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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"

Michael Chabon,45, is every bit the modern writer. He started early(his first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was sent to a publisher, unknown to him, by his English professor , to whom he had submitted his manuscript as his graduation thesis.), has had his brush with cinema(he has written part of the screenplay for the Spiderman sequel, and an X-Men screenplay which was turned down by the Hollywood moguls), and has a fan-following consisting of youngsters(he wrote a fantasy novel Summerland aimed at teenagers and young adults) and barmy old critics alike. Chabon was once even due to appear in People magazine's list of the Most Beautiful People in the world, a la Arundhati Roy, but turned it down , retorting, "It was like, we want to give you a prize because the weather is so nice where you live!"

But what really matters is that Chabon is a consummate storyteller, a supreme prose stylist, and a writer with a finely nuanced sense of irony and compassion. And all these qualities are in abundant display in his 2001 Pulitzer-winning masterpiece "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay", a huge, sprawling epic which deals with a host of issues like Nazi atrocities, the rise of the American comic-book industry, McCarthyism, the relationship between art and real-life, and above all the nature of love and loss......

The story begins in 1939, when fleeing the horrors of Nazi aggression, Josef Kavalier , artist and apprentice magician, flees his native Prague, to New York, where his American cousin Sam Clay lives.His daring escape as well as his training as an escape artist inspires him and his cousin Sam to create a Nazi-busting superhero The Escapist, a Superman-like character modelled upon the Jewish myth of the Golem, a mythical clay figure designated to protect Jewish ghettos all around the world. The rise of the cousins coincides with the boom in the comic-book industry of America with its increasing cultural and economic influence. Reading the novel,it is apparent that this is the product of extensive research and study, as is indicated by Chabon at the end(there is an extensive bibliography in addition to the usual acknowledgemens). Chabon talked to many greats of the American comic-book industry like Stan Lee, Will Eisner(whose quote provides the epigraph to the novel), Gil Kane as well as other writers, illustrators and everyone associated in churning out comic-books.

But as it so often happens, the cousins only get a small share of the wealth they create, the majority of it going to the smart and ruthless head honchos of the comic-book companies. But Kavalier is not overly worried about this- his real worries lie in getting his family out of Prague and in the USA to join him. So he carries on a shadow war with Hitler through the pages of The Escapist.

Escapism is a recurring motif in this novel- whether it is Josef's escape to New York, or the innately "escapist" nature of the comic-book stories, or later on in the novel( SPOILER ALERT) when Josef leaves his pregnant girlfriend Rosa, grieving over his dead younger brother. Sam Clay too has several things to escape from-his polio-ravaged body, his poverty , his repressed homosexuality.......... In a particularly moving passage , Josef reflects upon the futilty of his efforts to bring his family to the USA, and thinks "Escapism, they call it. Why wouldn't he be escaping? When you are confronted with all of this, with the crushing certainty that you would never again see your family again, what could one do but escape from it all?" In this respect, Harry Houdini is repeatedly referred to, as Josef's childhood hero, the ultimate escape artist(in the opening line of the novel, Sam too invokes Houdini.)

Sam Clay's story, too, is alternately funny and sad. Brought up by a nagging, neurotic mother and a vagabond, absentee father, he suffered polio as a child, an experience which he later writes into the Escapist character(the Escapist's alter-ego Tom Mayflower uses a crutch). He proves to be the perfect foil for his austere, solemn immigrant cousin, with his careless humour and his reckless bravado. His story takes a decisive twist when he has an affair with a radio actor Tracy Bacon, at a time when homosexuals where ruthlessly persecuted. This can only end badly and Clay is prepared for the consequences.

The novel is choc-a-bloc with superbly funny set-pieces, remarkable minor characters in addition to the formidable main cast, and some unforgettably touching passages whether it is Josef yearning for his family, Sam reflecting on his doomed affair, or Rosa's guilt about inadvertently causing the death of Josef's beloved younger brother, Chabon effortlessly takes the reader under the skin of the characters.This is thoughtful, well-written and yes, literary fiction, but with all the pace and vitality of a comic-book caper not unlike the ones Kavalier and Clay devise.(By the way, Chabon hates pigeon-holing fiction in genres, he said so in an interview).Chabon's incredible ability to depict a place in a particular time-frame is right up there with some of the most memorable works of modern times, whether it is the Bombay of Midnight's Children, the "Jewish" America of Philip Roth's books, or the Kerala of "The God of Small Things".The immense research also culminates in delightful cameos by comic-book gurus Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Stan Lee and other legendary figures like Salvador Dali and Orson Welles(Citizen Kane is in fact used as a significant plot device)

Prior to this, the only Chabon book I had read was a novella The Final Solution, also set in the 1940's ,also with Nazi Europe as its back-story, but with a twist- it resurrected(in brilliant fashion, I may add)probably the most remarkable characters ever created- Sherlock Holmes, albeit a crumbling, 89-year old Holmes, who is still in possession of his most important faculties. In a charming, slim special editionit also featured extensive interviews with Chabon himself and lists of his favourite books. The Final Solution was a minor classic, but with Kavalier and Clay, Chabon had already announced his arrival as one of the foremost writers of fiction in the world.

You can check out the NY Times Page on Michael Chabon here.
P.S. Michael Chabon went on to launch his own comic-book strip which included some of the plot-lines featuring the Escapist discussed in Kavalier and Clay.

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