Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier & Clay - Michael Chabon

I guess I'm on a bit of a reading kick lately. Over the weekend I finished another book. That's two in one month! I need to slow down and watch more of the TV.

My most recently read book was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon.

I bought this book a couple of years ago and started reading it but for some reason got distracted and put it down for a while. Then I read a collection of Michael Chabon's non-fiction (Maps and Legends, which is also an interesting read if you don't mind essays on writing and genre fiction) and was reminded that I actually own some of his fiction. So I picked it back up and finished it this time around.

I liked this book. I liked it a lot actually.

The story revolves around the lives and careers of two young men, a writer from Brooklyn named Sam Clay and his Czech artist cousin Joe Kavalier, who become successful comic book writers and illustrators around the time of World War II.

I feel foolish for putting the book down, but in retrospect I'm glad I waited to read this until after reading his essays in Maps and Legends. A big part of his critique on modern literature is that genre fiction - such as scifi, fantasy and comic books for example - gets a bad rap from the literati establishment, which tends to lean towards more critically accepted novels about disgruntled middle aged wives/ professors/ writers and their divorces/ psychological issues/ boring existential crises etc. This is a critique that I tend to agree with so it's nice to see someone voice that opinion and still win a Pulitzer Prize (for Kavelier and Clay no less).

In reading Kavelier and Clay, you can really see how this chip on Chabon's shoulder affects his work. The book reads like part comic book, part history book, part coming-of-age story. And yet, the novel never reads like the schizophrenically disjointed mess you might expect. He actually manages to pull it off quite well.

Then again, he better if they're giving him a Pulitzer.

What makes this novel so successful is that Chabon is able to take so many different ideas and topics - he manages to write about comic book history, the holocaust, the merits of high art, Houdini-style escapistry, immigration, love, Jewishness, World War II and homosexuality just to name a few - while simultaneously telling an honest to God story that is actually fun to read.

He manages this feat with humor and with care. His characters are fully developed as even his less admirable characters still inspire sympathy and his minor characters possess just enough depth to make them memorable. His style, while a little bit wordy for my taste at times (his essays are even worse to that end), is otherwise effortless and allows the audience to easily buy in to the story.

The result is a reading experience with a wide appeal that both intellectually challenges the reader while engaging them and ultimately entertaining them.

You don't have to be a comic book fan or a genre junky to enjoy this book and you don't have to be an English major to understand what's going on (although I might recommend keeping a dictionary handy as some of his word choices are a little obscure). If you have the chance, I'd recommend the read. It's a little long but it should be worth your while.

3 comments:

Joe Janes said...

Nat - I've been meaning to read this book for years. If you want to swap it for "American Gods," I will. - Joe

GW said...

This is the book that made me interested in comic books. Until I then read an actual comic book.

Great analysis and summary. I was also struck by the way Chabon dwells on smells. The language would feel boggy if the colors and scenes he were painting weren't so colorful.

It's also pretty amazing how he can leave skip several decades of plot development and pick up again without a hitch.

Nat Topping said...

You know, I vaguely remember thinking about the smells thing while I was reading it and then completely forgot about it. Thanks for reminding me.