Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)

In his short story "Werewolves in their Youth," Michael Chabon spins a tale of two outcast children and their imaginary worlds, and how escaping thusly becomes a link between them. Chabon believes heartily in escape, particularly via art and literature; most of his work thus far (early novels The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, a couple of story collections) is well-grounded in details of modern life: daily situations, decisions, imbroglios we all find familiar. He freely admits this in his 2003 introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, the anthology of genre fiction he edited. Chabon highlights a trend that has pervaded intentionally literary and "serious" writing for a while now: that it follows too closely what is already known by everyone -- the pains and tribulations of domesticity -- and ipso-facto loses potency as a means to entertain us. (He makes the case quite well, asking you to imagine a world where all forms of fiction become supplanted by the "Nurse Romance," then goes on to postulate this has essentially happened, with more adventurous and imaginative fiction usurped by what I've heard called "around the house and in the yard" fiction: domestic drama having, in other words, become more Domestic than Dramatic.)

So what should be done? For Chabon, the answer is to turn back to the stories that thrilled us when we were younger and rediscover the merits, both practical and artistic, of escapism -- jungle heroes swinging from vines, bowl-headed spacemen zapping aliens on the surface of far-away planets, bloodthirsty pirates, magicians, cavemen, female lion tamers, and et cetera. Oh, and crusaders for justice in the form of costumed comic book superheroes, naturally.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which netted Chabon the Pulitzer Prize) is a fun-house display of all the primary colors that go into illustrating imaginative fiction, a love letter to a glittering, romantic, bygone New York City of the 1930s -- home to the World's Fair, underground communities of eccentric artists, and that 8th Wonder of the World, the Empire State Building. The city Chabon describes crackles with a warm, nervy energy despite the ongoing Depression, providing the title characters the spark of life necessary for the birth of their "funny book" empire; the novel is ultimately a testimony to the power of inspiration, and how art, both high and low, can shape and redeem our lives.

Young Joe Kavalier, infatuated with short-wave radio and illusionist stage magic, is secreted from Prague just as the Nazis begin to roll in. This feat is accomplished by his hitching a ride in a pine box containing the Golem of Prague, early superhero fashioned of clay, from Jewish legend. What initially seems like a conceit of Magic Realism soon becomes a monumental matter of practical, not symbolic, significance as the novel unfolds. Though Joe successfully escapes to New York and the family of his cousin, Sam Clay, he remains haunted by the family he left behind -- and by the promises he made to deliver them, in his wake, from what quickly becomes war-torn Europe.

Thus met, the team of Kavalier (as the artist) and Clay (as the writer) soon weasel their way into the burgeoning comics industry and ride (not to mention help generate) a new wave of popular culture. With all the irresistible verve of an old Saturday-morning serial from Republic Studios, Chabon devotes whole chapters to the origin stories of the central superheroes in the Empire Comics stable, such as the Escapist (a former Houdini-like stage magician, now the lead member of the League of the Golden Key, a secret society devoted to the liberation of the oppressed and powerless) and Luna Moth (a phantasmagoric, dream-world version of Wonder Woman by way of Lord Dunsany). These episodes unapologetically interrupt the main narrative with all the force of a sucker punch, perfectly evoking the pulp pacing and atmosphere of comics -- readers can nearly visualize the lithographic dots, the frames separating the action scenes, the thought-balloons of dialogue floating above the pages of text.

As a guiding light, Kavalier and Clay have a senior editor, a crotchety and frustrated literary novelist named Deasey, who tells them what they create is utter trash -- and the trashier he thinks they are, the more successful their comics become. The superheroes eventually graduate to radio, to film, and to television. But as the story-telling mediums become more complicated and farther removed from Kavalier and Clay's original four-color palette, the same can be said of the direction of their lives, until the empire they have built together comes to danger.

Kavalier suffers doubt and dread regarding the fate of his family (not to mention millions of others) at the hands of the Nazis, back home. For him, drawing the Escapist single-handedly dispatching entire German armies and cold-cocking Hitler himself on the chin isn't enough; the money it brings him still cannot buy his family's freedom. Kavalier soon begins leading a double-life of his own, taking to the streets, looking for trouble, for fist-fights with Germans on wharves, in back alleys, even in broad daylight at baseball games. It is Kavalier's redemptive journey into understanding his creative output (the Golem he sets loose in the world) and how it can heal him, that what he does for a living might seem silly but retains meaning for others, that is the core of this novel.

Clay suffers the same angst, but from a few different angles. Throughout, he struggles with a desire to write stories with real literary substance, something people will take seriously (counterpointing Kavalier's desire to actually do something meaningful). "We're talking about a bunch of guys who run around in their long johns punching people, all right? It's not any Citizen Kane." Clay is told, "It's not comic books you think are inferior, it's you," revealing a key sublimation. Wherever you find superheroes, you find alter-egos. Sam Clay's struggle to exit his 1930s-era closet seems nearly a contrivance, despite being both keenly and structurally correct, in comparison to the emotional and psychological heft (not to mention the physical space in the narrative) Chabon gives Joe Kavalier's palpable internal struggles, feeling helpless despite being able to empower himself through an exterior means he cannot quite view as valid.

Eventually, as Joe's journey comes full circle, Kavalier and Clay becomes an argument against all those people who would dismiss "funny books" as a storytelling medium being two steps lower than the Dirty Joke. "The usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. He had escaped, in his life, from countries and regimes, from the arms of a woman who loved him, from crashed airplanes and an opiate addiction and from an entire frozen continent... The escape from reality was, he felt, a worthy challenge."

Novels by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs -- originally published as pulp contrivances and dismissed as trash -- are now available from Random House's venerable Modern Library imprint and can be shelved alongside similar editions of Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights. The spine of Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers now wears a logo from Scribner, the same house that brings us Fitzgerald and Hemingway. And the academia-meets-cosmic-horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, viewed in his time as a hack writer, relegated to the genre pages of Weird Tales, and who died broke and bitter (just like Fitzgerald), are now published by Penguin Classics. So, if the canonization of Comics-as-Literature is to come sometime mid-21st Century (perhaps a collection of Walt Kelly's Pogo strips issued by the Library of America?) Michael Chabon will likely be leading the charge: "He loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of aging boys dreaming as hard as they could, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art."

As Stan Lee would say, Excelsior!

Presented at the Fairhope Public Library Tuesday Book Review & Lecture Series, November 9 2004
Revised for publication in the Mobile Register as "Chabon's Golden Key," November 21 2004

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