Dear Gentle Readers,
I have, for quite some time, been reading Michael Chabon's Kavalier & Clay. While I still have 200 pages left of the gigantic 650 page novel, I figured it was time to share my thoughts on what has been hailed over and over as a piece of prose genius.
To begin, I should admit that at this point in the novel I am a bit stuck. The last hundred pages have been slow going, and I have lost all momentum. In fact, this is my major critique of Chabon's novel - it is just too long. I was with him for the first 300 pages, as in I read that chunk in a week. I absolutely adored it. As you all know, I recently discovered the modern American cultural icon that is the comic. Chabon does a crack job at capturing the spirit, not just of the burgeoning comic industry in the 30s and 40s, but also of the contemporary feel of the comic world. Go out and read Neil Gaiman's introduction to 1602, there you will find the same excitement and wonder that we find in the minds of Sammy Clay and Joseph Kavalier. Chabon's skill expresses the need for a hero in modern society, one reflected in Joseph's own personal struggle with the Nazi's. So on that front I think Chabon was spot on.
But then something failed for me. I was with the novel up until Kavalier and Clay get everything they want. They are rich, writing comics, and the novel seems to have ended. I realize there is much more - and I already have read far enough to know this dream state is short-lived. But there is certainly a period for about eighty pages where it seems the story has ended but Chabon has just decided not to leave his keyboard. I am happy to see that the story is gaining something, but perhaps this could have been saved for another novel.
So you might ask, readers, why did I keep reading? Well besides my own stubbornness, Chabon is a skilled writer. His ability to capture the range of human expectations and emotions moment to moment; his ability to bring a scene to life - no matter how plot thirsty - kept me going. For instance, in the long sample below, get a feel for how selectively he describes Rosa's emotional roller coaster, and Joseph's response is equally well crafted.
To give a bit of background (for those who have not read the novel), Joseph and Rosa have been dating for sometime, and Joseph has leased a new apartment in preparation for the arrival of his younger brother, who is escaping Nazi Germany. While viewing the apartment, Rosa has just given Joseph a painting, in which she holds the key to his heart.
"That's funny, " [Joseph] said. He reached into his trousers pocket. "This is what I have for you." He held out a fist to her, knuckles up. She turned the hand over and pried the fingers apart. On the palm of his hand lay a brass key. "I'm going to need help to do this," he said. "I hope with all my heart, Rosa, that you will want to help me."
"And what is this the key to?" she said, her voice sharper than she wanted it to be, knowing perfectly well that it was the key to this apartment, and that Joe was now asking her for the very thing she had been on the verge of asking for herself - that she be allowed to act as a mother, or at least a big sister, to Thomas Kavalier. She was disappointed in the same measure that she had been expecting a ring, and thrilled to the degree that she was horrified by her desire for one.
"Like in the painting," he said, in a kidding way, as if he could see she was upset, and was trying to figure out what tone to adopt with her. "The key to my heart."
She took the key and held it in her hand. It was warm from his pocket. "Thank you," she said. She was crying, bitterly and happily, ashamed of herself, thrilled to be able to really do something for him.
"I'm sorry," Joe said, taking the handkerchief from his jacket pocket. "I wanted you to have the key, because...but I did the wrong thing." He gestured toward the painting. "I forgot to say I love it. Rosa, I love it! It's incredible! It's a whole new thing for you."
She laughed, taking the hankie from him, and dabbed at her eyes. "No, Joe, it's not that," she said, though in fact that painting did represent a new direction for Rosa's work. It had been years since she had attempted to draw from her imagination. Her talent for capture a likeness, a contour, her innate sense of shadow and weight, had biased her toward life drawing early on. Though she had worked partly from a photograph this time, the details of Joe's body and face were filled in from memory, a process she had found challenging and satisfying. You had to know your lover very well - to have spent a lot of time looking at him and touching him - to be able to paint his picture when he was not around. The inevitable mistakes and exaggerations she had made struck her now as proofs, artifacts, of the mysterious intercourse of memory and love. "No, Joe. Thank you for the key. I want it very much." (588-9)
Chabon's skills at capturing Rosa's emotions, her inability to contain or even expect her own desires. I love that she is "horrified" by her desire to have Joe propose to her. This is in many ways the true nature of love and its expressions, uncontrolled, embarrassing, uncertain, and most importantly unpredicatable. But in this scene, Chabon does even more than perfectly capture Rosa's emotional state. He fuses her artistic experience and knowledge into this emotion. Her love is not just expressed in her desires but through her development as an artist. A well written scene.
I have much more to say, but this post already grows long, and I just wanted to write up a few thoughts, so I will end with a quick two line review.
Kavalier & Clay is a whirlwind of strength. The novel captures an America that both was and in many ways still is, further humanized and personalized through Chabon's deft linguistic skill. While the plot may drag and the length can be overwhelming, the novel is a definite must read for anyone who wants to know what a truly American text is.
Your Humble Author
Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. New York: Picador, 2000.