There are lots of things in the world worth liking because their form is pretty, even if they completely lack substance or content; Easter eggs, Avatar 3D, most boquets. My weakness for pretty prose is no secret, but I’m not sure the extent to which I induldge is widely known. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to talk to you today abotu Lit Fic. Yeah, I read Lit Fic (along with everything else under the sun). There’s not usually much in it – the genre says “character-driven” when they mean, “boring.”
This is why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I knew Michael Chabon could turn out a pretty sentence, and I knew that lots of people really liked this particular book, some claiming it was one of those secretly genre books (it’s not), but I didn’t actually expect much from it. (Spoilers below)
The book is set in the years leading up to, during, and after WWII, with a healthy smattering of comics, and it makes excellent, thorough use of its setting. Joe Kavalier, a trained escape artist and Jew from Prague, endures amusing and compelling adventures to escape the Nazis and join his cousin, Sam Clay (nee Klayman), in New York. They both have dreams of making a ton of money and do the logical thing by talking Sam’s boss into starting a line of comics. Since this is fiction, their main character is fascinating and their project is phenomenally successful. They fight the Nazis vicariously, then Joe signs up to fight them for real, then they have to cope with a world without Nazis and with American post-war paternalistic/paranoid censoring craze. That’s the plot of the book, but not what it’s really about. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is about escape.
The theme is consistent throughout the book in a truly impressive way. The comics themselves, a dense compact of escape as the means through which Joe can fund his project to rescue his younger brother from Prague, for Sam from his fear of obscurity, both of them from poverty, their audience in all the ways comics of the time inherently were. Add in Joe’s training as an escape artist, Sam’s imprisonment in his own insecurity and fear, and the world’s need to escape, first form war, then from its aftermath, and you have a book so carefully developed out of its theme as to be a slave to it. It is lovingly and carefully handled, declaring itself so obviously at the outset (the cousins’s first character is the Escapist) that the obviosuness of the pervading theme is okay because you know Chabon did it on purpose. And like really good lit fic, that maniacally pervasive theme gives you nice things to chew on while brushing your teeth or tuning out at work. “Where’s the tie-in for this new character, this new plot point?” you can ask yourself while you’re not reading but would prefer to be.
So of course, the only glaring stumbling point in the whole book is when Chabon overplays his hand. Joe’s return from hiding and the events surrounding his stunt atop the Empire State Building at the end is where the book starts screaming at you, “Hey, I’m theme driven, and my theme is ESCAPE!” I spent a good chunk of that portion contemplating Diana Wynn Jones’s comments about how she preferred writing YA because younger audiences read more carefully and adults need to be told everything. People are escaping, these events are fraught and heavy, we get it, thanks, let’s keep moving. But it’s one stumbling point in an otherwise solid and lovely book.
I get the sense that Chabon loved Joe more than Sam. Joe gets more page-time (or feels like he does) and gets all the sexy adventures – he slips out of Prague in a coffin with a golem, he winds up in a radio station in Antartica after enlisting, he gets to disappear mysteriously on his way home after the war only to reappear in time to fulfill his son’s escape fantasies. Joe is the dynamic, enigmatic half of the pair, traipsing through the story with morose ambition, romantic depression, and a trail of banana peels. Sam’s a polio survivor who falls victim to the American dream and mid-life crisis the way every other Lit Fic character does in the 50’s.
But Sam’s my favorite, I think, precisely because he’s the book’s representation of the standard Lit Fic trope. And he is. He hits all the bingo boxes, from being a frustrated writer, a married man who feels disconnected from his son and oppressed by his suburban existence, to being a stifled, closeted homosexual.*
In one of those lovely turns so common in fiction and so impossible in real life, Sam has a brief affair with Tom Mayflower, the handsome all-American actor hired to play the Escapist for his radio and later movie adaptation. The book is littered with hints before that about Sam’s sexuality and his complete obliviousness to it, but this is where it first spills explicitly onto the page. The moments between Tom and Sam are quiet and touching, the events leading to their separation heart-breaking and unsettling. Joe is a character you love to watch, Sam is just somebody you want to give a big hug. And if Joe is the force that drives the book into overplaying its hand, Sam is the character who helps it recover. His escape, long delayed, off to California, with the open door to his triumphant later return, closes the book on a note that is deliciously just, satisfying and, yes, pretty.
*I have a magic ability to pick up a Lit Fic book at random in a used bookstore, and have it be about that summer the main character who may or may not be a thinly veiled version of the author experimented to determine whether or not they’re gay. I use it only for good. (Do not ask for my definition of good)