It is New York City in 1939. Joe Kavalier, a young artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just pulled off his greatest feat to date: smuggling himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague. He is looking to make big money, fast, so that he can bring his family to freedom. His cousin, Brooklyn's own Sammy Clay, is looking for a collaborator to create the heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit the American dreamscape: the comic book. Out of their fantasies, fears, and dreams, Joe and Sammy weave the legend of that unforgettable champion the Escapist. And inspired by the beautiful and elusive Rosa Saks, a woman who will be linked to both men by powerful ties of desire, love, and shame, they create the otherworldly mistress of the night, Luna Moth. As the shadow of Hitler falls across Europe and the world, the Golden Age of comic books has begun.
The brilliant writing that has led critics to compare Michael Chabon to John Cheever and Vladimir Nabokov is everywhere apparent in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon writes "like a magical spider, effortlessly spinning out elaborate webs of words that ensnare the reader," wrote Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times about Wonder Boysand here he has created, in Joe Kavalier, a hero for the century.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||15 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Michael Chabon's works of fiction include The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, A Model World, Wonder Boys, and Were-wolves in Their Youth. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, and Playboy and in a number of anthologies, among them Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a novelist, and their children.
Date of Birth:May 24, 1963
Place of Birth:Washington, D.C.
Education:B.A., University of Pittsburgh; M.F.A., University of California at Irvine
Read an Excerpt
Part OneThe Escape Artist
In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. "To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing," he would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angouleme or to the editor of Comics Journal. "You weren't the same person when you came out as when you went in. Houdini's first magic act, you know, back when he was just getting started. It was called 'Metamorphosis: It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation." The truth was that, as a kid, Sammy had only a casual interest, at best, in Harry Houdini and his legendary feats; his great heroes were Nikola Tesla, Louis Pasteur, and Jack London. Yet his account of his role-of the role of his own imagination-in the Escapist's birth, like all of his best fabulations, rang true. His dreams had always been Houdiniesque: they were the dreams of a pupa struggling in its blind cocoon, mad for a taste of light and air.
Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews; Samuel Louis Klayman was all three. He was seventeen when the adventures began: bigmouthed, perhaps not quite as quick on his feet as he liked to imagine, and tending to be, like many optimists, a little excitable. he was not, in any conventional way, handsome. His face was an inverted triangle, brow large, chin pointed, with pouting lips and ablunt, quarrelsome nose. He slouched, and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money. He went forward each morning with the hairless cheek of innocence itself, but by noon a clean shave was no more than a memory, a hoboish penumbra on the jaw not quite sufficient to make him look tough. He thought of himself as ugly, but this was because he had never seen his face in repose. He had delivered the Eagle for most of 1931 in order to afford a set of dumbbells, which he had hefted every morning for the next eight years until his arms, chest, and shoulders were ropy and strong; polio had left him with the legs of a delicate boy. He stood, in his socks, five feet five inches tall. Like all of his friends, he considered it a compliment when somebody called him a wiseass. He possessed an incorrect but fervent understanding of the workings of television, atom power, and antigravity, and harbored the ambition-one of a thousand-of ending his days on the warm sunny beaches of the Great Polar Ocean of Venus. An omnivorous reader with a self-improving streak, cozy with Stevenson, London, and Wells, dutiful about Wolfe, Dreiser, and Dos Passos, idolatrous of S. J. Perelman, his self-improvement regime masked the usual guilty appetite. In his case the covert passion-one of them, at any rate-was for those two-bit argosies of blood and wonder, the pulps. He had tracked down and read every biweekly issue of The Shadow going back to 1933, and he was well on his way to amassing complete runs of The Avenger and Doc Savage.
The long run of Kavalier & Clay-and the true history of the Escapists birth-began in 1939, toward the end of October, on the night that Sammy's mother burst into his bedroom, applied the ring and iron knuckles of her left hand to the side of his cranium, and told him to move over and make room in the bed for his cousin from Prague. Sammy sat up, heart pounding in the hinges of his jaw. In the livid light of the fluorescent tube over the kitchen sink, he made out a slender young man of about his own age, slumped like a question mark against the doorframe, a disheveled pile of newspapers pinned under one arm, the other thrown as if in shame across his face. This, Mrs. Klayman said, giving Sammy a helpful shove toward the wall, was Josef Kavalier, her brother Emil's son, who had arrived in Brooklyn tonight on a Greyhound bus, all the way from San Francisco.
