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Michael Chabon's "Amazing" New Novel

Larger-than-life Pulitzer winner enthralls

Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is written with a dexterity and sleight of hand indigenous to the superheroes, artists and magicians who inhabit his novel. With elements of fantasy and history and an epic sweep - the story spans three continents in as many decades - "Kavalier and Clay" depicts the bond between cousins Josef Kavalier and Samuel Klayman in pre-World War II New York.

After much hardship, some luck and a dash of misdirection, Josef Kavalier appears at the Brooklyn home of his cousin, Sam. His arrival initiates a relationship of collaboration and camaraderie between the two. The cousins quickly realize that Josef is an inspired artist, while Sammy is an ideas-man with a knack for writing fanciful stories. In a unique alchemy, they join forces to yield a comic book superhero: "the Escapist."

With Sammy already situated at a low level within the world of comic book production, the cousins enterprise to make money with the Escapist so Joe can rescue his family from war-torn Prague, and so Sammy can prove his worth after a streak of failed business ventures. The Escapist combines elements of the duo's strengths and weaknesses - civilian alter-ego Tom Mayflower walks on Sammy's polio-weakened legs, while his superhero double utilizes Joe's ease with lock-picking, magic tricks and illusionism to free himself and scores of innocents from the shackles of injustice.

Chabon's characters possess goals, abilities and impediments, which result in their leading double lives, much like the characters whose exploits they publish in their comics. Joe meets professional success and remains wracked with anger and guilt at the impossibility of bringing his family to safety; Sammy's wishes for high-profile success take a wrong turn when his notoriety and his private life converge, and Joe's love interest, Rosa, works by day as a secretary in a musty office while spending her nights frolicking with New York high society's avant garde art scene.

With a level of historical and cultural detail that had to be researched exhaustively to be deployed so seamlessly, Chabon captures the political unrest in Europe that spiked the pre-World War II ambivalence in America. Chabon also renders vivid the social world of New York City in the 1930s and 40s through cameos by Salvador Dali and Orson Welles.

Using the metaphor of the comic book, with its reliance upon confining stories into boxes and panels - even while it defies convention through its history of risque subject matter - Chabon shows how his characters function, flourish and flounder, depending upon the choices they make, choices that serve to box them into their lives. Emulating the duplicity of superheroes with their civilian counterparts, Chabon's characters have divided personalities which emerge gradually and often surprisingly, but never unbelievably.

Applying his lyrical, authorial voice with equal aplomb to the dramatic high points in plot and the footnotes which pepper the book, Chabon accomplishes much in "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." Even at 600-plus pages, the book hurtles forward, fueled by tight, well-articulated prose and peppery dialogue. Reading “Kavalier and Clay” is as delightful as watching a magican procure the card you chose from his seemingly run-of-the-mill deck of cards. Like the “how did he do that?” response elicited by the magic man himself, Chabon's genius lies in writing a beautifully wrought, intricately plotted story told in a voice so convincing and fluid that he makes such a feat seem easy.

Rebecca Fox is so over the 80s that she's retro-fying the 90s. She tends to match, throw a mean left hook and write on literature and pop culture.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
Random House; ISBN: 0679450041
Hardcover, 639 pages (September 2000)
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