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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier arrives in Brooklyn in 1939 to stay with his aunt's family, and sparks are immediately struck between "Joe" (a talented draftsman) and his cousin Sammy Klayman, a hustling go-getter (and hopeful "serious writer") who dreams of success in the burgeoning new field of newspaper comic strips. The pair dream up, and draw the exploits of, such superheroes as "the Escapist" (a figure resembling "Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer," whose sources are revealed in extensive flashbacks that also detail Joe's training as a magician and escape artist) - and "Kavalier and Clay" become rich and famous. But the shadow of Hitler overpowers Joe's imagination, sending him on an odyssey of revenge (to Greenland Station as a naval technician, in a furiously imaginative sequence) and into retreat from both his celebrity and the surviving people he still loves. Meanwhile, even as the world of comics is yielding to the pressures of change and political accusation (in the form of Senator Estes Kefauver's Congressional Committee investigation), Sammy makes a parallel gesture of renunciation, continuing to live in a fragile fantasy world. The story climaxes unforgettably - and surprisingly - atop the Empire State Building, and its lengthy denouement (a virtuoso piece of sustained storytelling) ends in a gratifying resolution of the deceptions and disappearances that have become second nature (as well as heavy burdens) to Joe, and a simultaneous "unmasking" and liberation that release Sammy from the storybook world they had made together.
A tale of two magnificiently imagined characters, and a plaintive love song to (and vivid recreation of) the fractious ethnic energy of New York City a half century ago.
"Japan!" he said again, reeling at the exotic Caniffian perfume that hung over the name. "What were you doing there?"
"Mostly I was suffering from the intestinal complaint," Josef Kavalier said. "and I suffer still. Particular in the night."
Sammy pondered this information for a moment, then moved a little nearer to the wall.
"Tell me, Samuel," Josef Kavalier said. "How many examples must I have in my portfolio?"
"Not Samuel. Sammy. No, call me Sam."
"What portfolio is that?"
"My portfolio of drawings. To show your employer. Sadly, I am obligated to leave behind all of my work in Prague, but I can very quickly do much more that will be frightfully good."
"To show my boss?" Sammy said, sensing in his own confusion the persistent trace of his mother's handiwork. "What are you talking about?"
"Your mother suggested that you might to help me get a job in the company where you work. I am an artist, like you."
"An artist." Again Sammy envied his cousin. This was statement he himself would never have been able to utter without lowering his fraudulent gaze to his show tops. "My mother told you I was an artist?"
"A commercial artist, yes. For the Empire Novelties Incorporated Company."
For an instant Sammy cupped the tiny flame this secondhand compliment lit within him. Then he blew it out.
"She was talking through her hat," he said.
"She was full of it."
"I'm an inventory clerk. Sometimes they let me do pasteup for an ad. Or when they add a new item to the line, I get to do the illustration. For that, they pay me two dollars per."
"Ah." Josef Kavalier let out another long breath. He still had not moved a muscle. Sammy couldn't decide if this apparent utter motionlessness was the product of unbearable tension or a marvelous calm. "She wrote a letter to my father," Josef tried. "I remember she said you create designs of superb new inventions and devices."
"She talked into her hat."
Sammy sighed, as if to suggest that this was unfortunately the case; a regretful sigh, long-suffering—-and false. No doubt, his mother writing to her brother in Prague, had believed that she was making an accurate report; it was Sammy who had been talking through his hat for the last year, embroidering, not only for her benefit but to anyone who would listen, the menial nature of his position at Empire Novelties. Sammy was briefly embarassed, not so much at being caught out and having to confess his lowly status to his cousin, as at this evidence of a flaw in the omniveillant maternal loupe. Then he wondered if his mother, far from being hoodwinked by his boasting, had not in fact been counting on his having grossly exaggerated the degree of his influence over Sheldon Anapol, the owner of Empire Novelties. If he were to keep up the pretense to which he had devoted so much wind and invention, then he was all but obliged to come home from work tomorrow night clutching a job for Josef Kavalier in his grubby little stock clerk's fingers.
