“Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.”
Once in a blue moon, a novel comes along that is so epically epic that it almost can’t contain itself. It spills over its edges and runs off the rails and either falls flat on its face or crashes into the side of a mountain. Either way, it is an utter failure.
Some of the Pulitzers Joshua and I have encountered during this project, I think, suffered from this—they simply collapsed under the weight of themselves. Angle of Repose and Lonesome Dove certainly come to mind. Then there are mammoth epics that get it perfectly right: The Grapes of Wrath, American Pastoral, Gone with the Wind…
Then there are books that actively try to be epic in scope, in which the author is just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what will stick. When this is the case, many times, the author fails miserably and the book results in becoming a parody of itself.
With Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer-winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the reader gets a jaunty, jangly novel that flirts with epicness, weeble-wobbles, and teeter-totters, but never falls down. This is a clumsy book that tries way too hard to impress in some places and is naturally amazing in others.
Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America—the comic book.
That’s all great. When Chabon is writing about the comic books, this book is incredible. But then Chabon goes a little overboard, and Joe and Sammy are suddenly attending black-tie dinner affairs with Salvador Dali; then Sammy goes off to the Arctic and becomes a military man, then he comes back to the States and he suddenly is The Escapist (their comic book character), then he decides he’s gay… Whoa, whoa, whoa there, Michael Chabon—let’s rein it in a bit, shall we?
To keep with this book’s comic book theme, I’ll describe it this way: the first half of the book effortlessly leaps over tall buildings in a single bound, like Superman; the second half of the book leaps over tall buildings like Superman with a few villains hanging onto his legs holding him down to earth. While the story is great and the plot is original, the writing is exhausting and it’s a real test of strength to plow through the incredibly dense sentences.
Chabon is an incredible writer, but he knows it. And let me tell you something—he wrote the shit out of this book. He wrote this book like the fate of all mankind depended on it. Despite its awkwardness and clumsiness, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay matches its title—it’s an amazing story; one that I’d highly recommend to just about anybody. That recommendation comes with an asterisk, though—this book will run you down and wear you out.