"What's the matter with him?" Sammy said. He slid over until his shoulders touched cold plaster. He was careful to take both of the pillows with him. "Is he sick?"
"What do you think?" said his mother, slapping now at the vacated expanse of bedsheet, as if to scatter any offending particles of himself that Sammy might have left behind. She had just come home from her last night on a two-week graveyard rotation at Bellevue, where she worked as a psychiatric nurse. The stale breath of the hospital was on her, but the open throat of her uniform gave off a faint whiff of the lavender water in which she bathed her tiny frame. The natural fragrance of her body was a spicy, angry smell like fresh pencil shavings. "He can barely stand on his own two feet"
Sammy peered over his mother, trying to get a better look at poor Josef Kavalier in his baggy wool suit. He had known, dimly, that he had Czech cousins. But his mother had not said a word about any of them coming to visit, let alone to share Sammy's bed. He wasn't sure just how San Francisco fitted in to the story.
"There you are," his mother said, standing up straight again, apparently satisfied at having driven Sammy onto the easternmost rive inches of the mattress. She turned to Josef Kavalier. "Come here. I want to tell you something." She grabbed hold of his ears as if taking a jug by the handles, and crushed each of his cheeks in turn with her lips. "You made it. All right? You're here."
"All right," said her nephew. He did not sound unconvinced.
She handed him a washcloth and went out. As soon as she left, Sammy reclaimed a few precious inches of mattress while his cousin stood there, rubbing at his mauled cheeks. After a moment, Mrs. Klayman switched off the light in the kitchen, and they were left in darkness. Sammy heard his cousin take a deep breath and slowly let it out The stack of newsprint rattled and then hit the floor with a heavy thud of defeat. His jacket buttons clicked against the back of a chair; his trousers rustled as he stepped out of them; he let fall one shoe, then the other. His wristwatch chimed against the water glass on the nightstand. Then he and a gust of chilly air got in under the covers, bearing with them an odor of cigarette, armpit, damp wool, and something sweet and somehow nostalgic that Sammy presently identified as the smell, on his cousin's breath, of prunes from the leftover ingot of his mother's "special" meatloaf-prunes were only a small part of what made it so very special-which he had seen her wrap like a parcel in a sheet of wax paper and set on a plate in the Frigidaire. So she had known that her nephew would be arriving tonight, had even been expecting him for supper, and had said nothing about it to Sammy.
Josef Kavalier settled back against the mattress, cleared his throat once, tucked his arms under his head, and then, as if he had been unplugged, stopped moving. He neither tossed nor fidgeted nor even so much as flexed a toe. The Big Ben on the nightstand ticked loudly. Josef's breathing thickened and slowed. Sammy was just wondering if anyone could possibly fall asleep with such abandon when his cousin spoke.
"As soon as I can fetch some money, I will find a lodging, and leave the bed," he said. His accent was vaguely German, furrowed with an odd Scots pleat.
"That would be nice," Sammy said. "You speak good English."
"Where'd you learn it?"
"I prefer not to say."
"It's a secret?"
"It is a personal matter."
"Can you tell me what you were doing in California?" said Sammy. "Or is that confidential information too?"
"I was crossing over from Japan!'
"Japan!" Sammy was sick with envy. He had never gone farther on his soda-straw legs than Buffalo, never undertaken any crossing more treacherous than the flatulent poison-green ribbon that separated Brooklyn from Manhattan Island. In that narrow bed, in that bedroom hardly wider than the bed itself, at the back of an apartment in a solidly lower-middle-class building on Ocean Avenue, with his grandmother's snoring shaking the walls like a passing trolley, Sammy dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape. He dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person, like Clifton Fadiman, or perhaps into a heroic doctor; or developing, through practice and sheer force of will, the mental powers that would give him a preternatural control over the hearts and minds of men. In his desk drawer lay-and had lain for some time-the first eleven pages of a massive autobiographical novel to be entitled either (in the Perelmanian mode)Through Abe Glass, Darkly or (in the Dreiserian) American Disillusionment (a subject of which he was still by and large ignorant). He had devoted an embarrassing number of hours of mute concentration-brow furrowed, breath held-to the development of his brain's latent powers of telepathy and mind control. And he had thrilled to that Iliad of medical heroics, The Microbe Hunters, ten times at least. But like most natives of Brooklyn, Sammy considered himself a realist, and in general his escape plans centered around the attainment of fabulous sums of money.
