The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

by Michael Chabon
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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Analysis

  • In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the comic series that Joe and Sammy create reflects the political and personal spheres of their lives. With the figure of the Escapist, the artists portray a retaliation against the forces of fascism and anti-Semitism; this is particularly salient for Joe, whose family remains in German-occupied Prague.
  • The Escapist mirrors the legendary Golem, a powerful earthen giant who protects the Jewish community of Prague, Later in the novel, Joe returns to comics by devising a series directly about the Golem itself.

Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2050

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is about the history of American comic books, the Holocaust, World War II, American suburbia after the war, censorship, homosexuality, magic, art, and romance. After two highly praised novels on a smaller scale, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh(1988) and Wonder Boys (1995), Michael Chabon has created a Pulitzer Prize-winning, epic vision of mid-century America.

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Sammy Klayman meets Josef Kavalier when his nineteen-year-old cousin arrives in Brooklyn from Czechoslovakia in 1939. Joe has escaped from the Nazi terror by hiding, with the help of Bernard Kornblum, his mentor in magic, inside a coffin containing the Prague Golem, the legendary clay figure that once came to life. With the Golem, Joe makes his way to Lithuania and then to the United States on his own. Having forsaken his ambition to be a magician modeled after his hero, Harry Houdini, when one of his escape stunts almost drowned him and his younger brother, Thomas, Joe plans to be an artist. When Sammy, a less talented artist, introduces Joe to the new world of comic books with their superheroes (Superman and Batman having recently been created), the cousins create the Escapist. Sammy convinces Sheldon Anapol, his boss at Empire Novelties, to give comic books a try as a means of advertising his products, and within a year Empire Comics is thriving, with the Escapist joined by several more crime-fighting characters; Sammy is responsible each month for over “two hundred pages of art and wholesale imaginary slaughter.”

The small, sickly Sammy blossoms as the primary writer for Empire Comics; his cousin has “animated” him just as the Rabbi Loew of legend breathed life into the clay Golem. Joe, in contrast, saves most of his money in the hope of getting his brother and parents out of Europe. Joe is everything Sammy longs to be: artistic, attractive, sure of himself. Sammy also feels drawn to his cousin by erotic emotions he does not understand or trust. More erotic tension is created when Joe meets Greenwich Village artist Rosa Saks, who falls for Joe and understands Sammy’s feelings for him better than Sammy himself.

The Escapist is the alter ego of both men. Sammy makes the superhero’s true identity that of an uncertain teenager with a limp, just like himself, and Joe uses him to beat up on the Nazis, help the oppressed, and win the war, just as he wishes he could do. Sammy worries that Joe might be “overcome by the imprisoning futility of his rage.” After learning of his father’s death, Joe indulges this rage by picking fights with Germans and Americans sympathetic to Hitler, leading to a clumsy assassination attempt while Joe is performing his rediscovered magic act at a bar mitzvah. He even feels guilty when he enjoys himself at the party where he meets Rosa. He wins Rosa’s heart forever at this event by using the skills taught by Kornblum to save the life of Salvador Dali, who, in one of his Surrealist stunts, is suffocating inside a diving helmet. (There are also notable cameos by Al Smith, who helped create the Empire State Building, where Empire Comics has its office, and Orson Welles, a big fan of the Escapist.) Through Rosa’s work at the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, Joe learns that he can pay for Thomas’s passage to America. After many delays, the ship carrying Thomas and hundreds of other children fleeing the Nazis is torpedoed by a U-boat, and all are killed. Confronted with the greatest despair of his life, Joe enlists to fight the enemy. At almost the same time, Sammy has given in to his homosexual impulses and begun an affair with Tracy Bacon, the handsome actor who plays the Escapist on the radio. When a weekend party at the New Jersey shore mansion of the program’s sponsor is raided, Sammy decides not to follow Tracy to Hollywood. Neither Sammy nor Rosa hears from Joe for over a decade. Finding herself pregnant, Rosa marries Sammy. The last section of the novel presents the couple’s suburban life in Bloomtown, Long Island (patterned after Levittown), raising their son, Tommy. Rosa becomes a highly successful artist for romance comics while Sammy moves from one unfulfilling job to another, spending years trying to complete a novel appropriately entitled “American Disillusionment.” After they are finally reunited with Joe, thanks to a clever intervention by thirteen-year-old Tommy, the trio begin to face the truth about themselves.

