Escapism. It’s a term used for stories that are entertaining, light, and inconsequential. Nothing more than an escape from reality. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay doesn’t just revel in escapism; it makes a two-fisted defence of it.
The novel tells the story of Joseph Kavalier and Sam Clay, two Jewish cousins growing up in the era when Nazism began to cast its shadow across the world. Joe is a talented artist with a passion for escape artists and stage magic. Aided by his family’s life savings, his magic teacher and an inanimate golem, he escapes Europe just as the fascists are closing the trap. Sam lives in New York with his stereotypical Jewish mother (who doesn’t love a stereotypical Jewish mother?) and grandmother, having been abandoned by his circus strongman (really) father. Despite coming from such burly stock, Sam is short of stature and spindly of leg due to a bout of polio at a young age. He has a big mouth, he is able to conveniently translate into a knack for bombastic writing.
When Joe comes to live with the Clays, the two cousins form an instant partnership. Starry eyed and precocious, they seize onto the rising fad of superheroes and dream up the Escapist, a super strong escape artist whose endless battles with Nazis gives outlet to Joe’s rage at his family’s ongoing plight. The novel lovingly details Joe and Sam’s rise during the golden and silver age of comics, as well as the unexpected and sometimes tragic twists and turns of their lives.
It has to be said that Michael Chabon writes gorgeous prose. His sentences are perfect, unfurling with original descriptions and whip-smart similes, drawing on an expansive vocabulary that had me scrabbling for the dictionary every few pages. I was repeatedly floored by his ability to inject a scene with a rich character and historical detail.
Of course, this style means that the story is very drawn out; it takes Chabon two pages to craft a scene which could be communicated in a short paragraph. But when the prose is this pretty, not to mention funny, it’s hardly indulgent.
The style of the novel is an odd beast. As the title suggests, it’s something of a boys-own adventure in the comic book business, against the backdrop of World War II. There are fantastical, almost magic-realist details – a golem, magic, Joe’s unlikely war adventures. The plot takes romantic and often impossible twists. At the same time, the mundane arc of Sam’s life in particular roots the novel firmly in reality.
The characters, too, are larger than life and, like the pulp fiction they churn out, often two dimensional. Chabon’s New York is populated by hard boiled, wise ass men, with one or two notable women thrown in the mix. The men are driven by their passions. There is tragedy in Kavalier and Clay, but it’s of the comic book kind, which is only grist for drama and heroes. Similarly, The range of emotions seems to take its cues from the four colour world.
Relationships are simple: people love each other, and this is enough to overcome abandonment, displacement and passionless cohabitation without resentment. This means the characters often act in ways that are not believable, but seem necessary in the service of the plot. The single well developed female character, in particular, simply shrugs and accepts the indulgences of the writer and the men around her.
Perhaps its all quite intentional. The novel wears its thesis like a big, colourful symbol on its chest: escapism is sustaining in a world where war and genocide exist. Kavalier and Clay didn’t make me reflect, except on the value of not reflecting. But I was carried away from start to finish with its style, prose and humour, and that’s nothing to be sniffed at.