Sunday, 10 March 2013

Week Ten - Jeanette

The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Recommended by Lucy

‘That’s my favourite book’, said a barkeep to me in a Dalston pub.

‘It was recommended to me by a friend,’ I said.

‘Your friend has good taste.’

There’s no denying that my friend does have good taste. I was told I’d love Lucy before I even met her. And so I did: ridiculously knowledgeable about music and, moreover, deeply, joyfully, inspiringly enthusiastic about it. She runs her own music PR, and I can’t imagine a better person to shout an artist's praises.

But… erm… I didn’t share the Dalston barkeep’s opinion of The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay. I’m sorry, Lucy. Let me explain.

There’s a particular school of modern American writing that seriously doesn’t appeal to me. These are very well written books, usually with a man in his thirties or forties at the centre, and they’re about some kind of crisis in male identity, or a crisis in modern life, or a crisis in father-son relations, or a crisis in baseball. I generally stop reading them a third of the way in.

I dislike them mainly because they, and their authors, come across as pompous. No better example of this was when Jonathan Franzen had a pop at Oprah Winfrey for including The Corrections in her Book Club, as if she and her viewers (mainly women) were somehow not capable of understanding its highbrow literary merit. Fuck off, Franzen.

These books are in love with their own panache. You can smell it in the numerous metaphors and similes they over-employ. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay has all of these on the same page (p530):

      Grey light was smeared across the sky like ointment on a bandage.
The slow, dull, dark, submarine of the lives in which they were the human cargo had abruptly surfaced.

      Their blood was filled with a kind of crippling nitrogen of wonder.

Atop the concrete parapet of the eighty-sixth floor, like a bright jagged hole punched in the clouds, balanced a smiling man.

‘Hello,’ says Chabon, ‘don’t forget that you’re reading a very good book here!’

In some ways, it was a shame that I couldn’t get over my irritation at Chabon’s style, because I really like parts of the story, and some of the book’s themes. The action kicks off in the 1930s when Joe (or Josef, as he is at the beginning) flees Nazi-annexed Czechoslovakia for America, staying with Sam (his cousin) in Brooklyn. Joe and Sam, both in their late teens, strike up a deep friendship and creative partnership: Kavalier & Clay. Together they invent The Escapist, a phenomenally popular comic book superhero.

The second quarter of the book, when Joe and Sam become successful, was the best for me. I particularly enjoyed the debates over whether comic books, still a very young medium, could be considered art. There’s a wonderful chapter where Sam and Joe go to see Citizen Kane. Dazzled by the cinematic and narrative inventiveness of the movie, the pair vow that their work will ‘break free, forever, of the nine little boxes.’ Kavalier and Clay go on to chop up storyline, focus on ordinary people rather than superheroes, dislocate panels, play with perspective: they transform not only their own comics, but also the genre itself.

Another intriguing component, but less well developed by Chabon, is Joe’s ambivalence towards his new American home. Joe expresses his European Jewish identity in his comics. The Escapist’s primary foes are thinly disguised Nazis, something that occasionally gets Joe into trouble with his editor; but increasingly Joe himself worries about the way he characterizes the American superhero as ‘good’. In one passage, he questions whether the American might will eventually lead to that nation itself becoming a too-powerful oppressive force, springing up in the cut-off head of the Nazis. It would have been interesting to hear Joe’s thoughts on the iron curtain separating post-war Europe, and the American influence over the West, but we never do.

Another big problem I had with The Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay was its female characters, principally Rosa. Although she’s in this book a lot, she doesn’t do much more than act as a muse to Joe and a mother to her son. She cleans and cooks and wants to settle down. She’s an illustrator, yes, but in contrast to the way Chabon constantly stresses Joe’s genius, he has Rosa stuck at competent level (and more interested in baking cakes). While Chabon might argue that this represents woman’s status in the America of the 1940s and 1950s, I found much of it was unthinking prejudice on the part of the author, who simply doesn’t believe women are as interesting as men. Rosa is in telling contrast to the way in which Sam’s (male) lover is portrayed: he is full of passion, complexity and autonomy, even though he’s in the book for probably about a third of the time that Rosa is.

The Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer Prize and near-universal acclaim. I’m not saying I know better than they (or Lucy, or the barkeep in Dalston). Although I didn’t like it, I did read it through to the end as I promised I would for every Two Readers book. In doing that, I’ve found something valuable: I've articulated to myself, for the first time, what I find so difficult to enjoy in this type of American fiction.