"I'll try," he said, and it was then that he felt the first spark, the tickling finger of possibility along his spine. For another long while, neither of them spoke. This time, Sammy could feel that Josef was still awake, could almost hear the capillary tricklee of doubt seeping in, weighing the kid down. Sammy felt sorry for himi. "Can I ask you a question?" he said.
"Ask me what?"
"What was with all the newspapers?"
"They are your New York newspapers. I bought them at the Grand Central Station."
For the first time, he noticed, Josef Kavalier twitched. "Eleven."
Sammy quickly calculated on his ringers: there were eight metropolitan dailies. Ten if you counted the Eagle and the Home News. "I'm missing one."
"Times, Herald Tribune," he touched two fingertips, "World-Telegram, Journal-American, Sun." He switched hands. "News, Post. Uh, Wall Street Journal. And the Brooklyn Eagle. And the Home News in the Bronx." He dropped his hands to the mattress. "What's eleven?"
"The Woman's Daily Wearing."
"Women's Wear Daily?"
"I didn't know it was like that. For the garments." He laughed at himself, a series of brief, throat-clearing rasps. "I was looking for something about Prague."
"Did you find anything? They must have had something in the Times."
"Something. A little. Nothing about the Jews."
"The Jews," said Sammy, beginning to understand. It wasn't the latest diplomatic maneuverings in London and Berlin, or the most recent bit of brutal posturing by Adolf Hitler, that Josef was hoping to get news of. He was looking for an item detailing the condition of the Kavalier family. "You know Jewish? Yiddish. You know it?"
"That's too bad. We got four Jewish newspapers in New York. They'd probably have something."
"What about German newspapers?"
"I don't know, but I'd imagine so. We certainly have a lot of Germans. They've been marching and having rallies all over town."
"You're worried about your family?"
There was no reply.
"They couldn't get out?"
"No. Not yet" Sammy felt Josef give his head a sharp shake, as if to end the discussion. "I find I have smoked all my cigarettes," he went on, in a neutral, phrase-book tone. "Perhaps you could-"
"You know, I smoked my last one before bed," said Sammy. "Hey, how'd you know I smoke? Do I smell?"
"Sammy," his mother called, "sleep."
Sammy sniffed himself. "Huh. I wonder if Ethel can smell it. She doesn't like it. I want to smoke, I've got to go out the window, there, onto the fire escape."
"No smoking in bed," Josef said. "The more reason then for me to leave it."
"You don't have to tell me," Sammy said. "I'm dying to have a place of my own."
They lay there for a few minutes, longing for cigarettes and for all the things that this longing, in its perfect frustration, seemed to condense and embody.
"Your ash holder," Josef said finally. "Ashtray!'
"On the fire escape. It's a plant!"
"It might be filled with the ... spacek? ... kippe? ... the stubbles?"
"The butts, you mean?"
"Yeah, I guess. Don't tell me you'd smoke-"
Without warning, in a kind of kinetic discharge of activity that seemed to be both the counterpart and the product of the state of perfect indolence that had immediately preceded it, Josef rolled over and out of the bed. Sammy's eyes had by now adjusted to the darkness of his room, which was always, at any rate, incomplete. A selvage of gray-blue radiation from the kitchen tube fringed the bedroom door and mingled with a pale shaft of nocturnal Brooklyn, a compound derived from the haloes of streetlights, the headlamps of trolleys and cars, the fires of the borough's three active steel mills, and the shed luster of the island kingdom to the west, that came slanting in through a parting in the curtains. In this faint glow that was, to Sammy, the sickly steady light of insomnia itself, he could see his cousin going methodically through the pockets of the clothes he had earlier hung so carefully from the back of the chair.
"The lamp?" Josef whispered.
Sammy shook his head. "The mother," he said.
Josef came back to the bed and sat down. "Then we must to work in the darkness."
