Michael Chabon’s language is simply amazing. I first started to truly appreciate it upon reading the metaphor that is the title of this post when Chabon used it to describe the garden hoses in a fancy neighborhood in Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It just worked on so many levels it was like a comedian telling the perfect joke.
While Mysteries would have been an eerily appropriate first book to read upon graduating from college, my first book was Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The length of the book is an epic 639 pages, and Chabon covers most of the first 35 years of two men’s lives. In the beginning, Sam Clay is an undersized Jewish boy in New York with a love for comic books when his (also Jewish) dashing cousin Joe Kavalier, who happens to be an amazing artist, arrives as a solitary refugee from Nazi occupied Prague. The two get into the comic book business together and create hugely successful titles that shape the comic book genre for years to come.
However, Chabon quickly draws the contrast between fictional heroism and our own futility. Joe left his entire family in Prague and only intends to use the money from his comic books to help his family escape the Nazis in Prague. He projects his vengeance into the comic books, nearly all of which are based on a clear good and evil battle with pseudonymous Nazis, but he eventually becomes frustrated because money alone does not seem to be enough to bring his family to United States.
Sam’s own interest in comic books is placed into a very personal context as well. His father was a well known strongman on the vaudeville circuit, but he was never around to raise Sam and eventually abandoned his wife and son completely. Chabon carries through Sam’s (somewhat subconscious) emulation of his father to an incredible extent. He enters a homosexual relationship with an actor who is very physically similar to his father, and when the culmination of Sam’s repression arrives it is revealed in dramatically public fashion that perhaps his homosexuality and psychological issues with his father have made their way into nearly every comic book character that he created.
But Chabon may just be proposing a more realistic version of heroism for our world. Both Sam and Joe abandon their fleetingly glamorous life in New York out a sense of obligation to their family and friends. Joe’s endless attempts to save his family and his eventual return to a normal life show the futility of attempting to be superhero, and perhaps the cathartic value of fiction as escapism. Sam’s own interest in comic books is heavily dependent on escapism, and he is forced to eventually confront that fact.
The intricately composed plot also includes the desolation of suburbia, a topic that is particularly near and dear to my heart after reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. However, the book does not feel like many of the “literary” Nobel or Pulitzer winning books (which this was) because of Chabon’s aforementioned ability with language. He describes an encounter in which Joe and Sam try to sweet talk a crotchety old landlord into letting them into the building as follows:
“The landlady, a Mrs. Waczukowski, was the widow of a gagman for the Hearst syndicate who had signed his strips “Wacky” and on his death had left her only the building, an unconcealed disdain for all cartoonists veteran or new, and her considerable share of their mutual drinking problem…Sammy winked, and the two young men smiled at her with as many of their teeth as they could possibly expose until finally she turned, consigning them all to hell with the eloquent back of her hand, and retreated down the stairs”
I’m not sure if those quotes really convey the excellence of Chabon’s wording, but that’s why you should read the book. Every scene is infused with a playfulness of language that has made Chabon my favorite writer of the moment by far. After I finish my current project of reading all the books on my bookshelf that I haven’t read, Wonder Boys may be next up.