Have you read the book in full? It is often difficult to see how a certain scene or plotline fits into the overarching plot of a book until you have read a bit further, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is no exception. The first few chapters of any book are intended to be setup for the action that unfolds later on. So keep this in mind as you read, if you find any confusing elements – perhaps they will be recalled and explained later in the story.
In Chapter 1, we are introduced to our first main character – the Clay of the title, Samuel Klayman, a second-general Czech Jew living in Brooklyn. A few pages in Sammy meets Joe, his cousin from Prague – Josef Kavalier, our second eponymous character. We know by Chapter 2 that the story begins in 1939, at the very outset of World War II, a time of intense unrest in Europe and a period of increasing danger if you’re a Jew in Hitler’s domain. We know that Joe has managed to escape the danger – he has made his way to America, to share Sam’s bed, though the rest of his family has remained in Prague. In Chapter 2 we get the beginnings of an explanation as to how and why Joe made it out of the country. We learn that “it was only through the persistence of an American aunt [Sam’s mother] and the geographical fluke of his birth in the Soviet Union that Josef has been able to obtain a U.S. entry visa.” But the entry visa was not the problem – his exit visa had been deemed incomplete, and so, rather than return to his family and face the shame of his predicament (his family has spent all the money they had, and then some, to free him from the country), he has gone to his old teacher, the escape artist Bernard Kornblum, to help smuggle him out of the country.
In this chapter we are being set up for the miracle of Joe’s escape from Prague, as well introduced to the symbol of the Golem that will crop up several times over the course of the story. Later we will learn that the Golem’s fate and Joe’s own are intertwined, and Kornblum, at least at first, is the proprietor of both. Kornblum has played a very important role in Joe’s life already, and with his introduction in Chapter 2 we will soon get a further explanation as to what this role truly means for Joe’s past and for his future.
Kornblum is an escape artist, remember, and on the very first page of the novel Sam mentions The Escapist – the fruit of his imagination, yes, but grounded in reality. There are several mentions of Harry Houdini already in the book, and in the first chapter Chabon reveals that Sammy “dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape.” Likewise, at the beginning of Chapter 2, we learn that “It was a caterpillar scheme…that had ultimately carried Josef Kavalier across Asia…to his cousin’s narrow bed.” So in the first two chapters we are getting introduced to the most consistent and important theme of the novel – escapism and metamorphosis.
Keep reading! It will all come together – this is an deftly ingenious, beautifully written book, and the plot is tightly woven. The more you read the clearer everything will become.