He held between the first fingers of his left hand a pleated leaf of cigarette paper. Sammy understood. He sat up on one arm, and with the other tugged the curtains apart, slowly so as not to produce the telltale creak. Then, gritting his teeth, he raised the sash of the window beside his bed, letting in a chilly hum of traffic and a murmuring blast of cold March midnight. Sammy's "ashtray" was an oblong terra-cotta pot, vaguely Mexican, filled with a sterile compound of potting soil and soot and the semipetrified skeleton, appropriately enough, of a cineraria that had gone unsold during Sammy's houseplant days and thus predated his smoking habit, still a fairly recent acquisition, by about three years. A dozen stubbed-out ends of Old Golds squirmed around the base of the withered plant, and Sammy distastefully plucked a handful of them-they were slightly damp-as if gathering night crawlers, then handed them in to his cousin, who traded him for a box of matches that evocatively encouraged him to EAT AT JOE'S CRAB ON FISHERMAN'S WHARF, in which only one match remained.
Quickly, but not without a certain showiness, Josef split open seven butts, one-handed, and tipped the resultant mass of pulpy threads into the wrinkled scrap of Zig Zag. After half a minute's work, he had manufactured them a smoke.
"Come," he said. He walked on his knees across the bed to the window, where Sammy joined him, and they wriggled through the sash and thrust their heads and upper bodies out of the building. He handed the cigarette to Sammy and, in the precious flare of the match, as Sammy nervously sheltered it from the wind, he saw that Josef had prestidigitated a perfect cylinder, as thick and straight and nearly as smooth as if rolled by machine. Sammy took a long drag of True Virginia Flavor and then passed the magic cigarette back to its crafter, and they smoked it in silence, until only a hot quarter inch remained. Then they climbed back inside, lowered the sash and the blinds, and lay back, bedmates, reeking of smoke.
"You know," Sammy said, "we're, uh, we've all been really worried ... about Hitler... and the way he's treating the Jews and ... and all that. When they, when you were ... invaded.... My mom was ... we all..." He shook his own head, not sure what he was trying to say. "Here." He sat up a little, and tugged one of the pillows out from under the back of his head.
Josef Kavalier lifted his own head from the mattress and stuffed the pillow beneath it. "Thank you," he said, then lay still once more.
Presently, his breathing grew steady and slowed to a congested rattle, leaving Sammy to ponder alone, as he did every night, the usual caterpillar schemes. But in his imaginings, Sammy found that, for the first time in years, he was able to avail himself of the help of a confederate.
Barnes & Noble.com: Quite a lot has been written about the relationship between your personal life and the lives of your characters. To what degree does your own biography inform the characters in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?
Michael Chabon: In some ways it's more the imagined biography of my father than my own. It was really a long series of conversations that my dad and I had when I was growing up about the world of his childhood, which was in New York in the '40s and '50s, a little later than in this book. When I was pretty small, about six I think, he bought me this record, classic themes from radio programs from the 1930s and '40s. I listened to it over and over again and started asking, What was this show about? What was that show about? The whole idea that there were these things called radio shows, with heroes like the Green Hornet, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, stuff I could really get into, was fascinating to me. And that began a conversation: What else did you do when you were a kid? What other things did you used to have that we don't have anymore? Going to the movies on Saturday morning to see the whole day's worth of programming, from the cartoons to the newsreel to the A picture to the B picture. That began a lifelong fascination with American society and popular culture and the history of the middle part of the century.
I really did just sort of dream the whole thing up. If there are things about me and my own life that are in Joe and Sammy, it's all very unconscious. I never thought, Oh I'm going to take this thing that actually happened to me and try to turn it into a book -- which I have done many times before, but with this book it just wasn't like that. I was dealing with something so remote from me in time and place that it didn't even occur to me to try to base it on my own experience. The only thing that I was consciously aware of taking from my own life -- my wife is a writer, too (Ayelet Waldman), and we talk about our work with each other, often in bed; we bounce ideas off each other and criticize each other's work -- when Sammy and Rosa are doing that, that's taken from my life. But that's the only place I can think of where I deliberately did that.
