Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2001
It's 1939, in New York City. Joe Kavalier, a young artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdiniesque escape, has just pulled off his greatest feat: smuggling himself out of Hitler's Prague. He's looking to make big money, fast, so that he can bring his family to freedom. His cousin, Brooklyn's own Sammy Clay, is looking for a partner in creating the heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit the American dreamscape: the comic book.
Inspired by their own fantasies, fears, and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor, and the otherworldly Mistress of the Night, Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. The golden age of comic books has begun, even as the shadow of Hitler falls across Europe.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a stunning novel of endless comic invention and unforgettable characters, written in the exhilarating prose that has led critics to compare Michael Chabon to Cheever and Nabokov. In Joe Kavalier, Chabon has created a hero for the century.
©2012 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
"Michael Chabon can write like a magical spider, effortlessly spinning out elaborate webs of words that ensnare the reader with their beauty and their style." (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times)
Kavalier & Clay is possibly the best modern Bildungsroman I've ever encountered. The story and character development are gloriously nuanced, taking the two main characters from Prague to Brooklyn and then from Manhattan to Antarctica and back again, all the while describing personal evolutions that are neither neat nor linear. It is the sort of book that I plan to re-visit.
When I do, I'll probably buy the print version. This has everything to do with David Colacci's reading. While he is great at pacing and expression, his voice for Joe Kavalier makes him sound exactly like Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog.
It's an image I couldn't get out of my head while listening: All I could imagine is Joe as a rubber hand puppet. And frankly, that kind of distraction does a terrible disservice to Chabon's text.
People say I resemble my dog (and vice-versa). He can hear sounds I can't hear, but I'm the one who listens to audiobooks.
Maybe if Michael Chabon had applied the principles of Strunk & White to Kavalier & Clay, we would have ended up with a readable classic rather than interminable bore. "Omit needless words," S&W advise. "Make every word tell." That's what I would change: I would edit my work. Instead, Chabon wants to show off, leaving his story and characters behind as collateral damage.
After listening for over 26 hours, I could write a treatise nearly as long containing all the examples of how Chabon has overblown what may have otherwise been a lively, peppy novel of average length. But I will choose just one to explain myself (in a world where K&C has received nearly universal praise, including of course its Pulitzer Prize, leaving me in a tiny minority of puzzled, worn-out readers).
Amid the ruins of the 1939 World's Fair, Chabon's omniscient third-person narrator explains Sammy Clay's emotions: "It made him sad, not because he saw some instructive allegory or harsh sermon ... but because ... he had known all along that like childhood, the Fair was over..." I could have reduced that sentence to even less than those 28 words, but Chabon uses 96 -- 96 words for a sentence that starts with the word "It" (after an 84-word sentence that starts with "it" and a 104-word sentence that includes 16 commas).
Chabon spews forth this vomitus of words to tell us not to look for any metaphors in the ruins of the fair beyond the simple (even trite, I would argue) childhood's end. He tells this to us, the readers -- Sammy himself, the narrator says within that run-on sentence, is "too young to have such inklings." And he doesn't even get it right -- "like childhood, the Fair was over." No! Sammy isn't epiphianic with the sudden realization that the fair is over, he is sad that his childhood is past.
Yes, I counted the words. Insert punch line here. Or just punch me. But Chabon, clearly, did not count. Draft and revise. Draft and revise. My 8th grader is forced to draft and revise. Chabon never re-read this passage after he wrote it (and hundreds like it). If he had re-read it, he'd have asked himself, why am I instructing the reader how to interpret my metaphor? Either I tell them directly what I want them to take away from it ("Sammy was sad because he realized his childhood, like the fair, was over") or I let them draw their own conclusions ("Sammy was too young to have such inklings").
Or maybe he did re-read it and found it wanting for nothing. This is his first draft, and his first draft was just perfect. How did the Pulitzer committee miss this? Were the characterizations and story lines and symbols so compelling? I find the characters two-dimensional at best, mostly one dimensional cardboard cutouts, the story lines banal, the metaphors pedestrian. Is the comic book simplicity its very charm? Perhaps, but I stopped reading comic books 45 years ago and turned to literature to get more out of my characters and plots and themes and metaphors.
I realize I'm a minority of one, but Kavalier & Clay (I will not use the title words that precede the names, since they are neither amazing nor adventurous) is packed wall to wall with this type of writing, gratuitous and dull at best, infuriating and downright bad at worst.
