The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction published
since 1985.  These books
represent the finest literature
of the current era, and are
gaining recognition as the new
classics of our time. In this
installment of
The New Canon,
Ted Gioia reviews
The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

by Michael Chabon.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The period leading up to World War II was the Age of Heroes in the
United States. During this era, Americans were introduced to Buck
Rogers (who first appeared in
Amazing Stories
in 1928), Dick Tracy (1931), Flash Gordon
(1934), Roy Rogers (first film appearance in
1935), the Green Hornet (1936), The Phantom
(1936), Superman (1938), Lassie (1938), Bat-
man (1939) and Captain Marvel (1939).  And
then the real age of heroism began, with young
American men going overseas to fight against
the Axis powers, in a struggle that was per-
ceived by the general public as a similarly un-
ambiguous confrontation of good versus evil.

We should not be surprised, then, that Michael
Chabon’s exploration of heroes and villains,
The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
, should be set primarily during this
same period.  Much of the appeal of this fascinating book stems from
Chabon’s ability to blend the sometimes heroic (or mock heroic)
exploits of his characters with the feverish pop culture heroism of
this period in American history.  These different levels of heroism
get hopelessly muddled in the course of the novel, but they never
lose their charm.  As Chabon realizes, even today we are all suckers
for a story of truth, justice and the American way.

Not just his readers, but sometimes Chabon’s characters get
confused between real and fictional heroism.  Josef Kavalier, an
exile from the Nazi occupation in his native Prague, arrives in New
York in 1939 and soon finds himself enlisted by his Brooklyn cousin
Sammy Clay in a scheme to create a new comic book.  Their hero,
the Escapist, becomes a huge success, largely because he is the one
caped crusader who is not offering mere escapism: current events
permeate his adventures, and the first issue of the comic book stands
out for its cover depicting the Escapist delivering a haymaker to
Hitler’s mug.

Kavalier’s own life imitates, in eerie fashion, the comic book tales he
illustrates. Early in his life, Kavalier had been an aspiring escape
artist himself, and even performed with a mask.  Later in the book he
actually dons the costume of the Escapist in pathetic imitation of his
imaginary alter ego.  But he is a flawed superhero, capable of
harming those he loves through his theatrical attempts at stylish
exploits.  But in other settings, Kavalier proves capable of true
heroics, although
without a cape and mask:  he serves in World War
II, and—in perhaps the strangest interlude in a book full of peculiar
twists—single-handedly defends Antarctica against the Axis threat.
On the home front, he engages in fisticuffs with the Nazi head of the
Aryan-American League. And (all too fitting in this sometimes
surreal novel) he rescues Salvador Dali from drowning . . . at a
fashionable party. It is all too telling that the latter incident is one of
the more straightforward moments in
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

But Kavalier and Clay, for all their dramatic exploits, carry with
them an aura of tragedy. Despite relentless efforts, Kavalier fails in
his attempt to bring his brother Thomas to the United States, and
out of the grasp of the Nazis.  Indeed, one feels the heavy hand of
fate throughout these pages.  In their relationships with others—
friends, lovers, associates—both Kavalier and Clay tend to let events
guide them, with a passivity that is surprisingly out of step with the
“Wham! Bang!” theatrics they celebrate in their comic books.

Real and contrived heroes also dance around the periphery of this
highly stylized, artfully written novel.  The Old World golem
becomes both a prototype for the Escapist, and an actual means of
escape for Kavalier, in his labyrinthine journey to America.  Even
earlier Kavalier is mentored by Bernhard Kornblum, a real life
escape artist who eventually saves his protégé's life.  With so many
strange ingredients mixed up in this tale, readers will hardly be
surprised to learn that Clay’s father was known as the Mighty
Molecule, and traveled around the country as a circus performer.

Chabon takes his multilayered story up to the Eisenhower era—a
time when comic books came under increased scrutiny and attack.
America had lost its innocence during the war, and now was
suspicious of everything, even Superman and Batman.  Kavalier and
Clay can hardly hope to escape unscathed in this troubled age when
the caped crusaders of yore are knocked down to size, and anti-
heroes are in the ascendancy. History again intervenes in our story,
and Clay is called upon to testify before the Senate Subcommittee to
Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, where he is vilified and outed . . .
and, in a strange way, also liberated.

Chabon maintains an impressive balancing act throughout this book.
He manages to capture the flavor of pulp fiction, without its
banality.  He stuffs his novel with more plot twists than an old movie
serial, but never loses the thread of his main story.  He captures a
surreal sense of fantasy, without abandoning the grounded History
(with a capital H) of his narrative. And—yes!—he shows how flawed
our heroes are, but lets us keep cheering them on as though they
really could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Amazing
adventures, indeed!
The Fourteen Skies of Michael Chabon by Ted Gioia
Review of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Review of Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Goon Sqad

W. G. Sebald:

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:

A.S. Byatt:

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

Jonathan Franzen:

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

American Fiction Notes
LA Review of Books
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Literary Saloon
The Millions
The Misread City
Page Views

Disclosure note: Writers on this site and its
sister sites may receive promotional copies of
works under review.