In Joe and Sammy, Chabon has created two complex protagonists, guilt-ridden and insecure. Joe feels guilty for leaving his family behind and for participating in the freedoms offered by America. An essentially secretive person, he can never be completely open with either Sammy or Rosa. This burden of secrecy prevents him from reading Rosa’s letters to him until near the end of the war; he has resolved to have nothing to do with her, their son, or Sammy afterward. His self-imposed exile also results from his inability to come to terms with the loss of his other family in the Holocaust. He must suffer to try to compensate for their deaths. When his love for Rosa and their son finally overcomes this resolve, Rosa feels he has returned “from somewhere distant and beautiful and unimaginably bleak.”

Nothing comes easily for Joe. After he enlists in the Army, his quest for revenge against the Nazis is thwarted when he is stationed in the hostile environment of Antarctica to monitor the airwaves for U-boat transmissions. In Kelvinator Station, hostile nature and the unexpected are as much his enemies as the Germans. A malfunctioning stove kills all but one of his fellow airmen, and that survivor later dies of a burst appendix. The Antarctic adventure ends with Joe’s eventful chance at revenge as he, though not a pilot, flies a thousand miles across the ice to confront the sole survivor at a German encampment, with results typical of Chabon’s irony. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay would be a major novel without this episode, with its echoes of Jack London, but this brilliantly written tale within a tale makes Chabon’s achievement even more impressive.

Joe is constantly being tested, surviving several near drownings, an explosion, carbon-monoxide poisoning, a plane crash, an infected bullet wound, and a foolish plunge from the Empire State Building. Though he does not bring about all these events, Joe seems bent on self-destruction. Envying both the Golem and the Escapist, Joe finds peace only with art, spending the years after the war on a 2,256-page wordless illustrated novel about the Golem, trying to make sense of his life and his Jewishness.

While Joe sees himself as flawed, Sammy has the opposite point of view. His sense of inadequacy and his need for wish fulfillment draw him to the world of comic books, but even his success in this field is not enough because he is convinced comics are an inadequate art. Sammy is lame because of childhood polio, is not the equal of Joe or Rosa as an artist, and feels confused about his repressed homosexuality before meeting Tracy and guilty afterward for giving in to his impulses. With either Joe or Tracy he feels secondary and fears that he is “becoming a professional sidekick.” He always provides sidekicks for his superheroes, leading one of his fellow comic-book artists to exclaim, “Christ, he even gave a sidekick to the Lone Wolf!”

Sammy lets Tracy go to Hollywood alone and decides to marry the abandoned Rosa because his love for Tracy is “not worth the danger, the shame, the risk of arrest and opprobrium.” He and Rosa develop an affectionate domestic routine that Joe envies, but Joe understands and is appalled by his cousin’s sacrifice—“not a merely gallant gesture but a deliberate and conscious act of self-immurement.” Though Sammy enjoys being Tommy’s father, his placid suburban existence is far from fulfilling.

Sammy’s sexual-identity dilemma is central to the escape theme in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Joe and Sammy are constantly escaping to or from something or plotting to escape. Kornblum sees Joe as

one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists not to prove the superior machinery of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons. Such men feel imprisoned by invisible chains—walled in, sewn up in layers of batting.

Houdini is not just a figure for admiration and emulation but a symbol of the escape impulse experienced by Joe and Sammy and carried out in their stead by the Escapist, a mixture, says Sammy, of Houdini, Robin Hood, and Albert Schweitzer.

If escape is Chabon’s main theme, art is the primary means of achieving it. Joe’s Escapist drawings articulate “the simple joy of unfettered movement, of the able body, in a way that captured the yearnings not only of his crippled cousin but of an entire generation of weaklings, stumblebums, and playground goats.” Like true artists, Joe and Sammy are never satisfied, always looking for ways to expand their artistic borders. After seeing Citizen Kane (1941), Joe is inspired by Welles’s cinematic style: “All of the dissatisfactions he had felt in his practice of the art form he had stumbled across within a week of his arrival in America . . . seemed capable of being completely overcome, exceeded, and escaped.” He and Sammy decide to make comic books appeal, for the first time, to a wider audience through “artfully disarranged, dislocated panels that stretched, shrank, opened into circles, spread across two full pages, marched diagonally toward one corner of a page, unreeled themselves like the frames of a film.”