From the age of six, he had sold seeds, candy bars, houseplants, cleaning fluids, metal polish, magazine subscriptions, unbreakable combs, and shoelaces door-to-door. In a Zharkov's laboratory on the kitchen table, he had invented almost functional button-reattachers, tandem bottle openers, and heatless clothes irons. In more recent years, Sammy's commercial attention had been arrested by the field of professional illustration. The great commercial illustrators and cartoonists Rockwell, Leyendecker, Raymond, Caniff-were at their zenith, and there was a general impression abroad that, at the drawing board, a man could not only make a good living but alter the very texture and tone of the national mood. In Sammy's closet were stacked dozens of pads of coarse newsprint, filled with horses, Indians, football heroes, sentient apes, Fokkers, nymphs, moon rockets, buckaroos, Saracens, tropic jungles, grizzlies, studies of the folds in women's clothing, the dents in men's hats, the lights in human irises, clouds in the western sky. His grasp of perspective was tenuous, his knowledge of human anatomy dubious, his line often sketchy-but he was an enterprising thief. He clipped favorite pages and panels out of newspapers and comic books and pasted them into a fat notebook: a thousand different exemplary poses and styles. He had made extensive use of his bible of clippings in concocting a counterfeit Terry and the Pirates strip called South China Sea, drawn in faithful imitation of the great Caniff. He had knocked off Raymond in something he called Pimpernel of the Planets, and Chester Gould in a lockjawed G-man strip called Knuckle Duster Doyle. He had tried swiping from Hogarth and Lee Falk, from George Herriman, Harold Gray, and Elzie Segar. He kept his sample strips in a fat cardboard portfolio under his bed, waiting for an opportunity, for his main chance, to present itself.
"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.
What People are Saying About This
From the author of The Dogs of Babel:
If you'd asked me if I'd ever be interested in a book about the golden age of comic books, I would have said no.... But the characters are so utterly human, and their problems so real and so heartbreaking, that I loved every page.
“It’s absolutely gosh-wow, super-colossal—smart, funny, and a continual pleasure to read.”—The Washington Post Book World
“The depth of Chabon’s thought, his sharp language, his inventiveness, and his ambition make this a novel of towering achievement.”—The New York Times Book Review
“I’m not sure what the exact definition of a ‘great American novel’ is, but I’m pretty sure that Michael Chabon’s sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one.”—New York
“The themes are masterfully explored, leaving the book’s sense of humor intact and characters so tightly developed they could walk off the page.”—Newsweek
“A page-turner in the most expansive sense of the word: its gripping plot pushes readers forward. . . . Chabon is a reader’s writer, with sentences so cozy they’ll wrap you up and kiss you goodnight.”—Chicago Tribune
Reading Group Guide
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?
A Conversation with Michael Chabon
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you want to indulge yourself in Escapism at its fullest, definitely read "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay". This book is so spell-binding, you will sometimes forget you are reading a work of fiction. The characters come to life on the pages of the book, as well as in the comic books Joe and Sammy write. At times you will sympathize with Joe, then yell at Anapol, be mystified by Rosa, and hope for Tommy. All in all, this is an utterly fascinating book! Be prepared to have a dictionary near you at all times!
I suppose given this is my first book by Chabon, I shouldn't yet say I have a new favorite writer, but I can say after this one I want to go out and read all this others. First, the author is wonderful at conjuring up WWII era New York City--especially as a native New Yorker I loved how he took me to that time. The novel also somehow in its characters and events gives me a new understanding of what went into the imagining of comic books from the feats of Houdini to the yearning to punch Hitler in the face. It makes me care and feel for the characters, particularly Joe--you feel his desperation trying to get his family--his Jewish family--out of Nazi Europe. As many takes on the Holocaust as I've seen, I can't recall a work that shows you this aspect of it--not of those trying to get out but those trying to get them in and those attempts lend a great deal of suspense and later poignancy. Then there's the style--I can't say enough about the style. Reading I'm reminded of some virtuoso on the piano or violin miraculously playing some work by Liszt. The work is in done in omniscient voice--rarely seen in the last century and so rarely done well, but here it's a great deal of the pleasure in reading this story--beautifully, sometimes sensuously written, insightful with flashes of humor, a wonderful imagination and the sort of story you're sorry to come to an end. I left it feeling this was a story for the ages--but it was something else I've rarely read in so-called "literary fiction"--great fun to read.
