Monday, November 23, 2009

Cannonball Read Book 2: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

It's hard to know where to start with Michael Chabon's sprawling, multi-faceted epic centering on two Jewish cousins living in 1940's New York City.  The book covers multiple themes, including hope, sacrifice, redemption, misplaced guilt, and revenge, introduces us to a multitude of characters (some fictionalized versions of real people), and takes us from a working class neighborhood, thru wealth and fame, then down to Antarctica (!!!), then to suburban, post-war America.  While Chabon can be a touch pedantic, he redeems himself through the creation of his main characters, Sam Clay, Joe Kavalier, and Rosa Sax, discussing them with such detail and insight that they feel less like book characters than actual acquaintances by the end of the story.

Having many friends who are crazy about Chabon, I want to make clear that I did enjoy the book.  Very much, in fact.  However, I'll admit I also had a few problems with his writing.  Chabon can be a touch long winded, and yes, pedantic at times.  He takes what sometimes feels like self-indulgent glee in interrupting the narrative with rambling sections of exposition detailing the culture of comics at the time, or New York, or Europe of that era.  While these sections, written in a charmingly academic tone, do much to breathe life into cultures many readers only know through history textbooks, there were times I caught myself skimming.  Chabon loves listing things, especially comic book titles, and his lists can take up over half a page written in paragraph form.  While he peppers his narrative with mention of actual films, artists, comic books, and movie stars of the time, he intermingles them teasingly with briefly-mentioned characters and titles of his own imagining.  It almost feels taunting at times, as if Chabon is dropping a trail of bread crumbs leading to his bibliography.

As annoying as this can be, the author more than makes up for it with the story itself.  It's difficult to summarize without giving away plot points, which I do not wish to do here.  One of the chief joys of reading this was to approach it from a state of total ignorance and let the story unfold, leading me by the hand through the lives of its characters.  Sam, Joe, and Rosa are each endearing and sympathetic in their own way.  Imaginative and big-hearted, Sam struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality in a time where men who shared his orientation were commonly beaten, sexually assaulted, and "disappeared" by homophobes in positions of power.  The dreamy and impossibly clever Joe, having escaped Nazi occupation, struggles with the guilt of having left his family behind.  In addition, he both clings to and fears the impulse to hope for their safe escape from Europe.  The beautiful and insightful Rosa, loving both men in different ways, provides a grounding, nurturing presence in their lives, struggling to balance her tremendous capacity for love with a strong desire for autonomy and independent purpose.

Through his work, Chabon makes clear his love for imagination, creativity, and especially writing itself.  Using the characters' thoughts as a voice, he speaks to his readers of the joys of creation as well as the frustrations of building a livelihood from it.  He discusses unrequited love, family, the nobility of self-sacrifice, and the occasional need for blatant selfishness.  I'd certainly be interested in reading more of Chabon's work in the future, but probably not on a tight deadline.  Like a fine whiskey, he's the kind of writer to be enjoyed slowly. In trying to knock him back in rapid gulps, I couldn't help but feel like I was missing the finer points in my intoxicated, giddy haze.

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