Rating - 3.5: worth reading, parts worth re-reading (borrow or buy it)
[Update: upon reflection, and now that I am using the *.5 ratings for books that are worth reading/re-reading in part, this has been downgraded to a 3.5, for reasons explained in the original review.]
After having read many shorter and easier works lately, I regarded 636 pages of Pulitzer Prize-winning literature with hesitation. "This had better be good to be worth it," I thought. By page 4, I knew I would rate it at least a 3. It is very well written and very worth reading.
Josef Kavalier escaped Prague at the beginning of the second World War, landing in New York City with his cousin, Sam Clay. Together, they create a comic book hero, The Escapist, who shatters the bonds of tyranny wherever they might be found. The comics provide a venue for the creative compulsions both characters feel and the resources needed for further escapes, whether bringing family members out of German-controlled lands or moving out of the tenements of Brooklyn. Is escapism such a bad thing when even a love-filled life happens in a world filled with troubles?
Kavalier and Clay is a remarkable thing: a book worth reading both for each individual chapter as well as a whole. In so many books, you put up with something to get to the better parts, or it contains moments of brilliance that do not add up to something greater, or it otherwise does not cohere as a whole. It is striking that Kavalier and Clay starts with great writing and continues to be great. I need more ways to say this so that I can dwell on it further. You feel the quality at every point.
Joe is our primary character, and the presentation of his life is a study in how to show suffering without making the audience suffer. You can feel for Joe, but you need not despair yourself, nor ask yourself, "Why am I putting myself through this?" Joe is a portrait of both liberation and self-destruction, by turns or at once, and he is a pleasure to follow. He is the artist of the pair: he says relatively little, but he clearly draws a picture of a sense of life.
Sam is very much a sidekick, the same sidekicks that he gives to each of his comic heroes. He is the writer with an endless supply of stories to tell, someone who sees and feels the world while remaining apart from or subordinate to it. He has dreams and wishes, some of which can come true, but much of which leads to desperation as life does not live up to his dreams. Joe acts upon his feelings, giving them form the way he forms characters on the page; Sam lives with his feelings, supressing or despairing for them. His stories come from within, and Sam seems trapped within himself.
In passing, I note that a bisexual author is well suited to this tale. That feels completely backwards, as this story came from within Chabon instead of him finding it from the ether, but I do not know that any other sort of author could so effectively describe the relationships and emotions within. Yes, that is kind of a spoiler, but not a surprising one if you know of the author.
I want to say something about Rosa Saks, our next leading character, but I am not sure that I have much to say. She is an enjoyable character with an important role, and we certainly get a sense of her, but we do not delve into her the way we do our paired protagonists. Are we reading into her or projecting upon her? Her life is also "by turns or at once," a dreamy realist who can be a surrealist painter or a model housewife. When she becomes more central to the story, we seem to view her more and more distantly, from the outside via half-comprehending characters.
Kavalier and Clay includes all kinds of magic, without entering into magical realism. Joe is a trained stage magician, who learns early on the dangers of a failed escape. Unlikely events stack upon one another at points, but such things are known to happen, and why would we be hearing the story of an unexceptional case at any rate? The most obvious magic is that we meet the Golem early on, a surreal notion if ever there was one. "This is a story about two kids in New York who write comic books...and one of them escaped Prague with the Golem? Seriously?" It works. We also know that stage magic works because you know it is fake, you know you are being tricked. Failed magic is deeply disappointing, in all its forms.
There is a great bit on the importance of escapism in literature, through the medium of comics through the medium of a novel, as it were. We are following Joe at the time, so it is not really a speech, but the expounding of the value of escapism is perhaps the best page in the book.
Not all of the book is as strong as my first paragraphs imply. Two-thirds of it is excellent, but the last third is not of the same quality. We spend Part V deep in Joe's suffering, in an isolated and personal sense not expressed before. The world is bleak, the reader suffers, and the story descends into a dark place it could have avoided. The writing is still excellent, but the story is not as good.
Part VI is incomplete. The books does not conclude -- it ends. We return to a more hastily sketched world in Part VI. Where a line might have been suggestive earlier, it is hazy here. We are given hints at things never explained at all, as if to point out that there is something there if only the author had time to deal with it. Thomas's character is solid but not as satisfactory as the others; where Rosa seems to have hidden depths of meaning, Thomas seems an intentionally or accidentally shallow character (not a shallow person; there is no there there). Our ending is like the set-up for the next chapter, without pointing in any particular direction at all. It is as if Chabon felt the need to tell the further lives of the characters but did not fully carry it through. The author's vision seems unrealized, although given Part VI's content, this could be an object lesson.
Part I-IV are definitely a 4. They are a joy to read in part and in a whole, each paragraph and chaper, and they build successfully into a coherent Part. Part V is a 3, worth reading as quality writing but lacking as a story you would want to re-read. Part VI might be a 2, of value mostly as an indication of where the author saw these characters going after the story fell off at the end of Part IV. It is just not as successful as the earlier writing.
But don't take that as your concluding sentence. Re-read the bits about how great the writing is and how really worth reading every page is. Then go buy the book.
Amazon link (Hardcover about $0.59 more)
There are also some actual Escapist comics, now in three collected volumes. I read the first before I read Kavalier and Clay, and perhaps I should re-read that with better perspective.