When you read a novel by Michael Chabon, you feel all the astounded awe of a new attraction to someone: the stirrings of possibility and excitement, and the appreciation that you, amazingly enough, can still experience such a transformation of perception.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a story by Michael Chabon set in the golden age of comic books, is dedicated to the author’s father. And in many ways, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is all about fathers and sons.
But paternity is only one ingredient of this Jewish cholent, an irresistible slow-cooking stew in which whatever you have is thrown into the pot. Imagine opening the lid to this stew and having your senses assailed by Chabon’s rhapsodic symphony of New York life in the 30’s: clarinet wails of war and loss, glissandos from hope to resignation and back, the warm intonations of family and love, and “the trumpeting of foghorns and melancholy steamships” under a sky that is “a bright superman blue” and “cloudless but for one lost lamb overhead.”
You could also think of this book as the adult’s “In the Night Kitchen” – that magical escape fantasy for children – drawn in chiaroscuro with a Gershwin soundtrack and a libretto that harkens back to Henry Roth and James Joyce. And the film credits? Orson Welles, of course, who inspires Sammy and Joe to think outside the confines of the comic strip box, and to let the free-falling flight of their dreams guide the expression of their talent.
It is a story about pupas with caterpillar dreams trapped in cocoons; of metamorphosis and escape; of comic books – that “marketplace of ten-cent dreams” by which boys could transfigure their insecurities, deformities, and weaknesses; of magicians and illusions; of golems (a Hebrew concept of men of clay who perform like men of steel when the world needs saving); of the impotency of real men in the face of evil; and above all, of the redemptive and liberating power of love.
In 1939, 19-year-old Josef Kavalier arrived from Prague at the New York home of his cousin, Sammy Klayman (note the sly reference to the clay man or golem), age 17. Joe’s family sacrificed everything to get just one member out from under the Nazi juggernaut. But Joe lived with survivor’s guilt, which hung like a dense heavy cloud over his life and threatened an outburst whenever he felt a spark of life or love.
Thus Joe, “remote and dreamy,” spends his life trying to find “atonement, retribution, or deliverance.” Joe and Sam set out to vanquish the Nazis in the only way they can, by summoning their own golem “formed of black lines and the four-color dots of the lithographer.” Thus is borne the comic superhero “The Escapist.”
Simultaneously, Joe begins a relationship with Rosa Luxemburg Saks, whom he meets while demonstrating his own escapist skills he learned as an apprentice to an apprentice of Houdini back in Prague.
Sammy takes up with the aptly named Tracy Bacon – a tall, beautiful blond male who plays The Escapist on the radio and who is “the world’s largest piece of trayf” (a word meaning “not kosher”). The lyricism of Chabon is always lying in wait for a chance at love. When Sammy and Tracy are exploring the inside of the defunct and abandoned Perisphere (part of the 1939 New York World’s Fair), which housed the gears and pulleys that controlled the motion, sound, and lighting of the futuristic exhibits, Sammy burned his fingers on the lighter he used to light the darkness. “They lay there for a few seconds, in the dark, in the future, with Sammy’s sore fingertips in Tracy Bacon’s mouth, listening to the fabulous clockwork of their hearts and lungs, and loving each other.”
Sammy and Joe go to work in the Empire State Building, which is also a recurring symbol in the book. It embodies transformation itself, from a gigantic shard of limestone to an engineering triumph that then becomes an enduring representation of progress, hopes, and dreams. It serves as the focus of the fictional icons of popular culture: it is from the top of its spire that King Kong reached his apotheosis before his doom; it is from its lofty heights that diverse superheros spotted evil and took off to save Gotham or Metropolis, and in the book, it is from its rooftop that Joe is poised and ready to “fly” to save his soul (while onlookers shout, in Chabon’s parody of Superman, “It’s a stunt! It’s a gimmick! It’s a great big pain in the ass!”) [Chabon is also referencing in multiple ways the old rumor that Jerry Siegel, disenfranchised co-creator of Superman, was going to jump off the Empire State Building.]
As the boys grow into men, they find they must eschew their old “caterpillar dreams.” Sammy “allowed the world to wind him in the final set of chains, and climbed, once and for all, into the cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man.” Joe sought to hide from the world, “immured, by fear and its majordomo, habit.”
Sammy’s marriage, the result of his attempt to escape from his own homosexuality, has a “locked cabinet at the heart of things.” His relationship with his wife was “…a modest structure, never intended for extended habitation, long since buried under heavy brambles of indebtedness and choked in the ivy of frustration and blame.”
Joe tries once again to fashion a golem. But it is only love that can spring him from the chains he had wrapped around his life. And love he does find, embodied in soft skin that “invited the touch of his fingers as painfully as the nap of velvet or the shimmer of a piece of watered silk.”
Chabon begins this book with an exuberant outpouring of the “wild tufts in his mind.” By the end, these disparate plot lines are “comb(ed) out into regular plaits” and we can see glittering markers leading to his tour de force The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
I read the end of this book on an airplane. As I taxied to the floodgates of the story, I forced myself to stop reading and defer the ending to a quieter moment, when perhaps I could enjoy “a cup of tea from an elaborate plummeting tea service,” as The Escapist imagined that he did, while flying through the air.