The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon shook the world when it won the Pulitzer Prize in the year 2006. Instantly recognised as Chabon’s masterpiece, it has endured and grown over the years in terms of critical acclaim; notably, the BBC ranked it as one of the best contemporary novels of the twenty-first century. Chabon is well-known for his sharply constructed sentences mixing American slang and Jewish dialect in his prose, the ease of sentences nestling stories upon stories and often describing the mundanity of daily life and the extremity of transformations with freshness and zing. It has recently been ranked as one of the top hundred novels by Medium.com; they placed the book at 93rd out of the hundred classics. What makes this novel so unique and dazzling? Well, it has a brilliant and kaleidoscopic plot which encompasses and portrays a strangely nostalgic yet brutal era in American history. Never burdened by the baggage of past, the novel combines history and imagination with wit and verve; often the opposite which most of the historical fiction does: the tone, imagery and symbolism is written with a light touch, as light as a feather. Michael Chabon has been at the front of contemporary American literature after the publication of this novel. Though many people consider his writing style to be not too literary or erudite, yet his books have redefined the landscape of The Great American Novel; for The Great American Novel has been perceived, or misperceived, as a massive tome of intellectual bravura and historical self-consciousness with a sole aim to define modern America and its conundrums.
The Great American novel is a term usually associated with Steinbeck, Roth, Updike and DeLillo. Not many have been graced with this status in the twenty-first century except Jonathan Franzen, who is a great writer in my humble opinion. If The Corrections and Freedom are recognised as Great American novels, then, for some Chabon’s classic is a runner-up (if not the winner of the challenge). The plot revolves around two Jewish cousins residing in America; Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay. The two cousins instantly connect to each other upon their first meeting and later, decide to earn money through the publication of superhero comics. The plot is an instant reminder of classic novels which portrayed the pursuit of The American Dream; the fantasy which gives birth to millions of different interpretations yet fails to show the disturbing reality behind the velveteen façade of glitter and sparkle.
The novel is long, as long as six-hundred and thirty-six pages; for the first two hundred pages, it shows the rise of two cousins and their journey into the comic books world. Joe Kavalier’s alienation and loneliness is uniquely captured in this novel; at once sweet and quiet, Joe Kavalier suffers from deep-seated anxiety and boiling rage at the way of life around him. Until Rosa Saks enters into Joe Kavalier’s life and falls in love with him; they both enter into a relationship. From this point onwards, the novel takes the reader through a rollercoaster of powerful emotions. I cannot spill the plot further for this is a spoiler-free review of the book.
They work for Sheldon Anapol; under the banner of Empire Comics. The book is filled with multiple references to the comic book masters of the time such as Stan Lee, who died recently and has been an inspiration for a generation of comic book fans globally. The novelist Michael Chabon is skilful in portraying the colossal shifts of the novel’s landscape and timeline at the brink of the second world war; although it remains on the backseat and not much of it comes to the forefront or at the face of the reader. Perhaps, this might be enraging to some readers who appreciate classical literature more than contemporary literature. Modern literature revolves around the creation of fictional maps and landscapes more than the traditional realist novels which displayed history as a narrative vehicle for the story to drive on. The contemporary American landscape is charged with a narrative drive; placed ahead of the historical detailing, nowadays it mostly remains in the background. In Chabon’s work, there is no burden on the language or the tone or the historical sense because it adopts a new way of looking at the historical fiction novel. Most historical-fiction books would possess a deeply professorial tone, but here, in this novel, the reader is met with dazzling images, metaphors, glittering style and short sentences which are hilarious and comical. One of the most pertinent aspects to this novel is the fusion of magic and realism; it portrays the role of reality in art and the place of art in reality, no matter how despairing the times. The book is dynamic; it conjures up a new world revolving around superheroes, nerds and geeks, magicians and escapism. The novel asks this fundamental question: ‘How does one escape or transcend the boundaries of reality?’
Art is a way of escaping the boundaries of reality and the boundaries of the physical nature of being; Chabon captures the innocent and fantastical spirit of Kavalier and Clay and shows it in contrast to the plight of the Jews in World War II and the facetiousness of the commercial world. The boys struggle to convey their message across through the medium of comic books as the commercial boundaries stultify and constrict their movements, yet they try to transcend those boundaries to satiate their metaphysical urges. At times, the novel veers into the magical realism territory, but it comes back to the historical fiction genre; the novel fuses multiple styles together and creates a spellbinding drama, full of Dickensian swashbuckling charm, physical beauty and hilarity charged with deep-seated melancholy of one’s lost past. Out of this irrecoverable and lost sense of personal belonging, the two cousins create their life in one of the most dynamic eras in American history known as The Golden Age of Comic Books. It began in 1938 and gave birth to legendary superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America etc.
Written in dazzling prose, The Amazing Adventures & Kavalier & Clay is one of the most unique works in contemporary literature. It is The Great American Novel which must be read because it offers something genuinely new; a joyful ride filled with moments of warmth, love, romance and brotherhood. In the end, it silently breaks the reader’s heart into pieces, and one is enamoured of writing as brilliant as this.