My mixed journey with Michael Chabon continues. While I mostly enjoyed the first book I read by him (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), I was less enthusiastic about the second book (Telegraph Avenue). But the premise of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was just too good to pass up. Why wouldn’t you want to read a book chronicling the rise of comic books as a well as the journey of a magician’s apprentice escaping the Nazi’s in the 1940s? Which is why I finally picked this book up.
Joe Kavalier, a Jew who studied the art of illusion, uses his skills to escape Nazi-invaded Prague. He flees to New York City to live with his cousin, Clay, who dreams of becoming a comic book writer. Together they create The Escape Artist, a super hero who launches the boys’ fortune and fame. Along the way they pick up a leading lady, super hero sidekick, and an arch nemesis. They confront loss, love, war and sexuality, and the choices they must make to survive the deck they’ve been handed.
Among my favorite things about this particular novel is the chapters sprinkled in that are written about a comic book character made up by Kavalier and Clay. The writing is immediately recognized as 1940s comic book, with sweeping statements and scene-setting descriptors. My favorite, of course, is about Miss Judy Dark, the “Under-Assistant Cataloguer of Decommissioned Volumes,” a librarian who is left for dead after rescuing a rare book from thieves. In true comic book fashion, she is also a gray, unassuming woman:
“Poor Judy Dark! Poor little librarians of the world, those girls, secretly lovely, their looks marred forever by the cruelty of a pair of big black eyeglasses!”
And then, she is given the power of Cimmeria, where she only has “to imagine something to make it so.” And, of course, her alter ego is super hot. But a comic book about the power of imagination, with a female star who is also a librarian? Yes, please!
But more than anything else, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a love letter to comic books. As a person who has not really read them, it was a privilege to learn of their wonders from someone so obviously enamored with them as Michael Chabon. Anyone who questions their value might read this passage to truly understand:
“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. …The pain of his loss – though he would never have spoken of it in these 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 magic, not the apparent magic of the silk-hatted card-palmer, or the bold, brute trickery of the escape artist, but the genuine magic of art.”
And Chabon is not alone. Comic books have true value, and not just to offer an escape that allows the heart a chance to heal. Comic book author Stan Lee argues that they play a real role in combating illiteracy. As he told American Libraries (Read the full interview here):
“A library should be a way for a child—for anybody—to get the sort of reading that he or she wants, and hopefully that will benefit them.”
Too often we try to force “literature” on kids, and that can sometimes kill a child’s love of reading. Yes, the classics are important, but not every kid needs to read them when they are 8 years old. When we let children choose what they want to read, they become invested in their own literacy and we have a chance to nurture their love of reading.
This was by far my favorite Chabon book. I enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for introducing me to a slightly fictionalized history of comic books and an inside look at magicians. But I loved it for its unique and heartbreaking exploration of how two men handle the life they are given. In true Chabon fashion, his characters make tragic mistakes that alter the course of their lives, often for the worse. I can’t say I’m glad with how things went. His characters deserved so much more from their lives, but that’s reality. And despite his art being fictional, Chabon always manages to use it to reveal the truth of reality and that the good guys don’t always win. Sometimes the best they can manage is to survive.