Friday, 30 July 2010

68: "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" by Michael Chabon

Publisher: Fourth Estate
Page count: 656 pages
Date begun: July 15th, 2010
Date finished: July 19th, 2010

Josef "Joe" Kavalier arrives in New York in 1939, and meets his cousin Samuel "Sammy" Klayman for the first time. Josef is a Czech refugee, sent to America to escape the Nazis, and all he wants is to make enough money to help the rest of his family escape as well. Sam promises to get Joe a job, and once he realizes what a talented artist his cousin is, he convinces his boss to let them try to create a superhero comic that can rival Superman. Sammy changes his name to Clay, and soon they have created the anti-fascist Escapist, as well as a large number of other popular and extremely lucrative comic book heroes.

Sammy writes the stories, and Joe creates the art for the comic books, but as their creations become more and more successful, it becomes clear that they are being exploited, and get a minuscule share in the profits from their work. Joe saves every penny he can, and spends most of his free time trying to get his family moved from Prague to New York, with very little luck. He falls in love with a lovely bohemian girl, but constantly feels guilty that his family used their last savings to have him sent to America, while they constantly suffer worse and worse conditions under the Nazi occupation. Sammy spends his money on his mother and grandmother, and tries to come to term with his sexual identity.

When it becomes clear that the ship of Jewish children that Joe has spent large amounts of money to help to America has been sunk, he abandons his cousin and his girlfriend to enlist in the navy. During his self-imposed exile, he learns that Rosa and Sammy have gotten married, and even after the war has ended, he stays away from them, until an unexpected event prompts him to try to reconcile with his loved ones.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay explore what is know as "The Golden Age of Comics", and as the wife of a man who is a huge Jack Kirby fan, I knew a little bit about this time period and how the writers and artists usually got horribly exploited by their publishers, making a pittance compared to their counterparts today. While the story is about comic book creators and superhero comics, I do not think you need to know or be interested in such things to enjoy the book. As well as an exploration of the rise of the comic book, and especially superhero comics, as a medium, it is so many other things.

The only bit I wished was shorter, and am not entirely sure what Chabon was trying to do with, is Joe's experiences in Antarctica during the Second World War. Here I thought the story lagged terribly, and while some of it was necessary for Joe's further development, it did not need to take up as big a part of the book as it did.

I had heard many great things about the book, and because of this, my expectations were high. I'm glad to say that the book lived up to my expectations, and that while it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, it is not in any way a difficult or heavy read. All the characters are well rounded and feel real, even minor supporting ones who you wouldn't think made that much of a difference. Both Joe and Sammy are extremely likable protagonists, and for the most part, the book is a joy to read.

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