The Short Version: It’s 1939 when Joe Kavalier arrives on the Brooklyn doorstep of his cousin Sammy Klayman, freshly escaped from Prague. The two dreamers cook up an idea for a comic book character – the Escapist – whose adventures will take them through the Second World War, bringing them adventures of their own along the way.
The Review: This is one of those books that I’m a little ashamed to have only just gotten around to. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a great New York novel, Chabon’s greatest novel… it’s staggering that I didn’t get to it sooner (although it ended up being a perfect match for the thirtieth installment of my BookClub so I guess I can’t complain).
And, by and large, this is a novel that does exactly what you want novels to do. It is transportative, whisking the reader away to a New York City that was still in awe of the less-than-a-decade-old Empire State Building, a Prague where the idea of the Golem could still inspire hope, and a world not quite ready to go to war again. Chabon does exceptional work here, making a world that we’ve all read about again and again (New York in the late 30s/early 40s) seem fresh and exciting, as though you’re visiting that era for the very first time. The characters walk that delightful line between realism and Central Casting stock roles, evoking the realities of a time that we (in the present) tend to think of with outsized caricatures: Rosa, Sheldon Anapol, Tracy Bacon, even Joe and Sammy… they all fit right alongside the real people who make appearances in the narrative, larger-than-life individuals like Houdini, Salvador Dali, and Orson Welles. Chabon is able to evoke the grandiose memories of that age while rooting the story in the much-more-likely realities of everyday life in any era. In this, the book is a delight.
Speaking of realities and delights, the absolute best part of the novel is the partnership between Joe and Sammy and the creations that spring forth from it. The Escapist, Luna Moth, the Saboteur… they all feel like comic characters we could have celebrated right alongside Superman – and to watch Joe and Sammy in their rush of creation is nothing short of inspiring. Chabon makes you smell the cigarettes and coffee as they stay up for several days on end, churning out brilliant dreams. It’s a neat trick, to describe a comic book and not make you feel like you’d rather read the real thing – which is not to say that I wouldn’t, I would’ve loved to read each actual issue that’s described in this book… but I didn’t mind not reading those issues, because Chabon conjured them for me with the care and craft of a true fan. Delightfully, it seems like Chabon genuinely adores his own creations and you get the sense that he, too, wishes he could stumble across Radio Comics #19 somewhere in a garage sale or something. Even as he lifts story points from the lives of the real comic book greats (many of whom have wonderful cameos in the back half of the novel, including Jack Kirby and Stan Lee), he makes us believe that it was the storytelling of Sammy Clay and the boundary-smashing art of Joe Kavalier that pushed comics from the pulps into a widely beloved art form. Read the chapter following their viewing of Citizen Kane and tell me you aren’t lost in raptures of imagination; I won’t believe you even if you do.
The thing that deflates the high-flying wonder of the novel’s first two-thirds – the Kryptonite of the book as well as of the world that Chabon is portraying – is of course the Second World War. It was an unavoidable development and credit must be given to how Chabon dances around the major moments of 1941 (as well as the war at large): when Joe gives a performance on December 6th 1941, we expect it to be memorable because of what happens the next day – an expectation that Chabon subverts. Joe’s service in the war, too, is not terribly exciting: he’s not slogging through the trenches in France but instead posted down in Antarctica. All of this provides an interesting twist on the typical WWII novel, but somewhere along the way the joy begins to leak out of the novel a bit. By the time we hit the final part of the book, “The League of the Golden Key”, adulthood has leached out much of the joy of the comics and the adventures of the Escapist. Even the hope of a revival of sorts, of the reality of a superhero, is purposefully deflated and made a little ridiculous. Real life has intruded into the manic creativity of these not-so-young-anymore people and reduced them largely to much more ordinary individuals.
This is not a bad thing, necessarily – in fact, I think it’s a logical and interesting development – but Chabon’s electric writing loses some of its sizzle in the downhill slide after 1941. The difference between the imaginary superheroes and the very-real people who create them is shown in stark relief, making the last 200-or-so pages a bit of a drag. They don’t start out that way, I should say; while I thought that Joe’s time in Antarctica could’ve been shorter, I have to give credit for it still being some thrilling reading. But the mundanity of the post-war story as well as its rather soapy (as opposed to pulpy) conclusion made me shrug – and to see, in the addendums to my paperback copy, Chabon discussing the possibility of a sequel… I wondered how on Earth a sequel to this book could work. If the book had ended perhaps at the end of the war, then sure. But by the end of the book, I felt all too satisfied and was quite ready to move along. I, too, wish there were more adventures of the Escapist and more tales of our fictional dynamic duo… but Chabon goes out of his way to bring the extraordinary back into the realm of the altogether-too-ordinary by the end of the book. Perhaps that was his goal – and I can’t fault him for it, either way. But compared to the brilliance of the early going, the ending made me a little weary.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. It’s a tough task to make the late 30s feel new, but Chabon does it with panache to spare: there’s magic in this book, both literally and figuratively. Kavalier and Clay, both as men and as creators, feel fully realized and their creations are depicted with nothing short of adoration – it is a thrill to watch them work and to imagine both their real-life stories and the stories they’re creating. If that electric excitement fades by the end of the book, I suppose it can be chalked up to the fact that the electricity of the late 30s faded after the end of the war. We see it in Joe’s slowly flagging passion for the fight: fighting can drain you in ways that never fill you up again, whereas creativity can always be replenished. But even a slow last 150 pages can’t diminish the excitement and energy of the early going.