Kavalier and Clay

by Harry on January 5, 2007

I just finished reading ,The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (UK) and want to recommend it to everyone else who is several years behind the curve. (My next review will be of a book that has today as its publication date, honest). Before Daniel rolls his eyes about “bloody Marvel comics” I should say that initially I had no intention of reading it. Chabon is compared on the sleeve with Cheever and Nabokov, neither of whom I have read; there is no indication of any murders in it, or English detectives solving them; and even I find the idea of a novel about people writing comics slightly silly. What prompted me to read it was the enthusiasm of my wife, a person who holds comics in the kind of contempt that people with a sense of humour reserve for the “humour” pages of Reader’s Digest. (My daughter and I finally made her read some Tintin and Asterix a year or so ago, at which point she relented slightly, but only with regard to French and Belgian comics). And she was right, Kavalier and Clay is a wonderful novel. The central characters (surprisingly enough called Kavalier and Clay) are both realistically drawn – Kavalier is a brilliant obsessive who lives mostly in his head, escapes pre-war Czechoslovakia in a coffin and, once in New York is drawn into the comic business by his cousin, Clay, right in the middle of the golden age. He is determined to bring his family to join him, and, like Clay (who idolizes him) determined somehow to bring America into the war. Their great creation, The Escapist, seems to be loosely modeled on the radio serial character Chandu the Magician. Its hard to say much more without giving too much away, but there are really five central characters, all of them lovingly drawn – Kavalier, Clay, the bohemian girl Rosa Saks with whom both of them become involved, a long-dead New York City, and the world of the comic book production team. Though long, its moves at a fast pace, and I think what I liked best about the novel was the good-heartedness of the author – all the central characters and most of the supporters are flawed but decent people, and none the less interesting for that. I guess I’ll have to read his novel with the word “mysteries” in the title, even though it doesn’t seem to involve any murders, unfortunately…



Jamie 01.05.07 at 3:19 pm

Actually, your more obvious next choice is The Final Solution, which is in fact a mystery and has an English detective, though it’s, uh, hmm. I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s a bit ‘meta’. It’s very short, anyway.


JRoth 01.05.07 at 3:28 pm

Mysteries of Pittsburgh is delightful, albeit in a first novel sort of way – the lead character is so obviously alter-Chabon it’s sometimes funny – but it captures a lot of human spirit in the same way K&C does.

They’ve just made a movie of it, so you might want to read it soon, then see the movie, as it was shot on location and will help fill in some of the geography (parts of which are central to the story, or at least the mood).


Eugene Marshall 01.05.07 at 3:30 pm

Now that is a bizarre coincidence. Amazingly (ha), I just completed this novel 30 minutes ago! (Really. I’m not kidding.) Having been a comics reader as a youngster, I expected it to appeal to my childhood comics-related nostalgia. Though it occasionally moved in that direction, I found it to be more profound and universally human than that. I’d second the recommendation.


Maurice Meilleur 01.05.07 at 3:44 pm

Let me plug Wonder Boys, too — not the movie, which was fun enough (and has a great cast), but Chabon’s book, which is an order of magnitude better.


J. Ellenberg 01.05.07 at 4:23 pm

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is terrific, probably his best. Whether you will find thoroughgoing good-heartedness there I’m not sure.


gmoke 01.05.07 at 4:39 pm

I thought the characters were a little cardboard but it was entertaining and really picked up some of the unspoken threads in mid-20th century USA.

“The Escapist” has actually become a real comic book character published by Dark Horse.

Other comics creators you might want to try out on your wife – Art Spiegelman’s _Maus_, Will Eisner’s _Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood_ which I would like to see as required reading for all architects, and _Ethel & Ernest_ by Raymond Briggs. Not a superhero among them but brilliant storytelling all the way.

And historically, there are Winsor McKay’s _Little Nemo_ and George Herriman’s _Krazy Kat_. Two different versions of surrealism for the Sunday funnies. McKay was also a pioneer of animation and his cartoons are well worth watching.


LizardBreath 01.05.07 at 5:36 pm

I liked it, but thought it fell apart structurally after the temporal break-point (to be as clear as possible without spoilers). Everything after that felt to me like “And then they all lived happily, albeit improbably, ever after.)


matt w 01.05.07 at 5:40 pm

Another comic that might convert the Mrs. is Craig Thompson’s Blankets–a simple, well-crafted coming-of-age tale about first love. It is devoid of musclemen in tights and takes place in Wisconsin. My wife–who I think finds my predilection for comics a bit strange and juvenile–thoroughly enjoyed it.

There’s also Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, which is brilliant, but a bit on the dense side.


Matt Weiner 01.05.07 at 6:05 pm

If you’re worried about lack of plot you might want to go with Wonder Boys before Mysteries, which is pretty meandering in its first-novelliness (IIRC). Wonder Boys‘ plot kept me turning the pages. It reminded me of Lucky Jim as written by the later K. Amis (not as great as Lucky Jim, of course).

This thread reminds me that I’m thinking of writing a romantic comedy screenplay with this plot:
A young actress used to a glitzy life insults the unglamorous city where she’s filming a movie.
The equally young accidental mayor says that the problem is “she needs to get out with us regular folks.”
So to repair the PR damage the actress decides to let the mayor show her around town.

But I need a better title than Mysteries of Shitsburgh.