B&N.com: On your web site you've posted an essay entitled "Are Novels Golems?" The golem, who figures prominently in the novel, is a Frankenstein-like being from Jewish folklore, fashioned out of clay and endowed with life. But, like Shelley's "monster," the golem ultimately endangers the life of its creator. What is the danger inherent in the act of creation?
MC: I saw the metaphor working for me in terms of the sense of imperilment, putting myself at risk in some way for writing something that in retrospect I feel is good. If something doesn't seem good to me, I might look back and say I wasn't putting myself at risk. For a lot of writers that danger is very real. If you live under a repressive regime that does not permit freedom of expression, then simply expressing yourself, in any way, could be fatal. I don't have that kind of risk, thank God. For me, it is much more about exposing myself -- or, even worse than that, not exposing anything about me but knowing for certain that if I say something about my characters, readers will immediately think I'm saying something about myself. They'll think it of me, even if it isn't true.
Now let's take Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys. I was concerned that people would think I was a big pothead and that I hadn't been able to finish my second novel because I had such a big dope-smoking problem. Many people have made that assumption. Knowing that's going to happen, knowing people are going to draw these conclusions about you and doing it anyway -- that is the sense of being imperiled by your own creation that is necessary.
In this book there's Sam Clay and his closeted life and his marriage of necessity. I felt sufficiently imperiled by that. That provided a core of danger in the book that I found necessary. In fact, I was just doing an interview in L.A. last week and the interviewer was dancing around the whole question of writing about a closet-case character. He was trying to probe that area.
B&N.com: Is America a lucky land? Are Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay lucky, or are they in fact "boy geniuses"?
MC: Both. They have some good luck, and they have some horrible luck. Those kinds of luck and chance affect them for good and for ill. The fact that Joe even gets out of Prague is a combination of talent on the part of his teacher, Kornblum, and pure luck. That last second, when the German officer doesn't open the crate, that's luck. And who knows how much luck was involved in getting Joe from Lithuania, across Russia, out of Japan, across the ocean to America. If that doesn't happen, they don't get together and they don't get to create the Escapist.
Speaking of myself, I have been extremely lucky, and a lot of breaks have gone my way. If it had been otherwise -- even though I think I do have talent and ability -- nonetheless, my fate would have been very different. America, especially if you are a white person, is a country that really does make breaks possible. It is a very lucky time to be living in a very lucky country. The whole country is lucky. We've had so many moments where it could have gone so awry, and there is so much we don't have to contend with that other people do.
It's weird trying to leap from the micro to the macro to talk about luck and opportunity and chance and talent, but I do also feel, on the smallest micro level, in terms of my own writing, that I rely on luck and chance. It's like that line by Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind." So many times I've stumbled on something while out for a walk, happening to pass through a building or a room where there is a magazine lying around, picking up that magazine, and finding something in it that is the exact solution to what I've been working on in my writing. If I hadn't picked up that magazine and seen that article that had this little fact in it, what would have happened? My mind, even when I'm not writing, is so immersed, so occupied by trying to find solutions, that I can recognize them when I see them. I think it's that ability to recognize the opportunities that talent gives you. But for the opportunities themselves, you do have to rely on luck.
B&N.com: Grady Tripp's unending 2,600-page tome, Sam Clay's doomed epic novel, your own aborted attempt to complete Fountain City -- what do we learn from failure?
MC: I don't know that you learn anything. You learn that you can fail. That is in itself a very valuable lesson. I'm very drawn to stories of failure, especially really huge failures. They have always been very fascinating to me. And that notion of failure is something that I live with all the time and feel very close to. Going through that experience with Fountain City made concrete what it feels like to fail. It was a pretty horrific experience.
B&N.com: Looking back, can you see why you failed?
