30. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) 636 p.


The second Pulitzer Prize winner I’ve read this year, the second Chabon novel, and the second story about an Eastern European immigrant coming to live in New York with his cousin, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is over 600 pages long; a daunting read. But it was brilliant enough that I breezed through it in only ten days. For most of that time, the novel was engaged in a vicious struggle with Life of Pi for the position of my second-favourite book of the year (Watchmen is unassailable). Somewhere around page 450 Life of Pi was sent down the ladder licking its wounds to sulk in third place.

As a set-up, I’m going to let the blurb speak for itself, partly because it’s one of the only blurbs I’ve ever noticed to be at least decently written.

One night in 1939, Josef Kavalier shuffles into his cousin Sam Clay’s cramped New York bedroom, his arduous, nerve-wracking escape from Prague finally achieved. So begins the friendship and partnership that will create The Escapist, a comic strip about a Nazi-busting saviour who liberates the oppressed around the world. It makes their fortune and their name but Joe can think of only one thing: how can he effect a real-life escape for his family from the tyranny of Hitler?

Mostly, however, because I hesitate to give any further description than that. This is the kind of book where you want to discover everything for yourself. Suffice to say that it is a vast epic, spanning a large amount of time with a heavily nostalgic feel for a long-vanished era, from the stately mansions and streetlamps of Prague to the steamy streets of New York City to a frigid military base in a desolate land. I’d immediately identified Chabon as a grandmaster of the English language when reading Gentlemen of the Road, and Kavalier & Clay further reinforced this belief. The sense and feeling of New York City at the brink of World War II, in a vanished era of airships and newsreels and the rise of comic books, is perfectly captured by Chabon’s vivid descriptions and elegant prose. As the duo venture through a tangled spiderweb of bildungsroman, the book leaves behind an impression in the mind of certain places, people and events that are so beautifully described they almost feel like actual memories: the fog-bound Murnau River at night, the bohemian mess of an artist’s studio in Greenwich Village, or the bold, impregnable grandeur of the mighty Empire State Building that dominates the most critical junctures of the story.

The novel jumps across space and time, written occasionally in the manner of a textbook studying the rise of the comic industry, with regular footnotes about the fate of this artifact or that character. In Chabon’s hands this technique works wonderfully, and most readers would never even notice the frequent shifts in narratorial voice, which jumps from inside a character’s mind to the voice of a comic book narrator to the notes of a scholarly researcher. Many sections, especially some of the early chapters, could stand as excellent short stories in their own right. The fourth part of the book, entitled “Radioman,” lasts only sixty odd pages and yet was one of the greatest passages of fiction I have ever read. If I can ever write something as good as that I will die a happy man.

This book succeeds on every level. Characters, plot, pacing, style, everything. It’s like the exact opposite of the last book I read. I feel like I’m not saying enough but, again, it’s better to just read it without any knowledge. By far one of the best books I’ve ever read and recommended to absolutely everyone.

Books: 30/50
Pages: 9335