The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: What if Pulp-Style Fiction Won the Pulitzer Prize?

Kavalier and Clay

I have had a few people mention to me that, despite my certainty that it would impossible to top The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon’s magnum opus is certainly The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. “Yes, yes, I know it [TYPMU] is good; but Kavalier and Clay is better!” The critics agree with that sentiment as well it seems, as Kavalier and Clay is a Pulitzer Prize Winner while Union is simply highly reviewed. I devoured the first five parts of Kavalier and Clay in three days, getting it on Christmas day and beginning almost immediately. Then I took a couple days off and reflected upon it.

I’m not sure the reason for my copious reading of the novel. I was enjoying it, absolutely, but I kept waiting for it to wow me. I wanted it to. It is supposed to, right? It won the Pulitzer Prize. However, after 469 pages, less than 200 left, I felt that the book was good, but nothing that special beyond its prose (Chabon excels again). I kept searching my mind for reasons that this novel would be deserving of the Pulitzer, keeping in mind that there were indeed 200 pages left, and perhaps the final 200 pages would be the greatest of my life. Yet the book finished and I felt generally the same beyond thinking that it was clever, but you could predict the ending from light years off.

So, what happens? If you don’t know. I do feel as if I am late to the party on this novel. It’s 1939, and Samuel Clayman is sleeping one night when he is awoken by his mother and a boy about his age. This boy is Josef Kavalier, Samuel’s Jewish cousin from Prague, and he has fled the Nazi’s through extraordinary measures. He is quiet and reserved, his thoughts rarely present, instead burdened with the knowledge that his family remains behind him. Samuel and Josef begin speaking to one another and come upon the subject of comics, where Samuel learns that Josef, in Prague, was highly trained at a prestigious art school. A long story short, with the help of a couple friends who will not actually play any meaningful role in the novel despite their beginning involved in the very basis of the novel, Josef and Samuel create the moniker Kavalier and Clay and develop the superhero The Escapist! based upon Josef’s time as a magician in prague, and his escaping the Germans.

This is the basis for the rest of the novel, but not necessarily the point. In actuality, The Escapist! is mentioned prolifically but really does feel like it is simply part of the backdrop of the book; that it could be anything that Chabon had come to mind, and that he chose comics for their uniqueness. The novel itself ends up, in classic Chabonian style, bending genres: this time mixing comic book style writing, pulp fiction (think dime store novels), and adventure (God.. another one). That is interesting, yet it is also the reason I feel that I did not enjoy the novel nearly as much as I probably could have. The style is blended well, and Chabon is the type of author that can describe a color without naming it. What ends up just not working well for me in anything other than a reflective, academic way, is the pulp fiction style that appears throughout. As I read Kavalier and Clay I was annoyed with the elements of it that were straight out of dimestore novels, namely the use of Deus Ex Machina, over the top tragedy, and simple, straightforward narration. Never did it end up reaching the point of Telegraph Avenue which makes a reader wonder why this story is being told in such a straightforward manner, but it’s noticeable while reading. There exists an outlandish scene that uses a Deus Ex Machina moment concerning Elanor Roosevelt that is clearly meant to poke fun at the pulp fiction genre, but in the moment I was disgusted with it. On a purely intellectual level I enjoy it in looking back at it; but it was not something I found enjoyable in the novel while actually reading it.

And in the end this becomes the main issue for me in deciding whether or not I liked or disliked the book: that the themes and interesting things Chabon is doing don’t coincide with things I enjoy reading. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is satisfactory when I think about it, but while I have it in my hands it feels like just another book that makes me question constantly why it won the Pulitzer Prize. I get it, now, I really do. But it wasn’t easy to get that while I actually read it. So in a dizzy way, Kavalier and Clay ends up being one of the most intellectually interesting novels I’ve read while at the same time being one of the most straightforward and predictable novels I’ve read. That in itself is enough for me to say that it is definitely worth the time to read.

Recommended to: Those who enjoy the idea of bending adventure, pulp fiction, and comic book style into a vast novel, those who are interested in a WWII novel set through the eyes of Comic book creators, and those looking for a Pulitzer Prize winner that you can easily read.

Avoid as if it’s a hooka lounge/bar/dancefloor/Pterodactyl’s Nest from Jurassic Park Three: The book is worth the time, but if you really, truly need a challenging fiction to enjoy reading then you may not like Kavalier and Clay at all.


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