Chabon’s fiction is mostly about the relationships between men, with his women filling secondary roles. Rosa, however, is his most vivid female character. Rosa has neglected her art for her roles as wife and mother until Sammy hires her to illustrate romance comics and she finds her true calling. Her art, compared to the baroque films of Douglas Sirk, works so well because she believes in it, creating, with passion and nostalgia, a “beautiful madness” unheard of in comic books.

Chabon’s major theme is how art, even—and sometimes especially—in its humblest forms, can invigorate the lives of the artists and their audiences. Chabon champions popular culture (films, pulp fiction, baseball) throughout his fiction, and he makes a case for the importance of comic books in Western culture. Not only do they create vicarious adventures, but they also define some essence of American life through “the genuine magic of art.”

Chabon has said in interviews that he was inspired by Jonathan Yardley’s comment on reviewing Wonder Boys in The Washington Post Book World that the novelist had proven his skill at writing brilliant works in a minor key but should aim higher. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay does this by masterfully interweaving such subjects as exile, loss, guilt, revenge, love, war, ethnic and sexual identity, family, and art. Throughout this huge—in both length and scope—novel, Chabon displays his greatest gift: his ability to write memorable, quotable, hilarious, moving scenes and passages. He makes New York both an essential character and a bright symbol of the promise of America:

To the south, [Joe] glimpsed the Manhattan Bridge, with its Parisian air, refined, elegant, its skirts hiked to reveal tapered steel legs, and, beyond, the Brooklyn Bridge, like a great ropy strand of muscle. In the other direction lay the Queensboro Bridge, like two great iron tsarinas linking hands to dance. And before him, the city that had sheltered him and swallowed him and made him a modest fortune loomed, gray and brown, festooned with swags and boas of some misty gray stuff, a compound of harbor fog and spring dew and its own steamy exhalations.

Chabon has delivered the masterpiece his supporters have hoped for.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (August, 2000): 2074.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 8, 2000, p. 2.

New York 37 (September 25, 2000): 63.

The New York Times, September 21, 2000, p. B10.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (September 24, 2000): 8.

Newsweek 136 (September 25, 2000): 69.

The Observer, October 15, 2000, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly 247 (August 21, 2000): 44.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 1, 2000, p. REV1.

Time 156 (September 25, 2000): 103.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 6, 2000, p. 24.

USA Today, September 21, 2000, p. D6.

The Washington Post Book World, September 17, 2000, p. 15.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on April 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

Allusion

Allusion occurs when an author refers to people, events, symbols, or stories external to his or her story. Allusions may be only hinted or implied as the author assumes the reader understands the connection and what it means. Allusions are an economical device, permitting an author to introduce new ideas without a long explanation. Usually comprehension of an allusion is not critical to a basic understanding of a story, but the reader’s experience is enhanced if he or she does recognize what the author is trying to say. The title of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an allusion to common comic book titles. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are an allusion to Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman. Tracey Bacon’s name is an allusion to kosher law because he and his love is forbidden to Sammy, a good Jewish boy.

Chabon alludes to mythology when he compares Joe’s leaving Prague with the legendary Jewish hero Golem. According to folklore, Golem, a larger-than-life automaton, was sculpted by Rabbi Loew in the sixteenth century from river mud pulled from the banks of the Moldau. Golem was created to protect the Jews of Prague and was awakened when need arose. Sammy Clay’s name is an allusion to the Golem; when he is no longer essential at the end of the story, he leaves, having accomplished his task of helping Rosa, Joe, and Tommy.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing occurs when an image or event in a story gives information about what is going to happen later in the text. In Kavalier & Clay, the smuggling of the Golem out of Prague foreshadows doom for the Jews in Prague because the Golem, the legendary hero, is made unavailable when they need help the most. Joe and Thomas’s near drowning in the River Moldau foreshadows Thomas’s death by drowning six years later. Sammy’s view of Joe at the top of the fire escape of Jerry’s building, with the light slanting down on him out of a grey sky foreshadows the success of the Escapist, whom they create later that day. Joe’s sighting of a man he mistakes for his father at the docking of the Rotterdam foreshadows his father’s death. Joe’s first attempt to leave New York City foreshadows his later, dramatic departure to the U.S. Navy when the United States finally enters World War II. Foreshadowing is an important literary device which adds cohesion to the plot and allows the reader to anticipate the future event without knowing exactly when it will happen.