MC: No. That's why I say it's very hard for me to draw lessons from, because I've changed my opinion so many times over the years about what the meaning of that was, why I couldn't do it. For a while I thought it was conceived poorly, but now I'm more inclined to think that I just gave up too soon. But that might not be right. I don't know. I don't have a lot of faith in my own retrospective analysis over time. It seems to change, depending on what I'm feeling at that moment.
B&N.com: You did a tremendous amount of research for this novel. Do you tend to map out a game plan ahead of time, or do your research more on a need-to-know basis?
MC: With this book I had to do more reading than with any other book I've written. That included spending a month here in New York just walking around. I had a 1939 WPA Guide to New York, and I used that as my guidebook. I went to the New York that it described and tried to find it -- a lot of it is still here; some of it is gone. I did lay an initial groundwork by reading histories of comic books, getting a sense of who the guys were who went into the field, what they were like, what the field was like, how it was run. Then I began writing and did further research on more of a need-to-know basis. I ended up going to a lot of places that I wasn't expecting to go to, like Antarctica. Even the Empire State Building I didn't know would play such an important role in the book as it does, so I had to do a lot of reading about that. As the need would arise, I'd go up to the library and try to immerse myself.
B&N.com: Was there a specific comic book artist who inspired the book?
MC: Right when I was starting to think about what I was going to do next, I had been toying for a while with this idea of trying to write something set in this period. I can't remember anymore, but I think it was in Smithsonian magazine that I read an article about Superman, the history of Superman. It was an anniversary or something. And they talked about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and how they dreamed up this character in Cleveland on this one hot night in 1936. That was the trigger -- that's how I can get into this period and this time.
I had this childhood memory/knowledge of comic books, and it just all came together and I said, I'm going to write a novel about two golden age comic book creators. It wasn't Siegel and Shuster. My Sammy and Joe don't bear very much resemblance at all to Siegel or Shuster, but it was inspired by their example, an example of failure -- another story of success followed by failure. They created this character who, 70 years later, is still very much with us, and yet they saw very little of its success themselves. They sold the rights for a hundred bucks. They ended up very destitute and miserably impoverished. That is the kind of story that has always attracted me.
B&N.com: Joe Kavalier is an artist who is never satisfied with his work, and yet at the same time one who knows just how good he really is. His masterwork, The Golem, is a 2,256-page comic book with no dialogue, absolutely no words at all, save those that appear as part of the artwork itself, signs on buildings or labels on bottles. Is that in any way a comment on the way we depend on language to communicate and tell stories?
MC: I was trying to get into the psychology of an artist at that point, and of a comic book artist in particular. I thought, both by intuition and by reading some things that great comic book artists said in interviews, that they always do view the [dialogue] balloons as an intrusion and a marring of what they've done. Sometimes they draw the space for the balloons. In the old days they didn't. Now they tend to decide where the balloons are going to go, and some of them have found ways to work them into the composition. But for the longest time some guy would come along and just slap balloons into the panels -- they would cut them out and stick them wherever they wanted, sometimes blocking out entire characters. So it just seemed to me that that was what Joe would aspire to, to tell a story that could be told without the need for balloons, without even any room for balloons. There's no need for them and no space for them.
There was this fun, classic example. In the late 1960s there was this comic artist named Steranko, Jim Steranko, and he was drawing this book for Marvel called Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and he was very revolutionary. He brought a lot of graphic design techniques into comics that hadn't been seen before. He did this two-page sequence where Nick Fury was infiltrating the headquarters of evil, and there were no captions or balloons. He had to fight really hard to get them to accept it, and they finally did. Later they got angry letters from readers all over the country saying, "I want my money back, there was a flaw in my comic, all the balloons were missing, I got a defective," so they never repeated that experiment.
B&N.com: At one point, Sammy puts his characters and stories into the hands of radio scriptwriters, who then alter certain aspects to make them appropriate for the program. How do you feel about seeing your own work adapted to the big screen -- giving your work away, as it were?