(I hope at least jroth enjoyed that. Thanks for lending the space.)


vivian 01.05.07 at 9:48 pm

I’ve picked it up a few times and then put it back, but now that you all have approved, I’ll give it a try next time.


JRoth 01.05.07 at 10:01 pm

Yes, I did. Thanks, Matt.


Matt Weiner 01.05.07 at 10:23 pm

Aw shucks. BTW I think the movie drops one of the main characters in a way that has to change the plot in a big way, and doesn’t include perhaps the most famous bit of local geography (the Cloud Factory).


radek 01.05.07 at 10:32 pm

More comics for the wife: the Hernandez brothers! Heartbreak Soup, Love and Rockets, etc. etc.


Dan Simon 01.06.07 at 1:40 am

I got about halfway through Kavalier before giving up. The characters are thinner and stiffer than cardboard, and strike me as wildly anachronistic. The (straight) relationships are also consistently portrayed as cold and empty–not all that uncommon for gay-themed material, actually, but if you’re going to spend at least half the book on the straight characters and their romances, it makes for a pretty unsatisfying reading experience.


leonard 01.06.07 at 2:48 am

I echo the “Blankets” recommendation. It’s fantastic. Possibly breaks into my top 10 favorite works of literature. Possibly.


novakant 01.06.07 at 5:18 am

I read Kavalier and Clay this summer and, while there are some structural problems towards the last third of the book, found it to be very entertaining. I also have very fond memories of reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when it came out, but then my judgement might have been slightly clouded by youthful over-identification with the hero (no, I’m not bisexual and my father wasn’t in the mafia and I’ve never been to Pittsburgh). Both books are great movie material, actually I think they might work better as a movie than a novel, so I’m hoping they’ll pull it off.


Glorious Godfrey 01.06.07 at 7:01 am

Hah! Time to impersonate a comics connoisseur and sound like a total dick.

“Blankets” is OK. It pulls off the emotional exhibitionism routine that is a staple of so many indies with unusual verve. I still find it a tad lightweight, though.

Under no circumstances should the purple wool be pulled over the wife´s eyes, i.e. if somebody recommends “Sandman” as a wife-friendly comic tell him or her to fuck off.

Word on the Jimmy Corrigan caveat above. For a desolate comic that delivers its punch with great economy of means, try Hornschemeier´s “Mother, come home”.

Not unlike “Maus”, Keiji Nakazawa´s sprawling “Barefoot Gen”, a reflection of the author´s harrowing experience in Hiroshima, is a comic made indispensable by the gravity of its subject-matter. Actually, it can be easily argued that its storytelling choices are more felicitous than those of Maus. That is, not all the folks who have a hard time getting their heads around the whole mice/cats/dogs/pigs thing that “Maus” has going on are necessarily dense.

The wife needs to get in on the Danny Clowes love. You get extra condescending phallocrat style points if you use “Ghost World” as gateway drug cause it´s about two teenage girls.

I bought “Black Hole” by Charles Burns after stumbling upon a few glowing reviews. Haven´t got around to reading it yet, though.

Blow the wife´s mind with Jim Woodring´s “Frank”. Get´r done.

At the end of the day, what the wife and all other heathens need to understand is Teh Potential of Sequential Art (TM). This will cast the infinite tolerance towards crap of any comics fan worth his or her salt in a new, tragic, heroic light. Atlas will shrug and Jesus will weep.

You can try for example “Bardin the superrealist” by Francesc Capdevila aka “Max”. It meets all the requisite conditions, like being ambitious, displaying impeccable, beautiful, masterful storytelling, and –most importantly– disappearing up its own rectum halfway through.


Russell Arben Fox 01.06.07 at 7:39 am

Must agree with Lizardbreath (#7): a fine novel, but one that falls apart once WWII arrives, leaning patently silly and surreal plot gimmicks to finish off the final years of the story. But Chabon’s descriptions of Kavalier and Clay’s early lives and loves, in 1930s-era New York City, are simply brilliant. The chapter where the two men react, through their comic work, to Citizen Kane is simply stupendous.


MaryLou 01.06.07 at 4:33 pm

For your wife – a great graphic novel/autobiography: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.


Glorious Godfrey 01.06.07 at 6:03 pm

I forgot those:

“Optic Nerve” by A. Tomine is no big shakes IMO, but it´s certainly not bad.

If the wife has shown some affinity for European comics, it´s likely that “Berlin”, an ongoing series by Jason Lutes, will be up her alley.

Marjane Satrapi´s stuff (Persepolis, Embroideries, etc.) should prove interesting. If the wife´s a terrorist-appeasing pinko, the tale of Satrapi´s life between Iran and the West will warm the cockles of her bleeding heart. If she´s a neoconette, well, know thine enemy and all that.


No, really.

I mean, Superman vs. Thor.


aa 01.10.07 at 12:18 am

Oh I never seen a book of
That ole jokester V. Nabokov
An I gotta say’m sevvul yeeers behind
(I’m so behind!)
Gonna take up Edmond Dantes
Then I’ll mebbee let Cervantes’
Donkey shoot up all the windmills of my mind.
#17. Went into Black Hole optimistically expecting to wallow in a surreal mudbath of adolescent angst and found my wallowing quotient rapidly exhausted. I think you had to be there.

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