It’s always slightly odd to read a book you’ve heard so much about. Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay had been recommended to me by just about everyone, and sometimes that can be the kiss of death because it sets the bar of expectation so high. But I came away from the experience thinking that Chabon is an extraordinary writer and that this is an important book, although my own reasons for thinking this, and the reading I couldn’t help but make of the story, are possibly different to those most readily associated with it.
So, at the beginning of the story Joe Kavalier, amateur magician and escape artist, contrives a daring exit from Nazi-invaded Prague in a coffin with a Jewish Golem. He makes it all the way to Brooklyn to the home of his cousin, Sammy Clay and the boys instantly bond. With Joe’s talent for drawing and Sammy’s for creating pulp plot lines they go into business together producing the latest American smash hit, the comic book. Their superpowered hero, The Escapist, captures the imagination of their youthful audience as he deploys his prowess to defeat, time and again, Hitler in a variety of paper-thin disguises. The boys make some money (although not as much as their perpetually troubled boss, Sheldon Anapol), taste success and start some romantic adventures of their own, Joe with Surrealist artist Rosa Saks, and Sammy with male beefcake actor, Tracy Bacon. The trajectory of the book up until this point is one long, breathless, determined ascent in which the boys don’t put a foot wrong. The thematic concern with comic books, which Chabon writes about so brilliantly, is mirrored in the unfolding of his slickly organized plot. Joe and Sammy are pocket sized adventure heroes themselves, taking on the comic book world and conquering it effortlessly. In fact the escapades of their fictional heroes merge into their own world, as Joe antagonizes the Aryan-American League chairman, the hapless Carl Ebling, into making a series of failed attempts on his life. Chabon’s writing is pretty impressive, too, as he heedlessly throws out scores of exhilarating metaphors that make you wonder whether his powers of description are taking steroids. Up until this point, it’s a fun, charming book full of thrills and spills and sympathetic characters.
And then everything changes and the whole tone of the book becomes much darker (and watch out because I’m going to give away the rest of the plot). Throughout his time in America, Joe has been trying to get his family out of Prague and finding this to be fraught with difficulties. However, he manages to get his younger brother on a boat, but this boat is torpedoed in mid-Atlantic, taking down Joe’s last hopes of ever seeing his family again. He enlists with the Navy and spends an extravagantly bizarre war in a frozen radio station in Antarctica, until a series of strange events leads him to make his one kill of the war, an act for which he instantly suffers terrible remorse. And then years and years pass. Rosa, who unbeknownst to him he left behind pregnant, has married Sammy and together they have brought up his son, named Tommy in honour of his lost brother. Tommy and Joe meet, and Joe is brought back into the family fold, eventually displacing Sammy who leaves in the end perhaps to follow his homosexual inclinations on the more liberal West coast. What can I say? This last section really intrigues me because it transforms what was a beautifully written romp of a novel into something far more awkward and unwieldy and unresolved. It’s the part in which that mad dash of the first three-quarters of the book exhausts itself and the narrative is then forced to examine, reluctantly, uncertainly, the emotional baggage it has unwittingly stacked up.
I have a theory that you can’t have the Holocaust as a side detail in a novel. If you let the Holocaust in then one way or another, it will come to dominate all the other material of the fiction. The Holocaust is not an obvious player in this drama but it turns out to be the prime motivational force for the theme of escape that runs through the narrative. The novel opens with Joe’s exciting escape from Prague and this moment becomes a kind of signature theme for his existence. Near the end of the novel, as he ponders his relationship to comic books, Joe considers how:
‘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 easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. He had escaped, in his life, from ropes, chains, boxes, bags, and crates, from handcuffs and shackles, from countries and regimes, from the arms of a woman who loved him, from crashed airplanes and an opiate addiction and from an entire frozen continent intent on causing his death. The escape from reality was, he felt – especially right after the war – a worthy challenge.’
