The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

by Michael Chabon
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

Michael Chabon’s work has been well received both critically and popularly since his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988); his third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Chabon’s work has been praised for many factors, primarily his intricate, believable characterizations and highly developed, artistic prose.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay brings together Chabon’s most important themes: the search for identity, the persistent need for humans to escape (from society’s strictures, family expectations, and even themselves), and the importance of art in dealing with human identity and emotions. It deals with these themes by using comic book artists and characters to represent the need for escape, literally and figuratively. Josef Kavalier studies to be an escape artist and uses the skills learned from his teacher to literally escape the Nazis. He then becomes obsessed with helping his family escape, though his attempts all fail. He escapes his anger over his brother’s death by joining the Navy and escapes from the mother of his child because he cannot imagine his own happiness.

Samuel Klayman is also in the constant process of attempting escape, as he tries to leave his mother, his boring life in Brooklyn, and his growing realization of his own homosexuality—he even escapes from his identity by adopting the pen name Sammy Clay. Though he is in love with Tracy Bacon, Samuel escapes from the train that is to take them to Los Angeles because he cannot bear the stigma of homosexuality. After he marries Rosa and helps her raise Josef’s son, he views his suburban life in Long Island as a kind of prison. Even Tommy, Rosa’s son, contrives to escape from his boring days at school to visit Josef in Manhattan.

Creating art is represented in the novel as a crucial method used by the characters to express their inner longings; their most popular character is called “The Escapist.” The Escapist shares characteristics of both Josef and Samuel and exists in the comic pantheon that includes other characters who are created by Jewish authors and who are seen as representing the immigrant experience. The most famous of these is Superman. Josef’s anger at the Nazis is expressed in his art, and he refuses to compromise on this. As Josef comes to terms with his rage and guilt, he writes an epic comic based on the golem. The comic draws strongly on his Jewish origins and thus represents his acceptance of his identity. Samuel’s final escape to Los Angeles to live an openly gay life shows his acceptance of his true self also.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay most directly explicates Chabon’s core themes—and resolves them—when it most clearly represents art as a healing force. It also represents comics as important cultural touchstones that are deeply meaningful and transformative, rather than just shallow and superficial. The novel intricately and lavishly describes the comic-book art produced by Josef and its place in Jewish American culture and history. It thus simultaneously comments on and transforms that history, using fictional works of art to comment upon the actual role of art in life.

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Critical Overview