On the back cover of my (and probably your) copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the Chicago Tribune is cited for deeming Michael Chabon “a reader’s writer; with sentences so cozy they’ll wrap you up and kiss you goodnight,” suggesting that the novel’s six hundred and thirty-six pages, though menacing, would be knocked out in no time (and, particularly, right before going to bed).
This was not my experience (I tend to do a lot of my reading during the day, and before work). It took me more than a month to finish this book. I stopped in the middle of it, read Paul Auster’s City of Glass, and came back to it. I think my problem is that, while I am still very much a reader, I fancy myself as more of a writer than a reader. I am studious. I read with pen in hand, poised to underline the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that demand my so doing. I cannot simply enjoy a work of art. Rather, I have to examine it, in this case word for word, figure out what I think is good about it, and learn from it.
And there were so many overwhelmingly good things about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: the idiosyncrasies of each character (on Tommy: “He had just eaten three bowls of rice pudding, and he had a milky baby smell.”); Chabon’s familiarity with the time period, and his insertion of the likes of Salvador Dali and Orson Welles to add to its Realist nature; and the rich descriptions and calculated word selection (“…inside the box, Joe lay curled, roped and chained, permitting himself sawdust-flavored sips of life through his nostrils.”) that comprised his beautiful and elegant prose, to name a few.
What I was particularly taken by was Chabon’s ability to write in scenes in an almost Salingeresque manner. By the end of the very first chapter, I was completely blown away. I felt as though I had just read something that could stand alone within the pages of The New Yorker, with no expectation of the six hundred pages that follow. The first chapter is A Perfect Day for Bananafish, and the rest is Franny & Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction combined (but somewhat more sequentially, plotwise).
The scene I would like to focus on here can be located in the fifth chapter of the third part of the novel, The Funny-Book War. This is the chapter after Joe, having already begun his rampage on everyone in New York City who looked remotely German, stumbled upon the office of Carl Ebling’s one-man Aryan-American League and, [E]scapist that he was, broke in, only to find that “Carl Ebling was, in spite of himself, a fan.” During their brief encounter after Ebling returned to the office, Joe identified himself as Tom Mayflower, they scrapped a little bit, and, victorious, Joe took off.
It’s three o’clock on a Friday, the 25th of October, 1940. Carl Ebling, well aware of the location of Empire Comics’ headquarters, and under the pretense that Sam Clay has recently ransacked his office and concussed his head, has called in a bomb threat on the Empire State Building, claiming that it would be going off within the half-hour.
Amid their efforts to evacuate, president of the building and former New York Governor Al Smith and his political crony, James Love, are informed by Harley, “the captain of the building’s private police force,” that there is a bit of an issue getting Joe to join them because, “He says he has too much work to do.” By some sleight of hand, Joe has lifted the handcuffs off of Harley’s person and subsequently “seen fit to handcuff his self to his drawing table. At the ankle, to be exact.” Smith is convinced he can talk Joe into uncuffing himself and leaving, and Love, his interest piqued by the caricature of a situation, decides to come along for the ride. Chabon writes of Love: “He had recovered from his spasm of mirth, though his pocket handkerchief now contained the evidence of something evil and brown inside him.” Now there’s a sentence to wrap me up and kiss me goodnight.
After Joe politely declines Smith’s invitation to “stand [him] to a drink,” Love, beginning to share Joe’s “air of amused disconcern,” says to Joe, “You’re quite attached to your work, I can see that.” Subsequently, as Joe obviates his devotedness towards his work, and Love actually sees the work and recognizes it as a job well done, this witticism turns into something more profound: Love finds himself attached to Joe’s attachment to his work. He shrugs off the potential seriousness of the situation and opts to engage this artist, with whom he has just become acquainted, in conversation. Here, Chabon writes of Love: “he was fascinated, as always, by the sight of someone making something skillfully. He wasn’t ready to leave either.”
Love is an incidental figure that disappears entirely from the story three pages later, but within this scene, and due his idiosyncrasies, he is perhaps the most well-developed character of the bunch. But also in this scene, Love is the audience, the reader. Because he is not ready to leave, the story, though told by a slightly more objective narrator (than, say, the one who, later on, can read Rosa Clay’s mind), sticks with our protagonist, our artist, cool as a cucumber, handcuffed to a bolted desk, so that we too may, in that moment, live vicariously through him.
Kavalier & Clay runs the emotional gamut. Some of it is heart wrenching. The whole basis of the novel – the context behind Joe’s venture to America – is horrible. History is horrible. History, and thus this novel, is filled with things I don’t want to write about: Holocausts and anti-Semitism and homophobia and Capitalism and war and boats filled with refugee children sinking into the Atlantic and dead dogs and planes made of dead dog hides and the Surrealist movement.
But a good deal of Kavalier & Clay is really funny. On my first read of this book, the above scene was the first, and perhaps the only, part of the book during which I actually laughed out loud. It was Kavalier & Clay at its most funny. Given the pretext of Joe’s encounter with Carl Ebling and the AAL, and the fact that there were four hundred pages behind it, it wasn’t difficult to approach the situation with a light heart, and a certainty that, by the scene’s end, Joe’s arm would not be “lying down on Thirty-third Street.” Chabon took a situation typically of great concern – of horribleness and tragedy – and turned it into such a richly layered comedy of disregard and disconcern that by the time Love says, “Das ist bemerkenswert,” not of the bomb threat, but of Joe Kavalier’s work that, amid a bomb threat, Love has ever so carefully examined, one cannot help but to be left completely and riotously in awe.
There are enough scenes like this one throughout the book that Kavalier & Clay could pretty easily be adapted for a (two and a half, three hour) film without using very much artistic license in the screenplay. Chabon’s prose develops each scene so well, so cinematically, that it is difficult to not see it unravel as a mental motion picture as you go. IMDB tells me that a motion picture version is in development for a 2012 release date. But IMDB also told me three years ago that Ed Norton was directing a screen adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. So, you never know. If it is done, and it’s well-done (and how could it not be? Anyone see Wonder Boys?), then it would probably receive some Oscar (and/or Sundance) nods.
Perhaps Michael Chabon is a reader’s writer, and perhaps I’m just not a “reader”. What I’d like to assert is that Chabon is also a writer’s writer – a writer that writers read and learn from, a writer who sends lesser writers into fits of jealousy, who usurps all of the ink from their studious pens. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a great book and quite the accomplishment, for the American canon, as well as for the American reader. I am very glad to have read it.
- Over the last couple of weeks, I have incidentally stumbled upon a couple of works that deal with eras that overlap the time period covered in K&C. The first is the HBO television series Carnivale, which takes place in the Depression-era (1934) U.S., particularly in the Dust Bowl, and is truly a companion piece to Twin Peaks and LOST. The second is Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, which takes place in Chicago circa 1942-3. They are both very good. Check them out if you haven’t already.
- I don’t recall ever having read a comic book in my life. Am I missing something? Any suggestions?
- I’m all for ambiguous endings. My stories are filled with them. But try to imagine an epilogue to this story, say, in 1960, or during the war in Vietnam. What the hell would be going on with these characters then?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Grawlsy just ate three bowls of rice pudding, and he has a milky baby smell. He is fascinated by the sight of someone making something skillfully. He is twenty-five years old, and resides in Austin, Texas with his bowling ball, Bertha.
(NOTE: Originally published 13th January 2011 for Bookgum.)