Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

There should be a word for encountering (reading, viewing, hearing) something that you’re positive you’ll like but, as it turns out, don’t. “Disappointment” seems too pedestrian so this should be some word with about four or five syllables, preferably German. That way I can claim this word is really the best expression and is untranslatable though in fact I haven’t the foggiest idea whether that’s really true (and in some sense it isn’t since everything is translatable – it might take several pages instead of just a word or two and be forever ambiguous to some degree but it can be translated).

And thus my encounter with Michael Chabon’s novel. It could have been glorious, wonderful: acknowledged literary value, about Golden Age comics, and from somebody who is a real fan rather than just finished reading up on the subject. And of course none of that matters. Chabon does, to paraphrase Terry Gilliam on J.K. Rowling, keep the pages turning and for a book this long that’s not a neglible achievement. But the whole thing is simplistic, somewhat ineptly structured and though there’s a big reach Chabon seems to have little idea of how far he really should be stretching. At times Chabon displays an impressively vivid style, for instance when Clay is a teenager and his mother passes by: “The natural fragrance of her body was a spicy, angry smell like that of fresh pencil shavings.” An unexpected comparison and altogether appropriate for a youthful artist.

Just look at a long section towards the start that is, like two or three other sections later, practically a self-contained short story. A youthful Kavalier is enlisted to help rescue the fabled golem of Prague before the Nazis find its decades-old hiding place. Despite a hint of fantasy (or magical realism if the other word makes you nervous) the golem--which does exist--never animates and there’s nothing non-realistic. Kavalier and his magician/escape artist mentor locate the golem and find a way to smuggle it out, along with Kavalier who leaves his family behind.

Now apart from providing a way out for Kavalier and a motivation for the early part of the novel (finding a way to rescue his family as well) there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to the golem section. My initial idea was that Chabon was trying to somehow tie the Jewish legend to comic superheroes and maybe he was but this is quite dubious. There are far more numerous and obvious sources for superheroes (Alan Moore explored some of this in The League of Extraordinary Gentlement) and thanks to the Meyrink novel and a silent film the golem had more or less entered pop culture anyway. Besides I can’t think of any early superhero that seems particularly golem-like except possibly the origin of Captain America (4F reject as the clay, a learned man turning him into a warrior to save their country/race).

As it turns out in the end there is indeed the slightest hint of magical realism after all. As the book is wrapping up, the golem who had earlier been left in other hands is suddenly and mysteriously delivered to Kavalier at Clay’s home. (The sender is never identified and I’m guessing was probably Chabon himself.) At this point Kavalier, the former Czech, has become completely Americanized and reminds us of a story that the golem could never last away from his native mud as well as that it was so easy to carry and light because of a belief about its soul (talk about the unbearable lightness of being). This time the golem’s box is heavy and when opened has no golem, only mud. Y’know why not just put in all caps KAVALIER IS NOW AN AMERICAN. As far as that goes it’s important that Kavalier was Czech because even though I think Chabon meant for his and Clay’s Jewish background to be important that’s really just superficial. Not that they need to seem like I.B. Singer characters wandering through but if the focus is about somebody assimilating then it’s probably a good idea for them to be noticably different at the end than at the start.

This lack of subtlety also shows up in the way Chabon handles the creative process. Kavalier had trained as an escape artist so when he and Clay create a superhero they decide on The Escapist. When Kavalier falls in love with a girl who lives in an attic room filled with moths he creates the Lunar Moth. Kavalier’s hatred of Nazis (and actually almost every emotion he seems to ever feel) is presented as being directly expressed in the comics; nothing Freudian for Mr. Chabon. A viewing of Citizen Kane prompts Kavalier & Clay to become self-conscious experimenters. (I’ll bet that most readers of Chabon’s description of the vividly innovative and wildly imaginative comics they produced think that it’s a bit unbelievable when actually Chabon is giving an almost exact description of Eisner’s post-War Spirit even including the Kane inspiration - all he changed was to move it forward about four years.)

Some of the details seem to escape Chabon as well. There’s a party part way through where Dali is a main attraction but Chabon saw fit to improbably rope in Raymond Scott and Joseph Cornell. For all I know this is all based on a real event but I doubt it. The mention of Scott rather than somebody like Virgil Thomson seems very much a trendy product of the time Chabon was writing. Cornell just feels wrong. The impression given by Deborah Solomon’s Cornell biography, the Dore Ashton book and other material is of Cornell as not remotely a party goer though he wasn’t exactly a hermit. Chabon’s party is overall too obviously managed for stage effect that it feels artificial in ways he probably didn’t intend.

And for somebody this up on his comics history too much of it seems tossed in. The names and the studios are there but to present the Golden Age as in fact a golden age is something that can’t really be supported by the actual comics. Far too much of it was written by rote and crudely drawn, sometimes with the energy of discovering a new art form but more often with the enthusiasm of a quick buck. Perhaps that’s one reason that Chabon’s prose renditions of comic stories are so much more lush and suggestive than the original was likely to have ever been. Towards the end Clay runs into a young, pre-Marvel Stan Lee and then a few pages later encounters a detective Leiber. It’s an odd moment because Leiber is Lee’s real name which Chabon surely knows. The in-joke becomes alienating, purposeless. Same thing with the footnotes that periodically grace the pages. Why are they there? The book isn’t written as faux scholarship (wonder if Borges could have done anything with early comics) and this too just seems like Chabon was being clever without really thinking it through.