But that’s the thing: Joe starts his life escaping and he can’t seem to stop. What seems so poignant in the final section is the lack of trust that Sammy and Rosa have that he won’t disappear at any moment, and indeed, from the moment he arrives in New York, Joe is toying with the possibility of abandonment in various guises. When he learns of his father’s death he runs away to Canada; at the height of their comic book success he abandons the character of The Escapist; and he manages to disappear from the Bar Mitzvah where he receives the news of the torpedoed ship before escaping definitively to the Navy. The comic book action is so vibrant and lively that we forget how our flesh and blood heroes spend more time in avoidance than in action. Sammy spends most of the novel not becoming a homosexual, and he reproaches himself for not quite being a father. Both boys spend their time of wealth not spending much money, and their time of success in working so hard they can’t quite enjoy it. Joe’s experiences in the war are a travesty of action, marooned in an ice field where his companions are all killed not by battle but by a faulty gas stove. And his doomed attempts to save his family dominate his own development. The novel even ends with a hovering ambiguity over whether or not the two men will indeed become partners again with their new, adult line of graphic novel. We can’t be sure because the final image is the empty space where Sammy had been, a space that shows that it is now his turn to be the one to run away.
What to make then, of this uneasy and unstable underside of the comic book action (the opposite of escape for the hero always stands his ground and fights), this propensity of the main characters to give up, run away and vanish? Adam Philips, my favourite literary psychoanalyst, describes a session with a truanting child. In the time he spends with her the child insists they should always play hide-and-seek together although there is no place to hide in his consulting rooms and she stands obviously in the center of it. Philips says: ‘The girl standing in the middle of the room with her eyes closed sometimes seems to be parading her safety, and sometimes alerting us to a terror (people often feel most alive while they are escaping, most paralysed before and after). But either way, what is most striking about the game, when we are in it, is that I can’t escape from looking for her, and she can’t escape from hiding. There is nowhere else for either of us to go.’ This struck me as having such an intriguing relationship to the novel, in which escape becomes the main principle, the most useful and valued form of action. Each escape the boys make quickens our readerly pulses and gives us hope for a renewed chance of resolution, the possibility maybe that Joe will finally avenge his family, that Sammy will be true to his sexuality, but instead the escape becomes the important thing, the fascinating event. Not surprising, then, that at the center of the narrative we have the comic books that embody the static, fantastic delights of escape to a world where vivid action takes place and where closure happens, unlike the world we live in where it quite clearly doesn’t. The novel, for all its fantasy action, gets stuck playing hide and seek with Joe and Sammy, gets waylaid watching not just their bodies, but their hopes and dreams and possibilities vanish into thin air.
The passage I quote by Adam Philips comes from his book on Harry Houdini called Houdini’s Box, and unsurprisingly, Houdini is an influential figure for Joe. Philips reminds us that Houdini’s favourite motto was ‘Do others or they will do you’ and Philips ties this in to his identity as an American Jew: ‘Houdini’s motto is also the motto of the immigrant; perform other people, or they will perform you, typecast you in prejudice. For Houdini the whole notion of identity, of who one prefers to be seen as, was something one escaped into from the past. If you are defined by what you can escape from – your country, your language, your poverty, your name – then you may forever need to seek out situations to release yourself from.’ As Jewish immigrants and, in Sammy’s case, as a homosexual, it’s clear that the heroes of this story both have allegiances to persecuted minorities that they need to escape from, and yet escape here is profoundly ambiguous for it denies something fundamental in them. And for me, I wondered whether this made sense of the circularity of their escapes and their returns. Freedom, as both boys find out, is not always what it is cracked up to be, and old as the adage is, it is never less than true that one cannot run away from oneself. It may seem that I have spent a disproportionate amount of time considering this last, strange section of a novel that wants to be about triumphant conquest, and yet it’s the very oddity of this final, unresolved conclusion to the novel that intrigues. It’s the point where all the displacement activity of the comic books grinds to a halt, and some sort of emotional reckoning, unwanted but necessary, is warily attempted. And yet it’s also the point where I salute Chabon for not taking any easy comic book solutions to the monumental underlying problems of his narrative. The madness of grief caused by the loss of entire families in the Holocaust is not something that can be avenged or escaped, just as the constraints of being homosexual, Jewish and damaged by polio are not transcended by success or money or even hard work. His characters could have been spectacular in their triumphs, but Chabon takes the risk of making them human in their failures, and I suppose that was the point when the book became literature for me, rather than simply an exhilaratingly written escapist story.