The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is something of a fantasy novel, but not in the usual sense of the phrase. There are no elves or dragons in this book. And yet, at its heart, the book is about the importance of magic and fantasy for their power to instill hope in the midst of suffering and loss.
Josef Kavalier dreams of escape from the harsh reality of Prague under the German occupation. A young Jew facing the rising shadow of fascism in Europe, Josef seeks a sense of empowerment and finds it under the tutelage Bernard Kornblum, a stage magician and ausbrecher—an escape artist. The story of Josef’s experiments in the art of liberation, including an ill-fated rehearsal in an icy river and culminating in his literal escape from Prague in the dead of night, is so vividly and perfectly realized that revealing too much about it would do the reader a disservice.
An ocean away, Josef’s cousin Sammy Klayman dreams of escape from the ordinariness of his life. An awkward, somewhat sickly Jewish kid growing up in New York, a city filled with thousands of kids like him, Sam has a sneaking suspicion that he is a person of no particular talent or distinction. He seeks refuge in science fiction and adventure stories. Sam dreams about life on distant planets, about daring heroes and secret hideouts and the promise of future technology—anything to escape the everyday dreariness of school and home and himself.
These two dreamers meet at a time when New York is becoming the modern city we know. 1937: Europe on the verge of a nightmare, America on the threshold of the golden age of film noir, radio serials, and comic books.
Powerless to prevent the horror and suffering that will soon engulf much of Europe, Josef and Sam fight back the only way they can: in the stark and simple four-color world of comic books. They create The Escapist, a master escape artist imbued with mystical energies, an enemy of oppression and injustice. In producing a superhero with a particular antipathy for Nazis, they find a way to fight the war on their own terms—Josef with his pen and paintbrushes, Sam with his typewriter—and they become, to their legions of fans and much to their surprise, heroes themselves.
Outside the idealized universe of comic books, though, intolerance and oppression take their toll. World War II, millions of lives wasted, the cities of Old Europe destroyed, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. In America, the postwar boom will bring the brutal injustices of the McCarthy era. With no superheroes to protect them, their family, their friends, Sam and Josef suffer devastating losses that plunge them into despair and hopelessness. Each must somehow find his way back to humanity and hope. The paths they take point to the healing power of imagination in a harsh and confusing world.
I have to say that I was really impressed with how well Michael Chabon did his homework here. He conducted hours of interviews with actual comic book insiders and old-timers, which allowed him to perfectly capture the quirky personalities involved in the creation of the comics industry. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay gives the reader a wonderful sense of the spirit of an age, the tenor of a time and place. Chabon deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize for this enchanting novel. Perhaps there are happy endings, after all.