Title Significance

The title of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is meant to evoke the excitement and glamour of an old pulp comic book. The title promises action on an epic level because “Adventures” is plural. “Amazing” and “Adventures” and “Kavalier” and “Clay” are alliterative words, which mean the initial sounds are the same within each word pair. Alliteration makes the title flow neatly off the tongue, adding to its energy and sense of smooth composition. The title introduces, from the front cover, the two main characters of the story, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay. The placement of Joe’s last name before Sammy’s subtly hints that Joe is a more important than Sammy.

Historical Context

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Conflict in the Middle East

In the 1990s, tensions increased in Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and Iraq. Palestinian dissidents stepped up their efforts to separate from the State of Israel, and some of these protests escalated to terrorism, including bombing public places and shooting innocent people if they crossed into the wrong territory. On November 4, 1995, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist because of Rabin’s role in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Following the Gulf War in 1991, worldwide concern grew that Iraq was stockpiling weapons and possibly attempting to build nuclear weapons. The United States has historically taken a hard-line approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein, who was president of Iraq from 1979 until 2003. Hostility between Hussein and the United States threatened to escalate the problem of Iraq disarmament in the late 1990s, forcing United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan to step in and negotiate new arrangements, including U.N. inspectors to search Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. These arrangements did not last long. Paul Wolfowitz, a U.S. military analyst, called for more aggressive action, which presidents Clinton and Bush tempered with less hostile philosophies such as those proposed by then secretary of state Colin Powell.

Although there is no evidence connecting the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (the 9/11 terrorists were citizens of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt) and Iraq or Hussein, the Bush administration linked them. Overnight opinions in Washington changed in regard to the disarmament of Iraq and arguments were made for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands took to streets in the United States and in other countries to protest the aggression, to no avail.

Gaming

Comic books have maintained a presence into the 1990s in the United States, but computers and video game consoles have replaced books and magazines as the major source of solitary entertainment available to young people. The wildly popular Sony PlayStation game console was first released in 1995, using more advanced technology than was previously available for similar systems. Other companies moved quickly to keep up with PlayStation, including the Nintendo 64 in 1996, Sega Dreamcast in 1999, PlayStation 2 in 2000, and the Microsoft Xbox in 2001.

Computer games for use on personal computers became more technologically advanced in the 1990s. First-person, three-dimensional shooter games were particularly popular, games such as Doom (five separate games released from 1993–1996), Quake (1996), and Half-Life (1998). Controversy over the violent content of these games and their connection to juvenile delinquency echoes arguments made about television and movie content—or Dr. Fredric Wertham’s opinions about comic books in his book Seduction of the Innocents (1954).

Gay Rights

A decade after AIDS and HIV first appeared in the United States in 1981, this virus was still a major topic within gay and lesbian communities of the 1990s. In the early 2000s, much more was understood as to how AIDS is transmitted and can be treated, helping to reduce fear and give hope to living with the disease. Gay rights activists in the 1990s were increasingly concerned with marginalized groups such as those who are transgender or intersexual. Transgender individuals identify with a gender other than their birth gender and may undergo hormone therapy or surgery. An intersexual person is born with genitalia or secondary sexual characteristic that combine genders or are otherwise ambiguous. As with other minority groups, gay and lesbian activists seek social equality.

Y2K

Y2K is an abbreviation for the year 2000. In the late 1990s, many people became increasingly concerned about the approaching millennium change. Businesses had to check their software to make sure that it was compliant with a rollover to the year 2000, resulting in costly upgrades and overhauls. Some people were worried about sudden shortages of energy, water, or other necessities (as a result of businesses not being prepared) and chose to stock up on supplies. Cults proclaiming the end of the world and other dramatic prophesies gained some attention. The world celebrated a momentous and peaceful event the evening of December 31, 1999. Even though the millennial rollover affected businesses when moving from the year 1999 to 2000 and many people around the world believed the new millennium arrived then, others maintained that the new millennium did not arrive until January 1, 2001. The year 2000 was also the beginning of a mild recession in the United States, following a decade of strong economic growth. Thus the new millennium, for many, seemed to mark the passing of a golden age—much as Sammy feels in 1941, just before the United States enters World War II.

