Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Title: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: Random House, 2000 

Synopsis: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a triumph of originality, imagination, and storytelling, an exuberant, irresistible novel that begins in New York City in 1939. A young escape artist and budding magician named Joe Kavalier arrives on the doorstep of his cousin, Sammy Clay. While the long shadow of Hitler falls across Europe, America is happily in thrall to the Golden Age of comic books, and in a distant corner of Brooklyn, Sammy is looking for a way to cash in on the craze. He finds the ideal partner in the aloof, artistically gifted Joe, and together they embark on an adventure that takes them deep into the heart of Manhattan, and the heart of old-fashioned American ambition. From the shared fears, dreams, and desires of two teenage boys, they spin comic book tales of the heroic, fascist-fighting Escapist and the beautiful, mysterious Luna Moth, otherworldly mistress of the night. Climbing from the streets of Brooklyn to the top of the Empire State Building, Joe and Sammy carve out lives, and careers, as vivid as cyan and magenta ink. Spanning continents and eras, this superb book by one of America’s finest writers remains one of the defining novels of our modern American age. 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a phenomenal story in the vein of Forrest Gump. It spans across three decades in the mid 20th century. The book is written in a unique style that alternates chapters between what's happen in the life of the characters Sammy and Joe, pieces from the comic book, and what reads like a non-fiction story of the characters and the comic book. While this can often get confusing, it kept the story more interesting, and moved the narrative along particularly in the beginning where things tend to get a little slow and dull. Most of the book took place during the Holocaust and World War II and while it affected the characters actions it wasn't really a book about the war or the Holocaust. The writing walked the fine line between historical fiction and pop culture, and by that I mean comic book culture There were tons of subtle bits and jokes about comic books and superhero characters. It's a fun look at the creation and development of superheroes during the Golden Age of comic books.

The main characters take traumatic and memorable experiences from their childhood to create The Escapist: Master of Illusion, Breaker of Chains, Rescuer of the Helpless. As the name may imply the characters use their creation as a way of escaping from their problems at a time when things are not easy in the world at large. But reality has a way of catching up to them eventually. Even though the character is taking off they are not receiving much of the benefits from their creation and have to fight to get what little they have. Then about two thirds of the way through the book things took a dramatic turn. At this point I was completely invested in the characters and their happiness. They were flawed and reckless but I couldn't help feeling for them and wanting them to succeed. They were such underdogs, I wanted them to win in the end. I spent the last part of the book incredibly worried about them and how their stories were going to resolve.  When it did finally resolve it felt a little bittersweet.

My only criticism is that the story as a whole was a little unbalanced. There was a lot of buildup in the beginning, then just as things are starting to look up it took a dramatic turn. The story shifts completely to ten years in the future and attempts to resolve the story. Symbolic elements from the beginning are brought back into our understanding to bring home this point but it felt a little forced. I understand the need to bring it full circle but everything had changed so much it would have been better to move the story forward and not backwards. When everything was finally wrapped up I was left still wondering what would happen to these characters I had built such a connection with in their 636 page story. This is probably the only time I have ever wished a standalone book had a sequel.

The best part is the storytelling. Chabon does a great job of setting the scene and getting you in the head of the characters. His explanations are incredibly detailed and poetic but it does not at all feel overdone. Most of the chapters are relatively short and it's easy to tell yourself "one more chapter" or "I can finish this before you do something else." Before you know it you've wasted three hours and totally forgot to eat dinner. The story is so engrossing it took over parts of my life. (My writing for NaNoWriMo definitely suffered during particularly interesting parts of the book). But that's a testament to the story and how good it is.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

I recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, comic books/superheroes, or stories where you can root for the underdogs. It's a great book, check it out!

If you have read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, let me know what your thoughts are in the comments section and... HAPPY READING!

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