I recently read, or I should say reread, Michael Chabon’s 2000 Pulitizer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay. Being a lover of both literature and comic books I snapped it up when it first came out. I enjoyed it, but for some reason (and there could have been many) I read it that first time in fits and starts, sandwiched between a number of other books. I don’t generally read that way so it struck me as odd, since I liked Chabon’s book. This time I read it straight through and while once again I enjoyed the epic plot, the characters, the themes, and Chabon’s beautiful sense of languages, I began to understand why I might have read it in the fashion I did the first time around.
The novel is certainly leisurely and digressive. It winds back and forth through time and point of view to tell its story of identity and alienation. Using as its backdrop the Golden Age of comic books, it ties in not only its more straightforward metaphor of immigrant identity in the mid 20th Century seen as the masked identity of a superhero, but also its more challenging one of American identity with our shifting understanding of masculinity, feminity and sexuality – the masks, the secrets, the costumes and the daring-do of stepping out of prescribed roles. One of the beauties, and perhaps why I was able to read it like a serial novel the first time, is that it tells much of this in a picaresque way. Josef’s life in Prague and his adventures in Antarctica are almost stand-alone pieces, beautifully constructed and and told, yet they still shade and fill-in the overarching story. These disparate story lines work much like the development of a comic book itself, from the penciller to the inker and then the colorist, each piece of the process adding to the multilayered experience of the comic book panel.
Also played out separately and apart from the other main characters is Sammy’s sex life, just as this secret part of him would have been at that period. What’s wonderful here is that though Sammy’s growing awareness of his sexuality and his eventual choices are completely in step with the time in which the novel is set, his homosexuality is seen through a modern lens. In fact, he has the books most romantic scenes set on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and, in perhaps the most unlikely of places, deep inside the dormant Perisphere left over from the 1939 World’s Fair. Josef and Rosa may be the star-crossed lovers, but its nice to see the gay character getting his share of desire and fulfillment.
So, not only does the book tend to work like one of the serial adventures that poor Tracey Bacon would go on to star in, but many of the plots and chapters read like comic books. Sammy’s triangular love affair with Josef and Rosa can be likened to one of the plots from the romance comics that Rosa pencils and inks. Some chapters are even written in the style and language of a comic book, not only the stories of The Escapist and Luna Moth, but even the scene in which Josef and his audience at the bar mitzvah are threatened by the hapless Nazi sympathizer.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that I first read the novel as I did. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was creating my own serialized version of the book. But I have to admit that Chabon had already done a lot of the work for me.
Oh, and a brief aside. If you haven’t had a chance to read the review of David Shields’s “How Literature Saved My Life” in The New York Times you can do so here. It’s nice to see someone in print call Shenanigans on this guy. Wham! Pow!