Rwandan Genocide

The Rwandan genocide involved two ethnic groups, the displaced Tutsis and the government-leading Hutus. Over the course of only four months in 1994, extremist Hutu militia murdered approximately one million Tutsis and Hutus. The genocide ended when Tutsi rebels finally overthrew the Hutu-led government and the Hutus fled the country. The number of people killed and how quickly they were killed was shocking. The Rwandan genocide is also significant because of the meager response of the United Nations, which failed to intervene to help prevent the genocide when mounting tensions in the region foreshadowed such an outcome. While in the early 2000s, Rwanda was still recovering from this brutal period in its history, ethnic wars continued to rage across Africa (particularly in the Democratic Congo, Burundi, and the Sudan), some motivated by continued aggression between Tutsi and Hutus.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

The most powerful technique that Chabon employs in approaching the various themes of the novel is his use of history to not only provide a backdrop behind the action, but to actively participate in the shaping of the characters and the narrative. To do this, Chabon did extensive research into the history of the time, and into the Golden Age of comic books, as is clear from his author's note at the end of the book. For the most part, he uses real places and place names, creating a kind of realism for the story. The New York City of the 1940s and 1950s comes alive as fictional characters are placed within it, and carry out their lives on its streets and in its buildings. Several real-life locations are particularly important for the story, like Louis Tannen's Magic Shop, where Joe meets other magicians in New York when he first arrives, and is where Tommy first gets a glimpse of Joe, who has finally returned to New York after his time in the service. Sammy, who because of his leg cannot be drafted, does his part for the war effort by watching the skies from the observation deck of the Empire State Building for enemy aircraft.

The dependence on real-life events and historical figures, too, add a richness to the narrative. In this way, Chabon makes historical events seem more personal, as the reader watches the fictional characters experience them. At the same time, by having the fictional characters react to history it makes their endeavors seem more significant, allowing us to not only interpret the experiences of their lives and the themes that we can glean from them, but also interpret and learn from the culture, through a more in-depth look, even if it is from a fictional standpoint. Chabon has not stayed perfectly faithful to history, shifting and manipulating when necessary, but the spirit is channeled, and present throughout. In addition, his use of an exploration of such a popular medium lends itself to a greater understanding of the culture at large, and the specific, personal ways in which it affected the people who participated in it.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Because of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay's use of history, it positions itself within a variety of discourses, unlike many other novels that deal with the same issues. Reading the novel might prompt discussion about the general themes that the novel raises that are not unique to its chosen point in time, about historical issues of that time itself, or both, the ways in which the themes with which it concerns itself have to do with the period of time in which they take place.

1. Find out more about the Golem, a figure from Jewish legend, and consider its appearances in the novel. It appears only at the beginning and end; why do you think Chabon frames his narrative in this way? What is the significance of the Golem for the themes Chabon addresses?

2. During training, Kornblum tells Joe that only love can open a certain kind of lock. What does he mean? How is this reiterated throughout the text?

3. Describe what happens to Joe while he is in Antarctica. Does he change? What does he learn? Why is that part of the novel important?

4. Compare the different "families" found in the book. What different kinds of "units" can you find? Describe their similarities and differences. How do the characters relate to these different families?

5. How do you think Sammy would describe the American dream? How would Joe? Rosa? How would you describe the American dream?

6. Consider the ending. Why do you think Sammy leaves? Where do you think he has gone? Do you think this is his way of "escaping"?

7. Why do you think Chabon uses so many historical figures in the novel? What do they do for the concerns and themes of the novel?

8. The superhero comics experienced a boom in the 1940s that dropped off towards the end of the decade. Look at some issues that were made during that time. What are some of the issues the comics address? Why do you think they were so popular?

9. Do some research to find out more about Houdini. How does his life echo the themes in the novel?

10. A constant debate concerns what constitutes "art." Do you think comic books are "art"? How do you think Chabon feels? Explain.

Social Concerns

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Extensive is perhaps the best word to use to describe The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Looking into such matters as anxiety, art, advertising, capitalism, Hollywood, loneliness, loss, war, physical disability, fatherhood, family, homosexuality, religion, escape, and exile, the novel covers social concerns that are almost as wide as the geographical experience of Joseph Kavalier, one of the two protagonists of the book, who in the course of the story finds himself in Prague, New York City, and Antarctica. The other protagonist, Sammy Clay, spends the bulk of the novel in New York, where most of the action takes place. The novel tracks the relationship of these two comic book artists—Joe draws, Sam writes—focusing on their lives in the 1940s and 1950s, when, on a grand scale, America was dealing with World War II and its aftermath, and on a lesser one, comic books were experiencing a Golden Age. At the beginning of their friendship, Joe and Sammy create the comic book hero the Escapist, a figure modeled after Superman. It begins as a marketing tool for novelty items for their boss, Sheldon Anapol, but more importantly as a way to make a name for themselves, and it is this character that leads to the height of their success. Because of these narrative matters, the main social concerns of the novel deal directly with characters' struggle to make their way and figure out their own identities in a world that is sometimes a Technicolor dream, but more often an everyday drama. Since Sammy and Joe are both Jewish (Joe also being an emigre and Sammy being homosexual), their opportunity for success is made slightly more difficult; in many ways, they do not fit into "normal" mainstream society, but what is most ironic and fitting is that they end up being responsible for one of the most popular superhero comics, the epitome of a mainstream medium.