I've had this book on my shelf for ten years, always intending to read it but never quite pulling the trigger (and I read dozens of book a year, so I've pulled a few hundred other titles off the shelf, and now into my Audible app, in the intervening years). When I had the chance to get it in audio, I was excited -- whatever was stopping me from reading the book (probably the number 636, the page count) was absent when I thought of listening to the audiobook while walking the dog and driving my car (even at 26 hours).
But then, at 2 hours, I started to think of stopping. Then again at 4, 6, 10 hours. All that praise, that prize, I thought -- there must be more to this, I gotta stick it through! Even at 15 hours, well past the halfway point, I thought of stopping, convinced that there would never be the payoff I was hoping for and expecting. I slugged it out, thanks in part to one excellent section (Antarctica, though it really is a standalone short story and naggingly problematic within its larger context of World War II and the Holocaust).
So that other Michael Chabon book that is sitting on my shelf -- nah, I'm not going to be reading or listening to that any time soon, or ever. Even if it is only two-thirds the length.
Others have complained about the accents. Didn't bother me. The performance was good, in my opinion. Not the problem whatsoever. I wish it was read faster, but I guess I could've pressed the speed button if I wanted that.
I think Kavalier & Clay needs an editor, not a follow-up. No, not an editor -- a chainsaw. Then again, why not? For the 85% of the world that loved this book, a follow-up would be welcome. Who am I to deny them that? I just won't be partaking myself.
But what would that follow-up deal with? I am already dismayed at how trivial I found the "adventures" of K&C. Joe escapes Nazi Europe on the eve of the Holocaust and becomes a successful comic book artist (and wealthy) almost immediately upon his arrival in Brooklyn and almost as quickly finds true love. He suffers a single tragedy during the ensuing war years (not trivial, but relatively small compared to millions of other Holocaust and war experiences). He escapes the worst of the war despite a difficult experience in Antarctica that is written to be symbolic more than anything else. Yet he goes off the deep end as a result before coming back to his senses.
So in a follow up, what? Tommy comes of age in the 60s, goes to Hollywood to be with his adoptive dad Sammy, who casts him in one huge hit after another, making him the most famous actor in the world. But he drowns in guilt about leaving his birth dad Joe behind after Joe is knocked into a coma during an anti-war rally in DC. But then Joe wakes up ten years later and claims his coma was his greatest escape trick ever, saving him the angst of living through the Silver Age of Comic Books and The Archies scoring a big top 40 hit with Sugar Sugar. That's good for 747 pages.
I found that the sections relating to the contents of K&C's comics were, head-scratchingly, relayed with little visual flair, especially curious since Kavalier, the more creative member of the duo (and the more interesting character) was the artist. I cannot fathom that whole Luna Moth thing -- Chabon keeps dropping moth references ("the moth light" ???) through this section, then totally abandons the conceit without ever completing the metaphor.
Then there is the chapter where K&C argue at long length with their bosses for a better deal. No matter the outcome, that could have been a paragraph, maybe a page, but not a chapter. Yet it is rendered completely pointless when it is resolved by deus ex machina -- having been hemmed into a choice between money or artistic control, the sudden unforeseen emergence of a lawsuit allows them have their cake and eat it too. Even more curiously, the moral dilemma of having to commit a minor crime to realize that result is left completely unexplored. Indeed, Chabon often drones on through long passages in long chapters with unnecessary material only to end with an abrupt one-liner that is sometimes never explored in any depth, even though that becomes the very heart of the matter.
Sammy, meanwhile, despite co-billing with Joe in the title and in life, is really the sidekick he always wanted to be. His biggest trial in life is handled artlessly, despite the back-to-back-to-back run-on sentences in the hundred-word range that are used to circle the issue without ever really getting serious about it. I'd like to back this up with examples, but that is almost impossible without major spoilers -- so suffice it to say that when Sammy harks back to scientist Nikola Tesla in one section or to Batman in a later section, he comes off as improbably clueless.
Farm girl, voracious reader, lover of wine & whiskey.
I might. I know for good reason a lot of people that are not me really love this book. I am a BA, MA English graduate and I feel slightly guilty for not enjoying it more than I did. It's certainly well-written and the characters well crafted. I personally, though, just never really fell in love with the book. I found myself anxious for the book to be over so I could start reading something else. There were bits and pieces that moved me and I will always remember, but I can't say that for the book as a whole.
