Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Noteworthy Novel of Michael Chabon

In keeping with my recent trend of "reading well-reviewed recent novels with local connections," I just wrapped up my first Michael Chabon novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." Amazing is right - the story is flat-out fun, exciting, well-paced, and gripping; yet none of that prevents Chabon from telling a really interesting story with richly detailed characters and quite nuanced themes. He does take advantage of working with a broad scope - his story covers more than seven hundred pages and multiple decades - but the result is much richer than it needed to be.

You may or may not know that Chabon and Dave Eggers are great compatriots; they both live in the Bay Area, and I've really enjoyed listening to a few programs that they collaborated on. For some reason I'd assumed that Chabon would share Eggers' sensibilities, but he really doesn't... both are extremely talented, and very fun to read, but Eggers is an adventurist who is out to redefine his profession and push the boundaries of what literature can accomplish, while Chabon does excellent work within well-established frameworks. I've just read one novel from each (well, I guess two Eggers, if I count "What is the What," which I should), so I shouldn't really generalize, but I'd say that Eggers will appeal more to adventurous readers while Chabon has a more universal appeal.


The nominal focus of the book is the birth of the comic book industry, particularly the Golden Age. So, topically, it's about an area that I've become increasingly interested in these past few years. Early on, I often found myself wishing desperately that he would include illustrations to show the comics he was describing. This was not because his descriptions were inadequate somehow; no, it was because he made it sound so incredibly exciting and cool that I wanted to read them for myself.

It is interesting, though... in some ways, a lot of the book is an inversion of the old saw "A picture is worth a thousand words." He can, in fact, spend hundreds of words describing a single frame, using vivid imagery and a raw sense of glee that captures the sense of a narrator who is both steeped in the intricacies of his subject and yet maintains a boyish love for the same.

Speaking of the narrator - one thing I haven't bothered to check yet is whether the footnotes he includes in the book are for real or not. It would be very cool either way. There IS a complete bibliography in the acknowledgments section at the back of the book, which I really appreciated. At first I thought it was odd to put acknowledgments at the back instead of up front, but then I realized that the list of topics gives away most of the impressive plot revelations in the book.

Some of the most interesting parts come when the narrator describes how the artists are re-inventing the state of the art: people innovate, dropping the squarish structure inherited from newspaper comics, and instead experiment with stretching panels and heros across the entire page to display a man in flight, or shattering a page into dozens of shards depicting a ruined man's broken thoughts. They evolve narratively as well as artistically, moving beyond the conventions of caped men beating up criminals, and start exploring questions of identity, destiny, power, mythology. I smiled when I read about an issue where the hero only briefly appears; instead, a street filled with people swap tales about encounters they had in the city. "That sounds like something out of 'Sandman!,'" I thought.


Comics are the narrative thread that tie the whole length of the story together, but my goodness, there sure is a lot more going on here. The World War II sections were especially powerful, and the darkening shadow over Europe's Jews is one of the most chilling things I've read recently. Again, Chabon takes advantage of the broad scope available to him: he drags the sorry tale of Tommy out over hundreds of pages, holding out hope after hope that grows steadily fainter but refuses to die. He does the well-known but still excellent thing of focusing in on a particular family to show their anguish and the quality of the horror they faced (even without the ultimate tragedy of concentration camps), and also pulls back to remind us that this was not an isolated incident, that the same agony was repeated millions of times.

For most of the book I thought, "Finally! A great story that I love that I can unhesitatingly recommend to more conservative readers!" Then I realized, "Oh, yeah, there are really bad words in here, and also a lot of homosexual activities." I think that the style and the voice of the book is fundamentally reassuring and classic, even if the actual content is not.

I wonder if the section in Antarctica was at all modeled after "The Mountains of Madness." I suppose the only thing they share is the idea of people going crazy on that continent. H. P. Lovecraft's characters had darn good reasons for becoming insane, while Chabon's characters seem to bear at least some of the blame themselves. Anyways! Idle thought there.


Odd that my "reviews" have been getting so short lately... the quality of the books is as good as ever, but I seem to have increasingly less to say. This is probably a good thing. It leaves me with more time for reading great books!

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