Chabon places his novel solidly in its historical context, using real places and names throughout. By doing this, he sets up his novel as a story about America itself, and American culture at this time. Through the characters' interactions with each other and with the history in which they are placed, he is able to explore this territory to a great extent. The most evident concern is the exploration of what it meant to be an exile, or someone only partly allowed inside society, as it was most notably for the people who fled to America to escape the war in Europe, but also for the people who were considered "different" or even "subversive." Joe is the figure that works through the specific issues of physical exile, as he copes with sneaking out of Prague, unable to look back. He gets a small taste of how other European exiles deal with similar concerns when he attends a party for Salvador Dali, one of the more famous European exiles to end up in America. At the party, he saves Dali's life by extricating him from a breathing apparatus made for diving when he begins to suffocate. Dali, like many of the characters in the novel, is trapped by his own actions, and needs someone to help him escape. It is also at this party that Joe meets Rosa Luxembourg Saks, the daughter of the widowed Surrealist hosting the party. She too believes in the Surrealist practice of merging art and life, and her vitality and warmth leads Joe to feel comfortable rather than out of place.

In addition to accustoming himself to his new surroundings, Joe has to cope with his intense grief over having to leave his family as well as his deep guilt from the fact that he was able to escape whereas the rest of his family was not. Long before he meets Rosa, he had vowed to not become comfortable or complacent with his life there. He pours his money and time into arranging for his younger brother to be brought over and assuages both his grief and his guilt in this way. Despite all his effort to remain apart from pleasure and unencumbered with connections, he does grow relaxed, enjoying the success of his work with Sammy on the Escapist, and happy as a result of becoming involved with Rosa. He works out passage for his brother and several children like him, and the real success that he longs for is at hand. But then when his brother dies en route to America, Joe is reminded of his broken vows and the despair that he had heretofore been able to replace or ignore, and feelings of his impotence within the scale of the war and his life as an exile return, more powerful than before.

Because of his escape from persecution in Prague, Joe's identity is based primarily on his experience as an exile, but his problems overlap with Sammy's as Jewish men struggling to find their place in the melting pot of America. They both experience the results of the stereotypes and sometimes ostracism that occurred in general for Jews in America in the 1940s. The most rampant anti-Semitism may not have been on American soil, but this does not occlude the fact that it existed in the country that claimed most loudly to be fighting it. Sammy, who, from the beginning, is especially desirous of fame and success, is extremely aware of the possible results of his Jewish identity, as evidenced by his attempt to "whiten" himself by changing his last name from Klayman to Clay. Sammy's attempt reflects what many have since commented on with respect to the superhero comic books of the Golden Age. Most of the comic book creators at this time were Jewish, and do, in a way, represent a dream of assimilation, as their characters take on "normal" identities for the daytime—Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne— and keep their "true" identities hidden behind a mask or under a costume. The superheroes were able to fit in with society, undetected, an encouraging thought for people who might have been tired of being labeled "different."

