How I rate it: 4 of 5 stars
What I liked: This is a book with many layers that plays with the theme of reality and fiction, heroes and anti-heroes, heroism and escapism…
Plot Summary: There is a remarkable inter-weaving of time period (WW2), character development, and subject matters (comic books, superheros, and magicians). Kavalier and Clay seek to transcend the sense of desperation and helplessness they experience, living through the Second World War by way of their creation of comics. They take the hero’s journey, they are both scarred by their pasts, but ultimately they must come to grips with their frustration at being subject to fate and forces beyond their control…
The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash, but everyone knew it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost that they might never have existed in the first place.
Significance: Like the comic book genre, like the magician’s craft, and like the era itself, the narrative is “suffused with tragedy,” with the intimate texture and nuance of a way of life concerned primarily with survival and the sense of desperation and resolve that marked the Second Great War.
Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history—his home—the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf…
The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge… The pain of his loss—though he would never have spoken of it in those terms—was always with him in those days, a cold smooth ball lodged in his chest, just behind his sternum. For that half hour spent in the dappled shade of the Douglas firs, reading Betty and Veronica, the icy ball had melted away without him even noticing. That was the magic—not the apparent magic of a silk-hatted card-palmer, or the bold, brute trickery of the escape artist, but the genuine magic of art. It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world—the reality—that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised.
Note to readers: I felt a bit bogged down in the middle. On the other hand, the plot mirrored the characters, who lost their way and seemed to flounder. On yet another hand, what the fuck do I know? This book was a New York Times Bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize, for Christ’s sake.
What I appreciated, as a writer: The book is exceptionally well-written. The prose is a delight, and I have Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in my que. Additionally, I appreciated the postmodern play between reality and fiction. Is the “escapism” afforded by comics and other popular forms of fiction really so deserving of disdain? And should comic books, themselves — as well as other forms of pop fiction — be considered substandard? These questions are raised (without being raised) through the brute and raw narrative that compose the amazing adventures of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay.
Notes on the Author: Michael Chabon is rumored to maintain a strict writing schedule, composing from the hours of 10 PM to 3 AM, a time when only insomniacs, zombies, and Buddhist monks roam. His writing is noted for its bold crossing of genres and styles. Although he possesses the skill to write for a literary audience and win the Pulitzer, he defends genre fiction. He strikes me as a very creative, rather transgressive artist.