The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

By Michael Chabon

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. And recently Entertainment Weekly named it one of the ten best novels of the decade. Well, I thought it was pretty great, too.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is about a lot of things. It's about the title characters, of course. When the story opens in 1939, Joe Kavalier arrives at the home of his aunt and her son, Sam Klayman, having escaped Nazi-occupied Prague. When I say "escaped" in that context you might think of something like Casablanca--forged travel papers, traveling under the cover of night, and so on. And all that is the case here as well, but Joe's escape is made all the more spectacular because he's a trained magician and escape artist. He's also a talented artist of the more normal type, and he and Sam end up becoming influential figures in the development of the modern comic book. The novel documents their rise to fame during the pre-war years and the events that lead up to and then follow the break-up of their partnership.

But it's about more than that. Reading this book, the main story was almost incidental to my enjoyment. Because it's also a history of the golden age of comics, a portrait of war-era New York, a meditation on sexuality, family, friendship, and fathers and sons. It's about escape, both literal and figurative, and about magic, both the sleight-of-hand of the stage magician and the everyday magic of life. And it's all done masterfully. Scenes from this story broke my heart, while others had me laughing out loud--no mean feat for a book. The prose at times borders on purple, but instead of feeling over the top it gives the whole thing a lyrical quality, at once realistic but reminiscent of a fairy tale. Other authors have managed that feeling--Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind--but I'm not sure any have done it better.

If there's anything I didn't like about Kavalier & Clay, it would be the ending. There's little in the way of denouement and, in my opinion, even less of resolution. I'm not sure what I was supposed to feel, because I suppose there is resonance with the themes of escape and freedom, but what I ended up feeling was disappointment and sadness.

Despite that, I wasn't disappointed in the book as a whole. Maybe it's because there was so much more to love about the book than just the plot and the characters. Maybe I just didn't need the ending to live up to the rest of the book, and maybe there wasn't really any way it could. In any case, I'm glad I read it, and I'm happy to give it my whole-hearted recommendation.

Started: 1/27/2010 | Finished: 2/22/2010

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I second the recommendation. This really is wonderful book, and my favorite of Chabon's work.


What Esther said. I know next-to-nothing about that era of comics (or really, any era, when I get right down to it) and that book made me fall in love with the whole genre. Agreed about the ending, as well.