The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I’ve read Pulitzer Prize winners with great abandon. I’ve read 600+ page books that felt like they contained only 200 pages. But I’ve never read a 600 page Pulitzer with less pleasure than I have this highly acclaimed novel by Michael Chabon. I’m not anticipating that this post will bring many readers who agree with me, but I’m going to lay my thoughts out anyway.

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” could also be titled, “The Book That Wouldn’t End.” While the book is based on a fascinating theme of escape (who doesn’t fantasize about that once in awhile?), and is incredibly broad in its scope, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay cease to be amazing as the reader encounters either gaps in the story which can only be guessed at until verification seventy five pages later, or a segue into a character’s past which is beyond tedious.

Kavalier and Clay are two Jewish boys based on the creators of Superman: Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster. Like Siegel and Shuster, the boys sold the rights to their character, The Escapist, for far less than it would become worth.

I never knew that comic books, such as Captain America, date from the 1940’s when the world was faced with true villains and terror. “Comic books went to war before the United States did,” Chabon said…Captain America dates from, I believe, May 1941. No villain was up to Superman. Kryptonite, in a way, is a substitute for Hitler, because Hitler was the ultimate villain They fought the Japanese and demonized them, but this was what superheroes were made for.”

The first issue of Captain America features a cover which is almost identical to the fictional cover Kavalier and Clay create for their hero, The Escapist. Note that Captain America is actually punching Hitler.

This aspect of the book, that comic books were once a way to make bold statements about the war, was fascinating to me. (It makes me wonder what the purposes of Dave Pilkey’s book, Captain Underpants, might be other than to make children laugh. Is that reason enough to develop a comic book?)

Also, the theme of escape was a fascinating theme. Of course, there is the obvious escape from the persecution of the Nazis, but Chabon brought in elements of escape many people deal with on a personal level every day: escape from marriages, homosexuality, poverty, notoriety, or even reality. He did a beautiful job of interweaving comic books with personal lives with Jewish history with feats of magicians. But, he did it in a novel which became a burden to read. At least to me. Apparently, I’m the only one who feels that way.

An excerpt from “At the heart of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, two cousins who forge a comic book empire in forties New York. What’s so extraordinary about Chabon’s novel is how much ground he is able to cover. Sprawling across several decades and a handful of continents — from war-torn Prague to New York City, California, and even Antarctica — Chabon’s remarkable characters provide a virtual tour through the classic themes of the human experience: good, evil, romance, friendship, longing, despair — the whole package. Like all artists, Chabon accesses the power of the universal through the idiosyncrasies of the particular. And it’s fun, to boot. Kavalier and Clay was both a critical success, receiving the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and an international bestseller, and is widely regarded as one of the best novels published in the past ten years.”

(p.s. Here’s an interesting article on the fate of Captain America which was in Yahoo! Headlines just yesterday.)

22 thoughts on “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

  1. I tried reading it a couple of years ago too and cast it aside. I HAD to read it this time because I'm leading the discussion on it for our July's Book Club. Needless to say, another member chose it. Why did you find it difficult to get into?


  2. Interesting…I don't know if I'd find myself reading this book or not. I've been reading widely this summer…and have a huge list to finish. Thanks for sharing.:-) Susan


  3. My eldest read this book and loved it, but when he described it I thought, and I quote: "Uurgh". It sounded too complex and political to me (which, in fact, is what that son loves – he's a serious book snob). The word "sprawling" is, I think, often a hint that I'm not going to like a novel – sprawl being something I can't appreciate. So, I let him take that one with him. 🙂 Thanks for confirming my hunch that it wasn't for me!


  4. I'm a little apprehensive now. I didn't know it was that long. But, like you said, the theme does seem fascinating – especially because I really like comic book creators such as Will Eisner. I'm going to buy it this week – we'll see what I think of it.


  5. You're not alone. I've gotten 200 pages into this book twice, and both times I really wanted to like it. Like you, I see where it's merit lies, and it has so much potential. But I just get bored. And other than this book, I'm a Chabon fan.


  6. I have a copy that a friend gave me long ago and, despite being a comic book fan, I have yet to have any desire to pick it up. You're not alone in your feelings about it. Another friend recently read it and gave me regular reports on how disappointed he was with the story.Just goes to show that not all award winning books are great ones.


  7. Wow, everyone! I'm really surprised at the reactions I'm reading. I thought everyone would say, "Bellezza, what are you talking about? This is one of the best books of all time!" Boy, am I relieved to see that I'm not alone in my…displeasure.


  8. As a librarian, I can say this: the awards are more political than we'd like to admit. Think about it: Charlotte's Web never won a Newbery. Some other book won that year. Often people win because their last book should have won or something. Anyways, I rarely read books that thick. I read Chabon's "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" eons ago. Cool article about Captain America.Also, my package arrived. THANKS!!


  9. Sarah Louise, now I'm disappointed…I thought literature was the one true hold out from political bulls..t. I can't believe how many reviews praise Kavalier and Clay! I'm so glad you're package arrived. I got a note from Amazon saying it was unavailable, and now that you have it I'm relieved.


  10. Well…I have it on my Book Awards list. But my brother loved it, so I think I'll be good with it. We have eerily weird tastes! And we usually like the same things, so I'm still hopeful!


  11. Okay, I'll be the one. Bellezza, it seems like you were interested in the subject matter, and the underlying themes of the novel, but you didn't like…what? The writing? The length? The occasional tangents? I'm not sure I understand. I loved the novel and list it among my all-time favorites, so I'd be interested in what exactly turned you off.


  12. Kookiejar, I liked the writing. Chabon's vocabulary was just outstanding; there were so many words that were new to me, which I find really exciting. I had trouble with the length, not because I dislike lengthy books, but it felt lenthy without a purpose. (For example, did we really have to go to Antarctica with Joe?) I just found it tedious where it could have been absorbing with such outstanding themes and characters. It just went on too long, and lost my interest in several places. Does that make sense?


  13. Actually, as much as I liked the book, that makes perfect sense. Chabon probably could have tightened things up a little. He has this same problem with his newest novel (which I just read). I guess I was so in love with his way with words I was willing to overlook the bloat.I'm a fan of Antarctic stories, so I loved it when Joe went there, but I can totally see why not everyone would be thrilled with it. Thanks.


  14. Kookiejar, "overlook the bloat." I like that phrase! It's very fun to have such an exchange of ideas with you; I'm glad that you questioned my thoughts, and we could respond to one another's ideas. I like Antarctic stories too (even silly "Mr. Popper's Penguins" by the Atwaters which I read with my class every year). What comes to mind is Madeleine L'Engle's Penguins and Icons, too. Have you read that book by her? Actually, she has another book called "Troubling A Star" which is part of the Austin family chronicles, where Vicky's great-aunt gives her a trip to Antarctica as a birthday present.I look forward to more discussions with you, kookiejar, and I'm coming to visit your blog today.


  15. I finally read it, and even though I loved it, I can really understand the problems you had with it. I think that having read your review helped me enjoy the book more – I was already expecting it to be slow-paced and frustratingly full of flashbacks. Being prepared for those things kept me from becoming impatient.


  16. Nymeth, I'm so glad my (somewhat disillusioned) review helped you instead of souring you! There were really wonderful things about this book; although I didn't love it, I'm happy it worked for you. Thanks for taking the time to comment on this older post; will you do a review yourself? I'll be sure to check!


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