I have never been an enormous fan of comic books, yet when a friend of mine recommended this novel to me, I took him up on it. I found it to be an amazing, incredibly human story. The description was vivid and realistic, easily understood, yet the author used words in ways I had never seen before. The characters, I found, were as real to me as my friends, and I found the well-placed comic relief a welcome break from the depth of the story-who would have thought, in a book about comics? As much as I would love to keep this book to myself, I feel it deserves every ounce of praise it receives, and I think that every award it was given could not do it justice.
This book blew my mind. From page one, Chabon had me hooked with his skillful writing and witty plot. The book was a joy ride: it had its high points, its low points, is calm points, but never was it a boring read. Sitting down to read for ten minutes led to an hour long reading extravaganza; I couldn't put the book down. Now, while the book does specifically revolve around Joe Kavalier, the title is still completely valid. Sam Klayman (Clay) fills a unique and important role from page one, and especially so going into the end of the book (don't worry, I wont ruin it for you). The thing that sealed the deal for me in this book is Chabon's amazing use of his knowledge of the Jewish culture, New York, and the time period. It's a perfectly crafted novel with detail after detail leaving no holes in the plot. Never once did I have to scratch my head and say, "This makes no sense." Everything was masterfully pieced together to create a phenomenal quilt of literature.
An amazing tale that grips you, pulls you in, and makes you care about the times, the characters, their history, and their future. This is the best book I've ever read.
I confess. I have never ventured too far into the pool of comic books, save for a trip to the theatre to catch the latest summer blockbuster. I randomly picked this book off the shelf while roaming through the local library, and I have been congratulating myself on having such fine-tuned intuition ever since. This books is one of the best--the closest thing to the 'Great American novel' that I have ever read. The prose flows with almost poetic quality, and the narrative is so beyond engaging that it is haunting. Despite being over 600 pages long, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay never loses its footing. It's a sharp, witty, and heartbreaking book worthy of an active, thoughtful reader with an addiction to erudition. Michael Chabon is a master storyteller, and this may very well be his magnum opus.
Great storytelling. I was completely drawn in to the world created in this book, and it has stayed with me in the years since I first read it.
Kavalier and Clay is an "Amazing" read! Loved it from the first page, carried it around the house with me, laughed out loud, shook my head and cried. Most of all did not want it to end. I savored the last pages. Do yourself a favor and read it soon.
I love historical fiction. This book was a fun read, fast paced story yet also gave perspective to the far reaching sadness caused by the Third Reich. The characters were simultanously funny and sad.
An epic tale of a partnership across the span of history, rich with details of the birth and evolution of the comic book. Unforgettable characters along with suspense and magical wonder.
Amazing Adventures is a big, sprawling story about two Jewish comic book artists living in 1940s New York City, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay. Joe is an apprentice magician and Houdini aficionado who uses his skills to escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and arrive in America. His cousin Sammy, a native Brooklynite, is a small kid with a gimpy leg and vast imagination. Sammy quickly befriends Joe and shares with him his enthusiasm for comic books. With Sammy's ideas and Joe's natural artistic talent, they begin creating their own successful comics, including The Escapist, a superhero who 'comes to the rescue of those who toil in the chains of tyranny and injustice' and represents Sammy's desire to be strong and Joe's hatred of Nazism. Escapism is one of the main themes, and probably the only theme that holds together well in this book. Joe escapes from the Nazis and later tries to escape from his grief and responsibilities. Sammy escapes into marriage to hide his true desires, and his wife Rosa escapes into her work (inking romance comics) to forget the man she really loves and believes is lost (Joe). And comic books themselves represent an escape. But the other themes disparately never link up. The plot twists, without any reason or closure, so it feels like nothing is happening. The book plugs along solidly in the first half, but then quickly falls apart before the reader feels any satisfaction. The teenage boys (to whom the book devotes 400 pages to) suddenly age by years every chapter. Suddenly, inexplicably, Joe is a WWII stationed in Antarctica; a story that begins out of nowhere and ends just as it gets interesting. We learn the fate of Sammy's lover (the development of their relationship of which took 100 pages) in one sentence. 12 years suddenly passes and we are introduced to Rosa and Sammy's (nay Joe's) 12-year old son. It seems Chabon has a lot of ideas, and rushes to start one before finishing another. Interesting events do take place, but because they aren't fully fleshed out they seem disconnected and pointless. Another problem is Chabon's own superfluous style. Everything has to be described with long metaphors; sometimes the simplest declaration is drawn out to a page or two, making Amazing Adventures a very long and arduous read. That, coupled with his chunky, clunky storyline, makes this book, weighing in at 656 pages, extremely frustrating. I can see how this book could become popular. In contains a well-researched, nostalgic look at old-school New York life, historical references, and a lot of emotion and romance. The main narrative - two boys creating a superhero to compensate for their physical and political desires - is very appealing. But after finally putting this book down, all I could think of was: 'So?'
