Captain Fantastic

IN HIS THIRD NOVEL,, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, $26.95), Michael Chabon goes back in time, braving the dangers of nostalgia to deliver the golden age of American comic books.  Despite the seemingly light subject matter, the novel is epic, weighing in around 650 pages, and the author fills them to bursting, limning, in his masterful voice, the pre-war New York of the World’s Fair.

The book opens as a mock biography, complete with pithy footnotes, introducing the reader to the teenaged Sammy Clayman and his adult cousin Josef Kavalier, a recent escapee from war-torn Europe. Before emigrating, Josef was an apprentice to the great escape artist Kornblum, and helped spirit the Golem of Prague out of the country so the Nazis wouldn’t find it.  Sammy, a loner with a love of books, is intrigued by his cousin’s real-life exploits.

Both, it turns out, have a fascination with magic–especially with Harry Houdini–and rich imaginations.  Josef is an illustrator, and needs to make money to bring the rest of his family to America.  The two pool their talents to create The Escapist, a superhero who helps all those in bondage break free of their chains.  Sammy writes and Josef draws.  Their lives are entwined with their art, and the parallels Chabon lays out in the sections describing The Escapist’s origins and adventures are apt and inventive.  The team succeeds, despite their publishers wanting to tone down their rabid Axis bashing.

In the midst of this, Chabon takes the time to fill the reader in on the history of American comic books, blending fiction and non-fiction, and later a parade of historical figures will cross paths with Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier.  By now they’ve both taken stage names, in hopes, perhaps, of seeming All-American. The noisy war in Europe is about to spill over, and Joe’s family is still in Prague, a fact that drives him to violence, seeking out random Germans on the streets of Manhattan, with disastrous and hilarious results.

As their creation becomes part of the pop culture, the money rolls in–slowly, since their publisher is legally cheating them–and opportunities to do radio and movie versions of The Escapist.  A wider world opens, and chances for romance. Like Chabon’s earlier novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay also contains a coming of age story concerned with love and self-definition through art, and, here, through the creation of an alter ego, or, in the case of our heroes, many alter egos.  Fiction is a force that shows us our inner selves–even the Fair’s obsolete World of the Tomorrow, left to rust in Flushing, betrays our dreams.

America’s belated entry into the war, of course, interrupts all the ongoing storylines and provides twists that, unlike the early, relentlessly dramatized sections, often seem too sudden or unearned.  While the tone throughout is excitable and wild, Chabon is so good at bringing any scene to life that the reader believes in his characters’ actions; it’s only when major changes take place offstage that the reader balks and the plot feels contrived.  Part of this is due to the author’s conceit that his characters’ lives are comic adventures as well–a conceit which works and is fun much of the time, tantalizing in its audacity, but ultimately pushes the book too far into fantasy, losing the necessary grounding he’s spent so many pages on.  Time speeds up in the final sections, and the attendant revelations and outcomes of some major issues feel rushed and unsatisfying after so much closely rendered build-up.

Still, as a sustained piece of writing, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is remarkable.  At times the grandeur of Chabon’s high style and the preponderance of the strange and wondrous amidst the mundane recall the work of Steven Millhauser.  The author’s breadth of knowledge and powers of invention are seemingly limitless.  His eye covets the world, and his sense of metaphor is breathtaking.  An early passage:

    But for the most part, the families seemed not to have moved in
    together so much as to have collided, with an impact that hurled
    schoolbooks, magazines, hosiery, pipes, shoes, journals, candlesticks,
    knickknacks, mufflers, dressmaker’s dummies, crockery, and
    framed photographs in all directions, scattering them across rooms
    that had the provisional air of an auctioneer’s warehouse.  In many
    apartments, there was a wild duplication and reduplication of
    furnishings:  sofas ranked like church pews, enough jumbled dining
    chairs to stock a large café, a jungle growth of chandeliers dangling
    from ceilings, groves of torchieres, clocks that sat side by side on a
    mantel, disputing the hour.

Throughout, whether describing a Greenwich Village party hosted by Dali or a lonely Antarctic radio outpost, the style is joyfully ornate and energetic.  Each sentence is loaded, overgrown.  It’s a bravura performance, one that simultaneously makes the reader marvel at Chabon’s technical skill and yet, at 600-plus pages, is exhausting.

At its best, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a heady, frothy concoction, finely drawn and broadly comic, but in its own baroqueness–in its reliance on the reader’s indulgence, like David Foster Wallace’s work–runs the risk of collapsing of its own weight.  Though he sings of the joys of pulp, it’s clear that Chabon, like his heroes, believes in “the genuine magic of art,” and like much high art, his book demands a reader as adventurous as its creator.

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