My favourite adventure with a novel so far this year. I loved it to bits.
In many ways attempting to review this novel is like thinking back through an illusionist or an escape artist’s performance of his trick and trying to work out exactly how he did it. You’re left a little baffled by the nature of the magic of the thing. Ironically for a novel inspired by magicians, there are few tricks in this novel. It features no post-modernist sleights of hand with regards structure or voice. It is straightforward storytelling at its most magical and engrossing – the plot frequently twisting with fresh surges of adrenalin. Its mesmerising power is all in the vitality and hightide imaginative reach of its story and the compelling moving humanity of its two main characters, Josef Kavalier and his American cousin Sam Clay.
The premise: Josef Kavalier’s family pay for him to emigrate from Prague to New York as the Nazis rise to power. As often was the case for Jewish families in those days the Nazi authorities kept the money but withheld the necessary papers at the last minute. Eighteen year old Joe, with the aid of his Houdini like escape artist teacher, has to smuggle himself out of occupied Prague in a coffin with Prague’s legendary Golem. He eventually makes it to Brooklyn and shares a room with his cousin Sam Clay. The way Sam initially looks after Joe and introduces him to his world and the way their bond liberates Sam is beautifully portrayed. Sam too is a great fan of Houdini and together they invent The Escapist, a superhero whose attraction to Joe is that he can vicariously use him to wage a one man war on the Nazis. Joe’s ambition now is to pay for his family to escape the Nazis. Escape is always the name of the game in this novel. (Sam has a secret he is trying to escape from.) There’s barely a single female character in this novel for 200 pages. And then Rosa Saks arrives…
The comic book theme of Kavalier & Clay has put me off reading this for years. I remember a paperback copy was knocking about in my first flat in Florence and despite the difficulty of getting hold of novels in English I still never felt inclined to read it. Comic books have no more relevance to my life than darts or bingo. I’ve never been anywhere near a film which features a costumed hero in a mask and lurid tights. Therefore I was far from sure I would enjoy this novel.
Kavalier & Clay, like so many other novels, attempts to get at the quintessence of the American dream and it does a decent job, chronicling so many of the characteristics of American cultural and political life between 1939 and the 1950s. But the real triumph of this novel is its dramatization of intimate worlds, of friendship, of sexual love, of parenting, of private obsessions and yearnings, and of the creative process – the relationship between artist and inspiration, the process and the exuberance of artistic creation, is one of its most exciting achievements. We also see the relationship between artist and the corporate world, and between artist and censorship too.
The friendship between Joe and Sam is a joy to read from start to finish, one of the most moving accounts of synergistic liberating companionship I’ve ever read. Some of Joe’s actions are questionable but because Sammy always forgives him so do we. Sammy is a kind of moral touchstone in this novel. And, as his surname suggests, he’s also the novel’s Golem, the catalyst for all the novel’s magic. It’s also him who expresses our own scepticism about comic books as high art – though in the end Chabon makes a great case for the important cultural significance of the comic book.
This is one of those novels when you sense that half the trick of writing a rich compelling novel is for the author to feel a consuming love for his characters and get to the heart of them. Chabon clearly loves his characters and this love is highly contagious. If you haven’t already read it, give it a try. It’s heartwarming and exciting and magical and utterly engrossing.