MC: I'm fine with it -- you know, it pays really well. That's very consoling. Actually, I thought the movie of Wonder Boys was really good, so that's even better. Even if it had been terrible it would have been all right. But that fact that it was good was gravy.
B&N.com: Why do you think your treatment for the X-Men movie was rejected? MC: It had nothing to do with me or my pitch: It was that Bryan Singer came along right when they were deciding whether to buy my pitch or not. He was the guy who directed The Usual Suspects, and his guy was the guy who wrote The Usual Suspects. It was a clear choice. I was just this guy who had written two novels that had nothing to do with comic books or anything like them.
B&N.com: Was this before or after you had started writing Kavalier & Clay?
MC: I had already started. I couldn't pass up the offer; it was a great invitation. But it was a very smart decision on the part of the movie studio.
B&N.com: Finally -- who is your favorite superhero?
MC: Now, or when I was reading comic books?
MC: I guess when I was reading them I liked Fantastic Four. That was always my favorite. I loved Jack Kirby and his artwork. And there was something about the sort of family nature of that team -- they all lived together in that giant skyscraper.
Now I'd have to say it's Superman, and that's mostly because my son, who is three, is really into Superman. And looking around at this sort of media landscape that he's presented with and the superhero figures that are getting offered to kids, Superman just looks really good to me, as a father. He's still good. He still fights on the side of truth and justice. He's polite. He's not tortured. He doesn't have that killer instinct that so many other "hero figures" seem to require to be successful these days, like Wolverine. I can really get behind Superman, as a dad.
--Cary Goldstein, Fiction & Literature Editor
1. Reading group guide for THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY by Michael Chabon Escape, literally and figuratively, is everywhere in this novel. Why do you think Michael Chabon and the characters in the novel place so much importance on it? From what and to what are the different characters in the novels escaping? When is escape good in the novel and when is it bad? Can the character of Joe Kavalier ever quit trying to escape, whether it is from place, like Prague and New York, or from relationships, like Rosa and Sammy? When Sammy leaves for LA, is this an escape, and if so, is it good or bad? Why do characters in this novel seem to be trying to escape relationships, and what are the different types of relationships that can be binding? Does the escaping end at the conclusion of the novel?
2. Compare the theme of escape in the novel to escapist nature of art. In what ways does Chabon explore this in his novel through the art of magic, and painting, and comics? How is the novel THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY an escape itself and the creation of a world unto itself for the reader? Although the novel is clearly fiction, why do you think Michael Chabon goes to such lengths to make it feel real, by adding real historical facts and fictitious footnotes? Why do you think Chabon chose to write about the medium of comics, as opposed to something else like television or the movies?
3. How are love and family portrayed in the novel? What constitutes a family at different points in the novel? What are the different types of love in the novel? How are the families of Joe, Sammy, and Rosa different, and how are these three people able to make a familythemselves? What role does family play in Joe's life? Does it unnecessarily bind him to the past? Why or why not? Is there something special about America that allows for unorthodox types of families? Why do you think Sammy married Rosa? Why did she marry him? Are Sammy and Joe both fathers to Tommy?
4. Joe and Sammy create alter egos for themselves and others in their comic books. What is the significance of this? Do the comic book character give us any insight into the real characters in the book which they resemble. Does the character of Luna Moth help us to understand Rosa or Joe more? What does the character of The Escapist tell us about Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay? Why does Joe dress up as The Escapist before reuniting with Rosa and Sammy?
5. A golem, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is "a man artificially created by cabalistic rites: a robot." Knowing this, what do you think the significance of the golem is in this novel. Why is it so important to preserve the golem, and what is the realization one comes to when the golem is only dirt? Where does the transforming power lie, in the dirt or some other, inexplicable, magic quality? Does the power of the creator die with the creation? Compare the creation of the golem to the creation of The Escapist and other characters by Sammy and Joe and the creation of THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY by Michael Chabon.
6. Is this a happy ending? Is Sammy escaping to LA?
Posted September 26, 2011
No text was provided for this review.