"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

This is the first book I picked up after finishing my master's and moving back to California (hence the long absence from this blog!). I've been wanting to read this for a while, especially since I saw Chabon talk about his new book last fall. He was very cool and funny in person, so I've been looking forward to picking up one of his books. And I wasn't disappointed. In fact, this book is pretty amazing (as the title suggests), as a historical novel, a story about storytelling, and an American epic, three genres that interest me a lot.

The book is about two young Jewish cousins (one American, one Czech) who are part of the invention and huge surge of superhero comic books in New York during WWII. That most of the creators of those comics were Jewish is historically accurate, and although the characters and their comic were invented by Chabon, he peppers the novel with footnotes and at times uses present-tense, retrospective narration to suggest that everything he describes actually happened. This effect is so well-done that I had to go online to make sure none of it was real! In the tradition of the best historical novels, Chabon weaves a compelling, personal, fictional story out of an equally compelling historical reality, drawing links between the comic books and the war as well as the society of WWII New York.

In addition to being a brilliant historical novel, this is also a wonderful tribute to the comic book form. Chabon is uncannily good at describing the visual effect of a comic book illustration. The passages describing panels of the books his characters are creating are just stunning. (Actually, in general, Chabon's prose is stunning, with long, long sentences dragging the reader along so that you're torn between stopping to appreciate the beautiful convolutions of his writing and racing ahead to find out the next reveal in the plot.)

Even as someone who doesn't read comics, though, I found the book's portrayal of difficult lives made meaningful by storytelling really compelling. The main characters are all artists and storytellers, and their relationship to their creativity changes over the course of the novel and over the course of the war in sometimes tragic, sometimes really uplifting ways. In college, I studied some post-war German poetry and read about the kind of creative numbness that followed the war. This book portrays the complexity of various characters' reactions to the traumas of the war, whether is inspires or destroys their creative impulses.

In doing so, it bridges the reactions of Europe and America. By having one of the characters arrive in New York from Prague at the beginning of the war, Chabon ensures that the threat of the war and especially the Holocaust are never far from our minds. He portrays the first superheros as a product of American and European Jewish communities and cultures meeting, and offers a more nuanced vision of some of America's strongest myths.

The book is a bit of an epic myth itself - although it only covers about ten or fifteen years, they are some of the most traumatic and important years of 20th century history, so it feels much longer. I started to get a bit nervous about the ending as the characters aged, separated, and reunited, because I tend not to like epilogue-type endings that close off the story a few years down the line. But Chabon succeeded in rounding off his story without closing it down. In the end, he leaves things open and fairly hopeful, but not unrealistically so...But no spoilers! You must go read it yourself, and I recommend you do. Personally, I'm looking forward to discovering more of Chabon's work.

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