This is a beautifully written novel with very human characters who are brilliantly brought to life in this audio production. The heading for my review, 'masterpiece,' says it all though. Having listened to well over 200 audio titles, this is one of my top five.
Colacci could have used better voices. Some of the accents were thick and the reading was stiff, and I disliked the voices he used for the women and a gay character, Tracy Bacon. It didn't seem like what the character should sound like, and was a little insultingly faye.
A lot of things happen that are improbable and almost sadistic towards the characters. A long line of improbably awful things happen without much to counterbalance it, and it becomes a chore to read. Additionally, as a comics fan I just sat there and felt annoyed because the characters were being lauded for being the "first" people to do things with comics that Jack Kirby and Will Eisner did, and it felt like bad forties fanfiction.
Additionally, this might have been meant to be a reflection of the writing of the time, but female characters were distressingly hard to come by. The only two prominent women are one character's mother and another's girlfriend, with unnecessary sexual details given about both. They barely existed outside of their attachments to the men in their lives, and never spoke to other women.
Possibly. His narration is a bit dry, and I wasn't crazy about the way he did some of the voices, but I wouldn't forgo an audiobook just because he was narrating.
I am sure I would have liked this story, the premise sounded great, but after 23 minutes of every piece of dialogue ending with said I just couldn't stand it any more. If that doesn't worry you, give it a go.
This is a beautifully written, richly imagined story that ties in real world historical events into to the fictitious world that the characters live in. The relationships between Joe and Sam, between Joe and ROsa, and between Sam and Tracy are complex and dynamic thins that kept me hooked. I absolutely loved this book and was thrilled when I saw that Audible finally had an unabridged version of it.
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson
Other than being way too long, this was a pretty good book! I really like the ending and felt a great affection for the characters by then. The writing was terrific. Chabon's is great at characterization. His use of imagery is fantastic, as evidenced by this passage about Rosa's letters to Joe after he left her.
"(Joe)... took out the thick sheaf of letters that he had received from Rosa after his enlistment at the end of 1941. The letters had followed him, irregularly but steadily, from basic training at Newport, Rhode Island, to the navy's polar training station at Thule, Greenland, to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he had spent the fall of 1943 as the Kelvinator mission was assembled. After that, as no reply from their addressee was ever forthcoming, there had been no more letters. Her correspondence had been like the pumping of a heart into a severed artery, wild and incessant at first, then slowing with a kind of muscular reluctance to a stream that became a trickle and finally ceased; the heart had stopped."
The history of comic books in America was interesting, and I liked the way he connected a variety of themes to that history. Mostly, these themes centered on the idea of ESCAPE. For example, Chabon showed Sammy and Joe working tirelessly for the Jews' escape from Hitler's bondage in their "The Escapist" comic books, Sammy finding himself and beginning to escape the bonds of America's prejudices toward gays, and Joe escaping from his "survivor guilt" after his immigration to America as well as working for his little brother's escape from Prague, and also Joe's escape from Rosa after what happens to Tommy.
Chabon showed a caustic sense of humor, too. For example when the name of the bedroom assigned to the gay lovers is revealed as "Ramcock." There were lots more examples, and I chuckled out loud quite a few times.
I felt so touched by the close bonds between the main characters at the end and they way they dealt with the way their lives had unfolded. I just wish Chabon had left out the whole episode of Joe enlisting in the Navy and traveling to Antarctica. That was over the top and way too drawn out. Other episodes could have been edited out or cut down as well, and then the book would have made a bigger impact. (You're probably thinking the same thing about this review, if you got this far :)
So glad to find this unabridged version of Kavalier and Clay. I read the novel several years ago and loved it then. The narration is excellent.
English major. Love to read
Somehow I wasn't paying attention when people were reading this book and raving about it. Now that I have read it, many of my literary friends are looking at me and saying -- "of course I have read it, it's fabulous!" My silly response is "why didn't you tell me?" I think this all points to the fact that I truly love reading a book that takes me somewhere else. whose words I relish over and over and whose characters I just simply miss at the end of the reading. This is such a story - not to be missed. As a matter of fact, just download it now because you won't be disappointed.
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