Notes on reading Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) is a book about escape, or trying to escape. Like Jonathan Lethem, Chabon’s work enjoys its influences and finds an joy in its escape from genre and creating its own illusion.

Josef Kavalier is a trainee escapologist in 1930s Prague, who is helped to escape after the German invasion. Bernard Kornblum, a retired escapologist, helps the elders of Prague to spirit the Golem out of the city, rather than seeing it being perverted by the invaders.

Arriving in the US, he stays with his cousin, Sam Clayman. Discovering that both can draw and have a love of superhero comics, they decide to rewrite them with all their failings. Exploring the weaknesses of the form, they come up with the idea of the Escapist superhero comic which becomes wildly successful. In response to Anapol, his publisher’s, question, “[m]y new Superman is a Golem”(p 86), Kavalier responds “this Superman is…may be … only an American Golem”(p 86). Seeing the world from a different perspective, one which is aware of the coming danger, he maps his own view onto it. Rather than assimilating into the comics world, he uses fiction to assimilate it into his own perspective. He does lose himself in the new fantasy though begins his own one person war.

Their history comes into play when they feature Hitler on the cover before the US entered the War and have to change it. Joe becomes increasingly frustrated and rails against those with Nazi sympathies in the city, picking a fight in the offices of the Aryan American League; an action which will come back to haunt him. In his spare time, he goes back to his magical background at  barmitzvahs and social occasions. Meeting Rosa Saks, he is asks if his brother can be rescued from Nazi Europe though the ship that he comes across on is sunk with all hands lost. The grief sends him into a spiral of revenge wishes.

When the US does enter the war, Joe is sent to a radio listening station in Greenland where he fulfils his ambition to kill a German. Enacting his revenge does not help him, rather it sends him into himself with the guilt. Instead of finding release, he becomes hopelessly lost in himself and comes back to New York to finally kill the Escapist off. He pretends to his son, whom he sees as his nephew, that he is going to kill the character.

He begins to come to the answer the comment that Kornblum posed in Prague: “Never worry about what you are escaping from … Reserve your anxieties about what you are escaping to”(p 37). What he realises, after he begins recovering from his breakdown, is not that the world needs escaping from but that this is “genuine magic of art”(p 575). Comics, or other great art, is not about replacing the world in any sense but in getting away from it and its brokenness for some time. It creates its own illusion by creating something worthwhile to escape to, even if it is only a temporary release. The audience becomes implicit in the illusion though, creating its own magic act where the audience is aware that they are being fooled but are largely happy to go along with it.

He takes the Golem myth and transforms it into something different, retelling an old tale. When Joe returns the Golem, rather than being whole, it has returned to the dust it came from. No longer needed, it must be remade if needs require. Mixing Jewish mythology with a successful and complete alternate history of the America before it joined the war and a history of comics and their move from superheros to horror comics. He weaves in the supposed moral outrage of the conservatives which led to the comic code and the publication of Seduction of the Innocent in the 1950s. By accepting the alternate history as real, Chabon explores the ways that genres can mix and to reveal something about the characters and the changing world. It is more successful than Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America which ultimately fails to believe in itself or its world, despite dealing with similar material.

Through all of this, he ignores his cousin’s attempt to come out as gay. When Joe goes to war, Sam falls in love with the star of the radio version. To prevent humiliation for Rosa, Joe’s lover, when she becomes pregnant, he marries her. Eventually Joe realises that he has to rebuild his life and to accept that he needs to grow up himself and accept that the world has moved on.

Exploring the notion of escape, Chabon creates an illusion which is sustained and involves the reader in wanting the escapes to succeed. Drawing in his influences and history allows the novel to escape from the confines of one genre, one way of seeing the world. He challenges the notion of the fantastic as a way of merely escaping but being something worthwhile in escaping towards and to being part of art, rather than separate.

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