly. The first 15 pages introduce us to Kavalier & Clay as 2 young artists with big dreams. It’s all good so far, but then Chabon flashes us back to Joe Kavalier’s escape from Prague, complete with magicians and Golems. I appreciate Chabon’s endowing his protagonists with superhero-worthy origin stories; I’ve read enough comic books to understand the sentiment. However, in practice, the exposition turns out uninteresting and overly long, not to mention forced. If you can somehow survive through the expository doldrums, the novel really picks up after page 100, when it beings to really focus on the budding comic industry. Reading about the process of creating a comic, and seeing Kavalier & Clay’s marquee creation, the Escapist, grow from a half-assed idea invented in the middle of the night, to a full-fledged pop-culture icon is great fun. So even though the first 100 pages were filled with red flags, including family issues and scarred childhoods, the middle of the book is attractive enough to where we ignore the warnings, and commit to this beautiful yet bat-shit insane woman.
Furthermore, the 100-400 page zone really showcases some interesting themes, which help drive the great plot. Probably the most important theme is escapism, which isn’t a surprise coming from a novel about comics. The book is filled with literal and figurative feats of escape. The entire first section of the book is an account of Joe’s escape from Nazi-occupied Prague. Kavalier and Clay’s superhero creation himself, The Nazi-fighting Escapist, serves as an outlet for Joe to defeat the Germans who persecuted his family, and for Sam to escape his polio-stricken body and self-perceived deviant desires. Chabon also stresses the role and importance of Jewish writers in American comic books and pop-culture as a whole. Pulp fiction served as an outlet for immigrants and outcasts to create a new, American mythology based on heroes and supermen capable of delivering the weak from harm. The novel highlights the origins of the Golem early in the story to emphasize how Jewish culture lends itself to the creation and belief in these kinds of characters. All pretty interesting stuff, but, unfortunately, it’s bookended by an uninteresting origin story and pointless melodrama. However, the middle of the book is quite good. Like I said, she’s hot.
And then we hit page 400, and the full crazy comes out, revealing we’re dating Basic Instinct Sharon Stone. The novel ceases to be about comics at all, and plummets to Mexican Soap Opera levels of melodrama. I don’t want to give plot points away, but it gets crazy. One of the guys runs away with the navy ( the straight one, believe it or not), and there’s illegitimate children and loveless marriages of convenience involved, etc. I kept expecting the rich ranchero’s wife to seduce one of them, or an evil twin to show up. The ending is completely unsatisfactory and resolves nothing, but by that point I was so grateful the book ended at all, I didn’t give a damn. If only everything could have ended at page 400, when she seemed normal and beautiful. But the main question is: was it worth it? Was the great sex and pleasure of being seen with a hot girl worth the fearing for your safety and emotional baggage? Was reading about Kavalier & Clay’s creative exploits during Comics’ Golden Age worth also struggling through hundreds of pages about a Polio-stricken closet gay guy in a loveless marriage and another guy stationed in Antarctica for 2 years?
After much deliberation, I’d say I recommend this book. She’s crazy, man. But she’s damn hot, too.