An interesting look into the life of two trapped young cousins who create a Nazi-crushing superhero's empire. Frustrated by his attempts to rescue his family in Prague, magician Joseph Kavalier inks a war against Hitler while his cousin struggles to find his identity in a city that begs escapism. Writen in a fresh, crisp style, Chabon's book is actually more of a social drama and a look at a unique time in history than a comic-book like action or thriller book as the title and some descriptions suggest. Filled with intricate, believable characters and solid historical research, it's good read that will make readers better appreciate the history and psychology of comic books and grapic novels.
Grand in scope, full of boundless energy. A wonderful book that combines the world of super heroes and all-too-real life. Highly recommended.
You know, that golem sneaks up in all kinds of places you don't expect him; however, Michael Chabon makes it pretty clear that comic books about superheros written by Jews would be a pretty reasonable place to expect the hero of the ghetto. Joseph Kavalier, graduate of a one person escapist academy, manages to get out of Czechoslovakia after persecution of the Jews is underway but before official war. This is where we first meet the golem, but he makes a few more pertinent appearances throughout the story. Kavalier comes to New York where he is invited to stay with his brilliant but somewhat physically challenged cousin - a cousin who is enamoured of comic books. Clay has changed his name from Clayman in order to sound "more business like", e.g. less Jewish. Kavalier can't stop fighting for and commenting on the persecution of the Jews. He has the audacity to denounce Hitler while good Americans are still thinking we can all get along. Clay comes up with the words but is pretty poor at drawing, Kavalier along with being a fine escape artist and magician is also great at drawing. They form a partnership and proceed to have amazing adventures together and apart. They both find and lose love, make and break commitments, and teach the reader a few things about life and persecution of various sorts around the time of WWII. I was a little worried as I got toward the end of the book that Chabon was going to try to tie everything up with a pretty red ribbon and they'd all live happily ever after. Silly me.
great story, very well-researched.
An astonishing product of a deep love of Golden Age comics, Central European Judaism and US immigrant Jewry. This is an entirely satisfying examination of the nature of identity and origins.
I wasn't prepared for the epic scale of this book from the other "smaller" stories that Michael Chabon has written. A true achievement that keeps you riveted despite its breadth.
The title isn't a lie my friend. These adventures truly are (i)amazing(/i). Gather round, i'll explain. Two cousins, both jewish, one from Brooklyn, one from Prague. Both like to (b)draw and dream(/b). I don't want to give too much away, but this story is epic and moving and it deserved to win the pulitzer prize in fiction, and non fiction and also journalism. Because that's the kind of book this is. I'm laying it down for you to pick up. I don't want to give too much away. I ought to listen to the dirty 3 more, everytime i do I really enjoy it. This is my least bounded review yet. Every day i am so much freer.
Probably my favorite book ever. Everything Chabon does is pitch-perfect, from his characters, to his plot, to the language, there wasn't a moment that I was reading that I wasn't enthralled. The ending did everything a great ending needs to do; looking back on it, it's impossible to say that it could have happened any other way.When the creator's passion can be felt by his (or her) audience, that's something special. That's really all I can say.
WOW what a wonderful book. Totally drags you into the lives of the characters. Original, entertaining, you learn as well. Loved the whole golem thread.One of the old cowboy shows used to open with "Return to the thrilling days of yesteryear" (Lone Ranger?)--this is what Chabon has accomplished in the golden age of comic book superheroes. But it's so much more. Just do yourself a favor and read it.
This book was amazing. I'm going to have trouble with this recap because three of the books I've read this year have been books I want to force on people; shove them down their throat and make them eat the goodness! I doubt I'll get anyone I know to read this because while it's fairly long (636 pages) it's also really dense. Get yourself a dictionary for this - but in the good way!! It's not like you can't understand what he's trying to say - it's like his language is so gorgeous that you read these words and understand their basic meaning but want to find out exactly when and how you can wow everyone with his words.
