Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000).

When this book was first released a dozen years ago, the nascent funnybook media and press reacted with blinking surprise. There's this serious novelist, Michael Chabon, and he's written a 700-page epic about two young cousins who invent a wildly successful character during the height of comics' Golden Age? In time, it would win a Pulitzer for fiction and inspire the creation of an actual comic book series, published by Dark Horse, which (if I understand correctly) "reprinted" classic adventures of this character. That's every bit as wonderful an idea as those Radioactive Man comics that the creators of The Simpsons will periodically release.

The novel is a great big sprawling epic that reminded me of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, only set over the course of a couple of decades. Josef Kavalier, newly arrived in America after a perilous and wild escape from Nazi-controlled Prague (and a high concept one, involving as it does a detailed search for the city's legendary Golem, with amusing results), finds refuge with his cousin Sam Clay, a big dreamer who works for a novelty gag company, Empire. Clay recognizes his cousin's amazing artwork and pitches a wild idea to his boss: why not climb on the coattails of National Comics' Superman and create a superhero to star in an all-new anthology book? And with the release of Amazing Midget Radio Comics # 1 in 1939, a legend is born... the legend of... the Escapist!

So over the course of the next twenty years, this saga continues, incorporating another Empire character, Luna Moth, and the gorgeous woman who draws her. There are fragments of a romance while war breaks out, and hints of the big merchandising money that enrages the owners of the Superman trademark into legal action. This being a Chabon novel, odds are better than average that some fellow's going to figure out that he's gay, and much of the narrative's emotional heft is going to be successful, or not, depending on how much of the relevant real-world history the reader has already absorbed before beginning.

I was unhappy with Chabon's decision to spread so much of the narrative out, feeling like I was missing important character moments that I wished to see. The ending didn't satisfy me, although it wasn't as egregious and throw-at-the-wall infuriating as Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Getting there is occasionally very pleasing and has a good gut-punch or three, but it still felt like I only got to ride about three-quarters of a roller coaster, with some of the wildest dips, loops, and barrel rolls kept from me. Recommended with reservations.

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