Having won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, as well as becoming a New York Times Best Seller, the general consensus of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay seems to be favourable. However, upon reading the work, it seems as though there are several issues plaguing work. For one, Chabon has a tendency to enter into historical ramblings as if he is giving a lecture rather than telling a story. This is reinforced by his use of footnotes, which adds confusion as to the nature of what the story is meant to represent: a novel, or a faux historical document. The characters are likewise problematic, primarily because they are each so likeable and lack the moral complications that are the foundations of compelling characters. In addition to these concerns, there is also a significant amount of name dropping and an “Odds and Ends” section that frankly undermines the novel. Each of these elements serve as distractions to what is an over-ambitious and at times melodramatic narrative. The work reads like a love letter to the golden age of comic, but fails to effectively pull together the multiplicity of elements that Chabon has mixed together.
There are several instances in the novel where Chabon seems to abandon his narrative in favour of delivering a lecture on the historical context that his characters are living in. During a relatively early part in the novel, shortly after the title characters meet for the first time, Chabon offers background information on the rise in popularity of the comic book. Starting with “In 1939 the American comic book…” and finishing, five pages later, with “…pockets burdened with the occasional superfluous dime” (74-8). The issue is that this passage comes in the middle of the conversation between Sammy Klay and Joe Kavalier, the lead characters. Chabon, without signalling any break or pause, jumps right back into the dialogue between the two as if there weren’t a nearly five-page footnote in between sentences. This happens several times throughout the novel, and in each instance Chabon could have easily conveyed this information through dialogue. Sammy, for instance, could have explained these details to Joe, who himself did not know anything about comic books, and therefore needed to know this information. However, it seems as though Chabon does not want to give Sammy credit for his own research, and so feels as though he, not his character, must be the one to convey the information. The problem with this is that Chabon is, by the very nature of the novel’s subject matter, preaching to a choir of fanboys who in all likelihood do not need any of this background information. What’s more, Chabon actually has some historical inaccuracies in the book. At one point, Sammy speaks of Superman’s ability to fly, and though this is standard fare in the Superman canon now, at the time that Sammy was speaking, Superman was only able to jump extremely high. Given the amount of space that he lends to these lectures, which seem more of way to exercise his research abilities than tell a story, the fact that he misses details like this call into question the authority Chabon seems to project. The lecture style of writing comes off more like a report than a part of a narrative, and is superfluous for the fan base the work is geared to. The fact that this happens throughout the novel only makes it more of a distractions, giving readers cause to roll their eyes as Professor Chabon moves away from the story to bequeath his infinite knowledge of comic books onto his novice readership.
This practice is exacerbated by Chabon’s use of footnotes. Throughout the novel, Chabon adds footnotes to explain the historical context of some fictional and factual information. The issue with this is twofold. Firstly, it is inconsistent with the way in which Chabon introduces information throughout the novel. Sometimes he interrupts his narrative to give the reader a lecture, or slides the historical context of a phenomenon into a paragraph, other times he uses footnotes. Why? The reason seems unclear. If the information were important, why is it not simply integrated into the text? There is, of course, the possibility that Chabon is trying to frame the work as a historical document rather than a text, and herein lies the second issue with the footnotes. Well there is the distinct possibility that Chabon was simply incapable of effectively integrating the information into his work, it is counterproductive to assume such choices are made due to deficiencies in the author. If this were done with purpose, the only obvious reason would be that Chabon is framing the work as a historical document and not as a novel. Such a tactic was employed by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four; however, due to the omniscient nature of the narration, Chabon’s work isn’t consistent with a historical document. Though Orwell also had an omniscient narrator, his dystopian novel featured technology that had access to every detail to a person’s life and technology that is seemingly able to read people’s minds. Thus, the omniscient narrator in a historical document functions. There is no such context in Chabon’s work, though, and so, the use of footnotes either shows an inability on Chabon’s part to integrate this information, or his failure to recognize that his omniscient narrator isn’t appropriate for a historical document. Either way, the footnotes serve as a further distraction.
