Wednesday, April 14

Considering Michael Chabon's “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”

About a year ago a friend and I came to agree that the single most vital element of literature is character. More important than plot, the emphasis of which generally bestows upon a work the dubious title of “genre fiction.” Far more important than setting, temporally and physically. Only marginally more important than voice, an element very closely associated with character, though, but character is still dominant among all those aspects of fiction we were taught in junior high

Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most difficult elements to do right. While there may be no single way to do character right, there are so many ways to do it wrong. The character can be totally abominable and unsympathetic, and the reader can only hope for their every ambition to be thwarted and their death to come swiftly and painfully. They can be clichés with as much depth as a puddle in Utah, whose every choice and every action can be predicted. They can be whiny. They can be boring. They can be a lot of things to make the reader not care in the slightest what they do or why.

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay goes about screwing its characters by making them too nice. I admit that making making genuinely kind and good characters is near impossible. The only one that comes to mind is William Thackeray's Dobbin in Vanity Fair. In fact, I have been fortunate enough to personally know more genuinely good people in my life than I have encountered in literature, but Chabon tries so hard to give them flaws and make them complex. Sammy Clayman is so closeted he keeps a sham marriage for well nigh on a decade. Josef Kavalier, more than most anything else, wants to kill Germans and runs away when he is most needed. The problem is that they are still so endearing. They have good reasons for it. Everything comes out alright, and everything is forgiven. After his main characters, Chabon must have run out of ideas for flaws because they become really boring then. Tracy Bacon lies about his past to get close to Clayman. Rosa Saks gets fat. Even the nearest thing the novel has to a villain with a face can be given a pass because he is clearly more than a little touched in the head. Sympathetic characters are key to most literature, but this goes beyond. There is not a single character you don't want to hold and tell everything will be alright, you will have better.

It's a shame because I really want to like the book. Chabon deserves respect for telling a story that spans the Great Depression and runs through World War II before ending in the mid-50's. He is able to share something of his obvious love for comic books and magic and escapistry with the reader. His language is fluid. His ambition is clear. His ability to execute in the whole is less clear.

One other problem with Amazing Adventures, quite minor in the greater scheme but of particular annoyance to me. It's when a work of historical fiction practices anachronisms for the benefit of its characters. A writer wants his characters to be intelligent, progressive, right, and what time is more intelligent, progressive and right than the present, at least in comparison to the past? Your characters certainly can't be singing the glories of zeppelins if not for humorous effect. We'll call it Master and Commander Syndrome only instead of discovering natural selection during the Napoleonic Wars, Kavalier and Clay watch Citizen Kane on opening night, immediately discern its brilliance and begin writing comics for adults. The first adventures of the Escapist have him punching out Hitler on the cover years before Poland is invaded. Very progressive of them.

In another trusting the reader to understand anything important on their own. Every allusion and every symbol has to be explained. Take the very first paragraph of Amazing Adventures. “'To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,' [Sam Clay] would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angoulême or to the editor of The Comics Journal. 'You weren't the same person when you came out as when you went in.'” And then he meets his cousin, Kavalier, who happens to be a trained escapist. Then they create a comic book character named the Escapist. Then they both escape their true selves and their responsibilities. Get it? Do you? What about that moth Kavalier finds after visiting the bedroom of Rosa Saks and finding it infested with the insects? Could it mean something? “'Rosa,' Joe said, under his breath.”

It's a little annoying and so are the anachronisms, and taken together with the too good of characters, it becomes a distraction that breaks the narrative.

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