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Literary Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Published on February 27th, 2016 at 02:09 am

By William Higgins

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Oakland-based author Michael Chabon is the expansive and epic winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. The entertaining story is nominally about the cousins Sammy Clay (née Klayman) and Josef Kavalier as they try to make it in the New York City comic book industry between the ‘30s and ‘50s. Written in the somewhat bombastic, totally dynamic, and always wordy prose, the novel is reminiscent in style of the classic pulps from the period in which int he story is set. The traditional male bildungsroman, told with the ornate pulp style makes the novel’s story seem almost canned at first glance, retread ground.

However, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay eschews these presumptions that the story and voice might bring. Written around the same time as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Chabon follows suit and makes his magnum opus an overflowing, encyclopedic volume, complete with footnotes (both fictional and real) and multiple asides on subjects ranging from Jewish mysticism to surrealistic art. Moreover, Chabon makes his work relative and important by telling the stories of gay men coming out, Jewish immigrants adapting to American life, and women on the eve of the modern feminist movement. By adding highbrow literary elements to his novel, Chabon puts forward an argument for a position he has held for most of his career, that traditional “genre” forms are no less valid mediums for highbrow themes. By amplifying the voices of people who have not been well-represented in art and literature, Chabon makes a connection between art and the real word, linking the validation of minorities voices and experiences with the validation of artistic mediums.

Chabon has created a plot-driven and stylistic masterpiece with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that covers several decades fairly comprehensibly, picking up issues that have not been covered in previous iterations of genre-fiction. His style of writing is ornate, with arabesques of detail curling off of nearly every sentence. This style, while pleasing to read, somewhat undercuts the strength of the novel’s narrative. By spending so much time going on these Dickensian excursions, Chabon does sometimes slow down his narrative’s momentum.

While it is clear what Chabon is trying to do by making a very literary book using genre language, a style that calls to mind writers like Dickens and Chandler who were originally considered “pop” writers before they entered the canon, it seems that he could have conveyed his argument about the validity of genre-writing as a medium without employing such elaborate prose. The main strength of the novel is Chabon’s ability to create humanistic characters and plots in a time dominated by colder, more theoretical postmodern texts. The prose can distract from both the plot and the characters, and actually forces the reader to go back several sentences, even paragraphs at times, to get back to the start of the digression in order to understand what is happening in the action. Chabon probably could have argued his point more effectively by staying closer to the story and eschewing pulp tropes in his own story.

Where Chabon is at his worst is in his representation of women. In a story that depicts various minorities that have been and still are prejudiced against such as homosexuals and Jews as well as creates a cast of colorful and real characters, Chabon’s women fall flat. To start with, there are only three who play a major role in the novel’s story. Of these their roles are mother, housekeeper, and a kind of proto-manic- pixie-dream-girl. For such an expansive novel that has such a humanistic touch, it is puzzling that Chabon would leave his few female characters so poorly sketched out. The major improvement that he could have made to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay would have been to add more female characters and to make them more real feeling.

Though this is a troubling aspect of the novel, it might not infringe too much on the reader’s ability to enjoy the novel. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a novel that tries to validate genre-writing through its plot, style, and subject matter. However, in this regard, its most effective argument may be just to let the reader enjoy the book. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of those “serious” novels that can remind people how fun unadulterated reading can be, reading without analysis. The novel has a plot that carries through to the end with an exponentially growing pile of emotions, the characters (with some exceptions) are expertly drawn, and the prose, while flamboyant in spots, does have the same joy that a run on Joycean sentence can bring. Chabon wanted to argue why genre-fiction, plotted-fiction is valid. The best argument he has is the pure enjoyment readers can derive from his novel.