Aside from the structural issues, Chabon’s work also struggles to build characters with significant depth. Yes, there are complications with both Sammy and Joe, but in each case, the characters are all too easy to empathize with. Joe abandons the people closest to him, but does so in the context of WWII, where most would consider him brave for enlisting. Though he enlists as a means of seeking vengeance rather than for moral reasons, this wrathful approach to war is easily excused given that it is fueled by the historically tragic weight of the Holocaust, which killed Joe’s entire immediate family. Likewise, though Sammy marries for the wrong reasons, namely to cover up his homosexuality, he also does so as a means of providing for Joe’s unborn child by marrying Joe’s lover, Rosa, whom Joe abandoned. Because Sammy was combatting a society that criminalized homosexuality, Sammy’s actions are, like Joe’s, easy to empathize with. Furthermore, because he allows Rosa to avoid having an abortion and provides for a childless father, his actions come across as overtly heroic. Using the weight of these social issues to frame these characters comes across as heavy handed, even kitschy, and thus makes it impossible for the reader to do anything other than empathize with them. The same can be said or Rosa and peripheral characters. The consequence is that each characters comes across as one dimensional and ultimately uninteresting. Though the social issues Sammy and Joe must combat have obvious parallels, these are just that: obvious. Without the any authentic or complicated personal conflicts outside of the hyper-sympathetic battles with anti-Semitism and homophobia, there is simply nothing of substance to these characters.
The novel’s third act is perhaps the most problematic as Chabon enters his name-dropping phase. While only a few major industry names were mentioned in the first couple of portions of the novel, Chabon escalates this as the novel begins to come to a close. In one passage, he starts to frame Sammy and Joe through dialogue shared between legendary comic book icons like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In heaping praise upon both Sammy and Joe, and the characters they created, like The Escapist, Chabon finds a way to praise himself. This comes across less like storytelling and more like Chabon boasting that had he been alive during the golden age of comic books, that he would have likewise been a titan in the industry. This name dropping moves into the realm of showboating in the author’s notes, where Chabon seems to be boasting about the number of comic book icons that he spoke to while writing the novel. While offerings such thanks is not uncommon, this particular instances seems to come across as name dropping. By indulging in this not only in the author’s notes, but also within the context of his own writing, the name dropping ultimately distracts from the story.
Chabon offers other post-text notes that further serve to weigh down the potency of the narrative. In the ‘Odd and Ends’ portion, Chabon offers an exposition on the problematics of ending a narrative. While there are interesting implications to such a conversation, in the context of the novel, it seems to be operating in two self-serving ways. Firstly, to excuse the ending Chabon came up with, which is less than compelling, and secondly, to generate hype for potential sequels and related works. With regard to Chabon’s ending, there are two key issues. The first is that he opens his novel by referring to Sammy’s interactions at comic book conventions in his later life. This sets up a narrative that will return to this beginning. The novel, however, does no such thing. Rather than ending with some comic book convention in the 80’s or 90’s, it ends with Sammy presumably heading to Los Angeles in the 1950’s. The ending is also problematic because Sammy’s departure seems frankly out of character for him for a couple of reasons. For instance, Joe had been his closest friend and Sammy had spent over a decade trying to locate him only to leaves days after locating him. This seems to make little sense. Moreover, as a child who had been abandoned by his father, he was clearly committed to being there for his own child, who Chabon has him abandon. Chabon’s argument against endings, then, comes across as an excuse for his own poorly executed ending. Worse, though, is the sense of shameless self-promotion inherent in his argument. Chabon takes this time to suggest that there is more to this narrative, and that he would like to explore Sammy’s and Joe’s exploits during the comic book boom of the 60’s and 70’s. In this way, he cheapens the narrative he has written, suggesting it is not so much a complete work as the predecessor to another work. Like a superhero film overburdened with Easter eggs, promising more action in a future instalment, Chabon seems to be trying to build demand for a sequel rather than offer a sincere argument against viewing a novel’s final piece of punctuation as the end of the work. This self-promotion is so obvious that Chabon might as well have added ‘Part One’ to the novel’s title. This, like the extended history lessons, footnotes, and name dropping, serves to distract from the novel and ultimately cheapen the narrative offered there within.
Upon reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it is clear that Chabon is a bright person who has an extensive vocabulary and takes his research seriously; however, these characteristics do not guarantee effective storytelling. Ultimately, the novel is weighed down by several issues. For example, Chabon’s extended lectures on the historical context of his narrative are not effectively integrated into the story. His use of footnotes only highlights how inconsistent his narrative approach/structure is, and his lack of layered characters makes it difficult to see the people who populate his novel as anything other than one-dimensional characters meant to be adored. These issues are exacerbated by Chabon’s tendency to name drop, and the post-text commentary, both of which cheapen the work. The work touches on some interesting issues, like ownership of art, but ultimately relies too much on popular social issues like anti-Semitism and homophobia to power the characters. Though these issues are both extremely important, Chabon’s employment of them comes across as heavy handed. Despite its critical and commercial success, this is a work that is weighed down by a number of glaring flaws.
Charon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. New York: Random House. 2004. Print.