Similarly, Sammy's difference is compounded by the fact that he is not only Jewish but also homosexual, potentially an even more dangerous thing to be in America at this time. Sammy is completely closeted when he meets Joe and seems to be somewhat unaware of his own sexual preferences. As the story progresses, Sammy, like the reader, becomes more aware of this part of his life and his inability to continue to hide it, until a friendship between Sammy and an actor named Tracy Bacon blossoms into a love affair that allows Sammy to come to terms with his homosexuality. The persecution that gays underwent and the hypocrisy often inherent in labeling "subversives" is dealt with specifically. Sammy goes with Tracy to a wealthy friend's estate on a weekend getaway for a group of prominent men and their male partners. In a fit of anger, the vengeful housekeeper reports the party to the police who raid the house and arrest most of the men. Sammy and another man manage to escape arrest by hiding, but are discovered by two FBI men, who let them leave in return for sexual favors. Later, Dr. Frederic Wertham's famous book, Seduction of the Innocent, which chronicled the way in which dangerous influences, such as comic books, created juvenile delinquents out of innocent children, makes an appearance, as Sammy is called before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. The committee hearing focuses on Sammy's tendency to create sidekicks for superheroes, which they presume to be a barely covert way of leading children into homosexuality. Sammy protests, but the committee members insist that he must be homosexual and trying to "recruit" others. This is Sammy's most public humiliation and he finds out that though McCarthyism is over, the effects remain, a fact especially driven home when people inform him that they saw his embarrassing and awkward committee appearance on television. Sammy is not forced to admit to homosexuality on television, but the barely veiled threats given by the committee strike a nerve that is already sensitive from years of wear.

Sammy's own theory about the sidekick superhero relationship does not have to do with veiled homosexuality, but rather the search for a father figure. The sidekicks are generally orphans that look to the superhero to provide direction, and ultimately an identity of their own. Sammy himself has been on a similar quest his entire life. His father, a circus strongman, was away from home most of Sammy's childhood, and died in an accident when Sammy was a teenager. Sammy's mother remains a major figure in his life, but Sammy continued to feel the pain of desertion and lack of paternal presence, until Joe arrives and he gains a partner. Joe fills most of the needs that Sammy has for companionship and guidance, but throughout the novel he is haunted by this relationship that he wishes he had had, which adds to his own feelings of inadequacy because of his physical disability (two bad legs from a childhood bout of polio). Joe, too experiences his own feelings of powerlessness, which he is able to work through in many ways in his friendship with Sammy. Each discover through their relationship to each other, and even more powerfully through their relationships with Rosa and Tracy Bacon, respectively, that love and companionship can quiet the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. By the end of the story, they understand how the unique family unit that they make together, Sammy, Joe, Rosa and their son Tommy, and the love that they share has a transformative power, and even if Sammy does not physically stay with the family, his presence is a part of them all and each part of their unit has been shaped by each of the others.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: World War II begins in 1939. The United States becomes directly involved in 1941. By the time the war ends in 1945, over 62 million soldiers and civilians are dead, marking this as the world’s deadliest war to date.

1990s: A series of civil wars and armed conflicts break out in the former Yugoslav republic in 1991 and lasts until 2001. Reported numbers of deaths vary but range between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians and soldiers on all sides.

Today: The United States invades Iraq in 2003, beginning the Second Gulf War (also known as the Iraq War). As of 2006, approximately 3,000 Americans and perhaps as many as 500,000 Iraqis have been killed.

1940s: In this Golden Age of comic books, the most popular superheroes are Superman, Batman, and Captain America.

1990s: The Modern Age of comic books is sometimes also called the Gimmick Age, the Dark Age, or the Diamond Age, for a variety of reasons. The X-men team of superheroes enjoys resurgence in popularity. Anti-heroes such as Spawn and Venom also become trendy.

Today: Japanese comic books called manga are extremely popular with readership comprising 60 percent women, a sharp contrast to the male-dominated readership of comic books. Popular series include Chobits and Doraemon.

1940s: Levitt & Sons builds the first planned suburban community, named Levittown, on Long Island in New York, starting in 1947. Over 17,000 single-family dwellings are built in five years.

1990s: In the United States, economic prosperity and cost-effective construction lead to suburban communities with exceptionally large, mass-produced houses on small plots of land. These look-alike houses are sometimes referred to as McMansions.

Today: People are more interested in higher density living for the first time in over fifty years due to environmental concerns (pollution and destruction of wildlife habitat), rising gas prices, and health concerns (people in urban areas walk more). The majority of Americans still live in suburban areas.

1940s: Letter writing and the telegraph are major forms of long-distance personal communication. The telephone is used primarily to communicate within a local area.

1990s: Electronic mail, called email, grows in popularity, thanks in part to ubiquitous usage on college campuses and within businesses.

Today: Cellular phones are a popular way for people to keep in touch as well as to express personal style. Email remains important as well.

1940s: Prior to World War II, Jews in Prague number 50,000.

1990s: Following the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews in Prague number about 800.

Today: With the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, known as the Velvet Revolution, the population of Jews in Prague rises to 1,600.

