The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.
The period leading up to World War II was the Age of Heroes in the United States. During this era, Americans were introduced to Buck Rogers (who first appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928), Dick Tracy (1931), Flash Gordon (1934), Roy Rogers (first film appearance in 1935), the Green Hornet (1936), The Phantom (1936), Superman (1938), Lassie (1938), Batman (1939) and Captain Marvel (1939). And then the real age of heroism began, with young American men going overseas to fight against the Axis powers, in a struggle that was perceived by the general public as a similarly unambiguous confrontation of good versus evil.
We should not be surprised, then, that Michael Chabon’s exploration of heroes and villains, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, should be set primarily during this same period. Much of the appeal of this fascinating book stems from Chabon’s ability to blend the sometimes heroic (or mock heroic) exploits of his characters with the feverish pop culture heroism of this period in American history. These different levels of heroism get hopelessly muddled in the course of the novel, but they never lose their charm. As Chabon realizes, even today we are all suckers for a story of truth, justice and the American way.
Not just his readers, but sometimes Chabon’s characters get confused between real and fictional heroism. Josef Kavalier, an exile from the Nazi occupation in his native Prague, arrives in New York in 1939 and soon finds himself enlisted by his Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay in a scheme to create a new comic book. Their hero, the Escapist, becomes a huge success, largely because he is the one caped crusader who is not offering mere escapism: current events permeate his adventures, and the first issue of the comic book stands out for its cover depicting the Escapist delivering a haymaker to Hitler’s mug.
Kavalier’s own life imitates, in eerie fashion, the comic book tales he illustrates. Early in his life, Kavalier had been an aspiring escape artist himself, and even performed with a mask. Later in the book he actually dons the costume of the Escapist in pathetic imitation of his imaginary alter ego. But he is a flawed superhero, capable of harming those he loves through his theatrical attempts at stylish exploits. But in other settings, Kavalier proves capable of true heroics, although without a cape and mask: he serves in World War II, and—in perhaps the strangest interlude in a book full of peculiar twists—single-handedly defends Antarctica against the Axis threat. On the home front, he engages in fisticuffs with the Nazi head of the Aryan-American League. And (all too fitting in this sometimes surreal novel) he rescues Salvador Dali from drowning . . . at a fashionable party. It is all too telling that the latter incident is one of the more straightforward moments in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
But Kavalier and Clay, for all their dramatic exploits, carry with them an aura of tragedy. Despite relentless efforts, Kavalier fails in his attempt to bring his brother Thomas to the United States, and out of the grasp of the Nazis. Indeed, one feels the heavy hand of fate throughout these pages. In their relationships with others—friends, lovers, associates—both Kavalier and Clay tend to let events guide them, with a passivity that is surprisingly out of step with the “Wham! Bang” theatrics they celebrate in their comic books.
Real and contrived heroes also dance around the periphery of this highly stylized, artfully written novel. The Old World golem becomes both a prototype for the Escapist, and an actual means of escape for Kavalier, in his labyrinthine journey to America. Even earlier Kavalier is mentored by Bernhard Kornblum, a real life escape artist who eventually saves his protégé's life. With so many strange ingredients mixed up in this tale, readers will hardly be surprised to learn that Clay’s father was known as the Mighty Molecule, and traveled around the country as a circus performer.
Chabon takes his multilayered story up to the Eisenhower era—a time when comic books came under increased scrutiny and attack. America had lost its innocence during the war, and now was suspicious of everything, even Superman and Batman. Kavalier and Clay can hardly hope to escape unscathed in this troubled age when the caped crusaders of yore are knocked down to size, and anti-heroes are in the ascendancy. History again intervenes in our story, and Clay is called upon to testify before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, where he is vilified and outed . . . and, in a strange way, also liberated.
Chabon maintains an impressive balancing act throughout this book. He manages to capture the flavor of pulp fiction, without its banality. He stuffs his novel with more plot twists than an old movie serial, but never loses the thread of his main story. He captures a surreal sense of fantasy, without abandoning the grounded History (with a capital H) of his narrative. And—yes!—he shows how flawed our heroes are, but lets us keep cheering them on as though they really could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Amazing adventures, indeed!