"ABOUT THE TYPE: This book was set in Walbaum, a typeface designed in 1810 by German punch cutter J. E. Walbaum. Walbaum¿s type is more French than German in appearance. Like Bodoni, it is a classical typeface, yet its openness and slight irregularities give it a human, romantic quality.¿I apologise if it seems eccentric to feature a quote from a book that¿s not actually from the story, but I loved this old-fashioned nod to the visual quality of the novel; highly appropriate given that the two protagonists, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay become, via their combined artistic and story-telling talent, (at least temporarily), prolific and successful comic-book-hero creators. The visual quality even extends to the prose itself; the author¿s style stresses the importance of the action, the movement, and the art, features choppy time-line changes and sparse, almost panel-sized chunks of dialogue, and while this didn¿t lift the book to the lofty heights of `beautifully written¿, I honestly think I loved this book as much for its flaws as despite them. Chabon skips large chunks of timeline just when the story seems to be gathering steam, but the mild frustration this engenders is mirrored by Joe¿s desperate, thwarted need to rescue his family from a Nazi over-run Europe. Despite the title, the book is markedly Joe¿s story, although Sammy is such an inherent part of it that at times it does feel almost balanced¿ but Joe¿s is the more compelling story, too, and Sammy¿s burgeoning self-identity as homosexual gets crowded out among Joe¿s card tricks and escapism, the peril of the European Jews, the helpless rage that is channelled into talent, an ongoing tide of tragedy, his escape into the war and eventual return to the love of his life.The pajamas were patterned with red pinstripes and tiny blue escutcheons. Sammy was wearing a pair that had red escutcheons with blue pinstripes. That was Rosa¿s idea of fostering a sense of connection between father and son. As any two people who have ever dressed in matching pajamas will attest, it was surprisingly effective.To counterbalance the other random-seeming quote choice, there¿s my favourite quote from the novel itself ¿ completely irrelevant to almost everything, and probably an off-the-cuff line from the author, but it perfectly encapsulates the unconventional, sad, sweet, strongly affectionate history that binds the Clay family.One of the best books I¿ve picked up this year; packed is a word that comes to mind ¿ Chabon has rammed into each `frame¿ as much history, pathos, hope, imagery, and raw story as he possibly could. It isn¿t a novel to approach lightly, but it is a helluva read.
This truly is a great American novel in every sense of the phrase. Much like the adventures of Huck Finn, Chabon makes his characters so real that you can feel the full range of emotions that they do. He also offers a wonderful and mesmerizing glimpse into the first half of the 1900s - experiencing historical events with the same sense of wonderment and awe of the characters. I often struggled putting the book down.If you're a fan of comic books, this novel also offers great insight into the golden years. Chabon beautifully intertwines his characters and their story with the lives of the actual "greats" of the industry.
Probably one of the best books I have ever read. Fantastic!
Michael Chabon has written several highly acclaimed novel over the past decade, so I read his novel, The Yiddish Policeman¿s Union (YPU). I found it to be so infused with Jewish cultural references and Yiddish language and terminology as to be virtually unreadable by a gentile such as myself.After reading several reviews on this novel, I decided to give him another try, and while consisting largely of Jewish characters and containing numerous cultural references, I nevertheless found this to be preferable to YPU.Set largely in 1940s New York City (with minor plot sequences in 1935 Prague), the story follows young Brooklyn native Sam Clay and his recently expatriated Eastern European Hitler refugee cousin, Josef (Joe) Kavalier, as they seek to cash in on the recent popularity of pulp comics (coming on the heels of the introduction of Superman).I actually found the novel to be relatively entertaining for the first 3-400 pages. Right around the time that Joe acquires a love interest, however, I felt the story grind to a mindnumbingly boring halt. I do most of my reading in the evening, hoping to get in an hour or two prior to sleep. I literally could not keep my eyes open after fifteen minutes of what I can only describe as a magnificent sleep aid. I can usually read a novel of this length in a week or two. After getting through the first 2/3 in about a week, I figured out that it would actually take me about another month to finish the last 1/3 at the rate I was able to struggle through each night. I was actually forced to find times to read this novel during the day in order to finish it in a reasonable time. Having now read two highly acclaimed novels by Michael Chabon, and having found them both wanting, I shall not take the risk on a third. In this case, it¿s two strikes and you¿re out.