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Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is aptly named. The lives of its title characters, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, are fascinating and sprawling—as they forge their comic book empire, delve in and out of different passions, and grapple with their own identities. The book has a life beyond them, though, in the stories they tell. Author Michael Chabon creates intricate superhero backstories, his creativity pure and inspiring. Ultimately, he crafts a novel that is a sweet, wrenching tribute to imagination.

Everyone is escaping from something—however big or small. In the case of Joe Kavalier, he has fled the Nazis in Prague, heartbroken because his family, who is Jewish, is left behind and in danger. He is a restless young man who comes to New York to live with his cousin Sam Clay, and he cannot forget all that he has lost. Part of him wants to escape the suffering that he feels, and part of him can’t bear to leave it behind. This ambivalence is evident in the comic books that he and Sam write; their character The Escapist can escape from every situation he finds himself in, just as Joe was able to flee Prague. Yet the Escapist is committed to freeing all the oppressed people of the world. He uses his power and liberty to help others—just as Joe cannot forget about his family in Europe, cannot let his people die unrecognized. Joe feels an intense obligation to his past, and he processes it through the comic books, fighting the Nazis on the page. Sam uses the comics to fantasize about the life he wants to have. He wishes to pull away from his enclosed life with his mother, where he feels boxed in, restrained. He longs to be something more, to spread his wings. Through their main superhero character, The Escapist, Joe and Sam wrestle with how to make their own paths. 

The superheroes that Sam and Joe create are who they wish they could be. They take aspects from their own life—such as their desires to escape, or to remember—and translate them into stories, giving their lives of their own. This lends the book a magical feeling, as Chabon effortlessly flows between the real world and the world of Radio Comics, the name of one of their comic books. He describes Sam and Joe walking through New York City as they dream up their stories, weaving back and forth between New York and Empire City, the city of their imagination. The stories are real to them, because they represent real things. Imagination is all the more powerful, Chabon argues, when it is tethered in something real. As Joe and Sam meet new people, care about different topics, this impacts the characters of their stories. Their stories become places they can escape to, where they romanticize about people they are in love with or fume about the state of World War II. The amazing adventures of the real Kavalier and Clay lends itself to the amazing adventures of the characters of Kavalier and Clay’s minds. 

There are more superheroes than those on the page, however. Chabon flirts with Jewish culture and mythology throughout the book—Joe and Sam are Jewish, so it feels natural. Besides, how could he miss the opportunity to talk about the original Jewish superhero, the Golem of Prague? Legend says that the Golem, a man made of clay, was the protector of the Jews of Prague centuries ago. He is the champion of the oppressed, the downtrodden. And when Joe is escaping from Prague, he escapes with the Golem, smuggled with it inside a box, to be carried safely out of the Nazis’ clutches. The Golem has escaped—Joe has escaped. Together, they hold onto the history and culture of Prague’s Jewish population. And because the Golem has escaped Prague, too, it symbolically opens the way for Joe to escape into his comic books, and fight for the freedom of the Jewish people through his art and words. Chabon ties together these stories in a meaningful fashion, so that the acts of escaping, remembering, and saving each other become one.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a testament to the power of imagination and creativity. It demonstrates how our desires and experiences, important in and of themselves, can create brilliant art and stories. In Kavalier and Clay, the absorbing and addictive imagination of the characters is wrapped up in their equally engrossing and poignant lives and struggles, as we the reader learn about what drives Joe, Sam, and the other people in their lives.

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About the Contributor
Anya Geist, Editor-In-Chief
I am very happy to be the co-Editor-In-Chief of the Colonel Chronicle. I have always loved writing and connecting with my community, and journalism allows me to do both of those things. In addition to working for the Colonel Chronicle, I am the co-Editor-in-Chief of the Apricot Journal (South's literary magazine), and I swim and play tennis for South. Outside of school, I love reading, traveling, being outside, and spending time with family and friends. Here's my email: [email protected]
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