Two weeks have gone by since Harry Potter swallowed me whole, and already – well, I guess, on purpose, since I’ve gotten used to the peaceful feeling of needing to know what happens next — I’ve been consumed by another book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.
I spent all last night dreaming about it, though I don’t remember now what my dreams were.
It’s a book that has seeped into me. As I biked to and from school today, I thought of the young, feeble writer Sammy Clay.
Sammy’s cousin, Joe Kavalier, comes to live with Sammy in New York as Hitler takes over Czechoslovakia before the War. Joe is a trained escape artist, magician and artist, while Sammy is an ardent comic book reader. Together, they make a bestselling comic series about the superhero the Escapist, Sammy writing and Joe drawing. The Escapist’s superpower is his ability to get out of any bind or shackle. Escapism is the theme of this novel: the characters in Kavalier & Clay escape from Nazi Germany, from loneliness, from love, from social mores.
Meanwhile, I escaped my master’s research project by reading this book!
Chabon is a master of nostalgia with his words. Sammy goes through the classic closeted gay-man literary experience of experiencing great love, then slamming the door shut on it out of fear and shame. “He had no idea of how long his life would one day seem to have gone on; how daily present the absence of love would come to feel,” Chabon writes.
Later: “He allowed the world to wind him in the final set of chains, and climbed, once and for all, into the cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man.”
The gay romance story thread is what wound me into this book. Sammy is small and has legs “like pipe cleaners,” after a bout of polio in his youth, but he is miraculously seduced by the charming, all-American actor who plays the Escapist on the radio, Tracy Bacon. Tracy is so sure of himself that he launches into any social situation, sure that he will be welcome. Sammy is the opposite.
Meanwhile, Joe, who is quiet, bold, and who never seems to gain a command of the English language even after over 10 years in America, pines for his family, Jews stuck in occupied Czechoslovakia. He has the Escapist clobber Nazis in comic book plot lines. He falls in love furiously with the novel’s other main character, the effervescent, moody painter Rosa Saks.
All of the characters’ lives get pitched and tossed by events out of their control. The war is a horrible bleakness that swallows up whole worlds. The characters go from kids to weathered adults.
I felt the most for Clay – but I always have a weakness for gay characters in books. I spent half of Harry Potter waiting for Dumbledore to do something gay. But all around this was a great book, with tension, suspense, plot, rich characters. And all the longing that comes with escapism – longing for love, for art.
Sometimes, especially at the beginning of chapters, I felt Chabon could have trimmed some words. I would force my way through paragraphs because I knew it would be worth it to keep going.
Overall, it’s just great to finish a book and feel like you’ve been somewhere, met someone, been changed a little bit.