1940s: Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of the region and possible successor to Hitler, is assassinated by Czech soldiers in 1942. In 1945–1946, Czech citizens expel 3,000,000 Germans from their country in an effort to revolt against the Nazis. The Soviet Army invades in 1948 and establishes communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

1990s: Czechoslovakia divides into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The Czech Republic becomes part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999.

Today: The Czech Republic is part of the European Union. Prague is a popular city with tourists, businesses, and the film industry. The Czech economy grows but has a reputation for corruption.

Literary Precedents

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay fits nicely within a tradition of what might be considered pseudo-epic novels about individuals, which take as their setting a somewhat accurate and realistic moment in history. The use of real locations and cameo appearances of historical figures enrich the story in these novels, and the extensive historical research that went into the writing of this particular novel, described by Chabon's "Author's Note" at the end of the book, is deployed effectively as a way to explore the characters, and the history itself, more fully. Two notable participants in this kind of writing are Gore Vidal and E. L. Doctorow.

Gore Vidal, beginning with Julian in 1964, has written a few novels of this sort, most notably his American Chronicles series, which he concluded with The Golden Age in 2000. While the series tracks America and Americans over a century, this particular novel tells a story of individuals living in America in the 1940s. In this way, the novel is very similar to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for it also employs a historical background and real-life characters interspersed with fictional ones to tell its story. The difference lies in the emphasis of each novel; Vidal, not surprisingly, is more concerned with the political aspects of America, rather than the social and personal, as is Chabon. Thus, Vidal's novel is heavier on the history, and no one character dominates the narrative, as do Sammy and Joe. Chabon is much more interested in themes surrounding the personalities and personal lives of his two protagonists than the actual history itself. Vidal is also interested in the personal, but his explorations seem to be more superficial, as he is more interested in understanding the way in which individuals played roles in the making of history, rather than in the individuals themselves. In this way, one might consider Vidal's novel more didactic than Chabon's work; the history serves a much loftier purpose.

Although he has not written a novel that concerns itself exclusively with America in the 1940s, E. L. Doctorow might also be used as context for Chabon's work. Doctorow uses historical occurrences and known figures extensively in his fiction. His best-known novel, Ragtime, takes place in between the turn of the century and First World War, and is the best example of his seamless blending of historical and fictional. Doctorow's novels seem more like Chabon's than Vidal's in their emphasis more on the fictional characters and their personalities and relationships, but Doctorow's and Chabon's novels diverge in their effect on the reader's perception of history. While Doctorow's novels might suggest an interest in the construction of history itself, Chabon remains concerned with the themes that concern his characters more directly.

Adaptations

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An abridged audio version of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, read by David Colacci, is available through Nova Audio Books.

Media Adaptations

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The Amazing Website of Kavalier & Clay at http://www.sugarbombs.com/kavalier/ is a fan site for Chabon’s book created and maintained by Nate Raymond. It collects reviews, historical information, artwork, news, and more.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has been adapted as an abridged audio book narrated by David Colacci. It was produced by Brilliance Audio in 2005 and was, as of 2006, available on both compact disc and cassette tape.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 193.

Chabon, Michael, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Picador, 2000.

Kalfus, Ken, “The Golem Knows,” in New York Times Book Review, September 24, 2000, p. 8.

Maslin, Janet, “A Life and Death Story Set in Comic Book Land,” in New York Times, September 21, 2000, pp. B10, E10.

O’Nan, Stewart, Review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 17, 2000, p. G8.

Podhoretz, John, Review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in Commentary, Vol. 3, No. 6, pp. 68–72.

Further Reading

Amundsen, Roald, The South Pole, Cooper Square Press, 2001. This book gives a first-hand account of Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole.

Chabon, Michael, and others, Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, Vol. 1–3, Dark Horse Comics, 2004–2006. This series of graphic novels reprint the Escapist comic books along with original content. Dark Horse Comics launched The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist following the popularity of Chabon’s novel.

McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form, Harper, 2000. This book, told in McCloud’s boldly black and white comic style, examines the Internet as the next frontier for the comic book industry.

———, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Kitchen Sink Press, 1993. McCloud examines comics as art and as communication media. Although his arguments are rigorous, the content is laid out as a black and white comic book.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis, The Golem, illustrated by Uri Shulevitz, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982. Nobel laureate Isaac Singer retells the story of the legendary Golem of Prague. This is one of Singer’s most famous short stories.

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