Sunday, 23 January 2011

2/111 - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

This post will be in two halves, because as a partner to this I will also be reading Brian K. Vaughan's The Escapists, which I haven't read yet.

I bought Kavalier & Clay in the first quarter of 2010. I had just been offered a more permanent contract at Waterstone’s, and this book was in a new offer that we were putting in some time after the New Year. It was called ‘books of the decade’, I think, and there were around fifty titles, of varying amazing-ness, supposedly. I also bought Middlesex and Oscar Wao at the same time, as they were 3 for 2. I remember putting the offer in place on a Sunday, and it was hugely satisfying to make a whole table display out of nothing.

I bought it largely on the recommendation of my boyfriend, who had liked it (although when I spoke with him about it after finishing the book yesterday, he didn’t seem able to recall how it ended). He's a comic nerd, so I can see why this appealed to him, being set in the golden age of comics, as he called it. His comic nerd-y tastes have infiltrated me, to a certain extent. Before meeting him I had not really read anything seriously, although I had a slightly above average awareness of comics from my time spent working in a sci-fi bookshop. However, knowledge of comics is not necessary for following the novel at all, because even though the story contains some real places and people, the main characters are fiction.

Set during WWII, the story follows two cousins; Joe Kavalier, a Jewish refugee from Prague, and Sam Clay, a Brooklynite, who come up with an amazing idea for a superhero comic. It follows their lives for the next 20 years or so.

I enjoyed the first two-thirds of Kavalier & Clay very much. Reading about the two cousins as young men was extremely enjoyable, and I really loved the way their whole world unfolded in front of me with such ease. (Their interactions with their boss/publisher are also pretty funny.) There are real-life historical anchors in the novel, in the form of events and people, which is cool, in a Forrest Gump-y kind of way. Obviously loads of novels do this, but Kavalier & Clay  seems to do this more deliberately, as though it is trying to place itself in that history (with faux footnotes, etc).

Obviously I can never know for sure, but it feels like the re-creation of 40s and 50s America is very authentic. I don’t know enough about the history of comics to judge whether it’s an accurate rendering, but I suspect that it is – a lot of research has clearly gone into this novel.

I’m not totally sure where to go with this now. It might seem an odd thing not to have considered, but I’m not sure how carefully I should speak about the books I have read. On the one hand, I don’t feel as though I can write about a book I’ve read without mentioning anything that happens within it. But on the other hand, I know how annoying it is to have the plot of a book spoiled for you before you’ve had a chance to read it.

I’ll try the former, until it frustrates me.

The story suddenly veered off in a direction that took me by surprise. All I’ll say is that it has to do with some principal characters taking totally different courses for their futures. I was afraid, suddenly, that a novel I had been steadily consuming would be totally un-readable because of the course it had taken. The new direction was enjoyable and a little shocking in a way that I hadn’t expected, and so I continued.

The characters eventually re-unite twelve years later. This section of the novel was not as satisfying. It seemed somehow a little more rushed than the other sections, which had taken much more care and detail. In the final section of the novel, I found it harder to care about the direction the plot was taking as the characters that had been built up until that point were acting in ways I simply did not like. I was a little unconvinced, maybe. The more I think about it, the more I think it had to do with the pacing. Kavalier & Clay is a pretty huge novel, at over 600 pages. Michael Chabon has obviously taken great care with it, and there is a lot of detail and story in there. But the last section was just a little too rushed and unsatisfying.

Kind of like this post, maybe?

I’ll read The Escapists and then say what I think about that one.

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