Absolutely gosh-wow, super-colossal — smart, funny, and a continual pleasure to read.” — The Washington Post Book World
I totally, 100% agree. The above blurb hinges on one word for me: “continual.” I began this book in the fall with the expectation of loving it. My brother bought it for me and told me how spectacular it was, and usually he and I agree on books. Usually. It is now spring. I picked up the book this week where it has lingered first on the bedside table for months and then from the bookshelf where I relegate books I know I should read but don’t want to so I put them here where I have to look at them every day and feel guilty about not reading them. In all fairness, I set it aside when I was about 160 pages in – which is a lot – but in a work of 656 pages, is a pittance. I was simply bogged down. I finished it this afternoon, thus, a “continual” process. However, the book is all those other things the Post exalts it to be – “gosh-wow, super-colossal” etcetera, etcetera.
The plot is amazing. Josef Kavalier, as a young man, is fascinated with magic and learns at the hands of the master, Kornblum, in Prague. He is an escapist and fulfills his destiny by escaping Nazi-controlled Prague and managing to get to Brooklyn where his cousin Sammy Clay lives. Sammy wants to be a writer but is currently a lowly inventory clerk at Empire Novelties. They cook up a scheme to make a lot of money off comic book sales. Joe is in because he wants to bring the rest of his family over from Prague. Sammy suffers from low self-esteem and the ever-present fear that nothing he does is good enough. Throughout the novel, there are many great characters, and midway through, Rosa Saks becomes a major player who loves both men, though in different ways.
Because of its length, it is easy to get wrapped up in the flashbacks or side scenes or the wordy sentences Chabon crafts. It is the very beginning, though, that tells you the main theme of this book:
…back when [Sammy] was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini …. “You weren’t the same person when you came out as when you went in …. It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation” …. His dreams had always been Houdiniesque: they were the dreams of a pupa struggling in its blind cocoon, mad for a taste of light and air.
As much as the book seems to be about the idea of escape, whether literal (Joe’s escape from Prague and later Sam’s escape from possible ruination) or figurative (the escapism of comic books), the novel is really a discussion of the change that any of these instances can impose. These escapes are the catalyst, although sometimes latent, allowing for true transformation or freedom to occur. Joe says late in the book that
the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to [him] actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf (575).
He goes on to say that the
pain of his loss – though he would never have spoken of it in these terms – was always with him in those days, a cold smooth ball lodged in his chest, just behind his sternum (575).
but that reading Betty and Veronica eased the icy ball, helping to ease that pain and heartache. It wasn’t just that these stories, these pulpy “trash” as some referred to the comics allowed him to forget about his losses but that they allowed him to meld that loss into a life where he could be happy.
I loved the characters. I wanted them to be happy. I hurt when they hurt. That being said, I was very conscious that I was reading this book. I wasn’t wrapped up in it. There were times when Chabon lost me. There were moments when I swore if I read another sentence as long and convoluted as the last that I would put down the book and mark it off my list as “I sure gave it my best…” Chabon likes his sentences. They’re pretty, and he knows it. I wish he weren’t so darn conscious of that fact. Sentences such as these came hard and fast:
The same masturbatory intensity of concentration that Joe has once brought to the study of magic and wireless sets he now focused on the fledgling, bastard, wide-open art form into whose raffish embrace he had fallen.
From Hogarth he learned to trouble over the emotional occasion, so to speak, of a panel, choosing carefully, among the infinitude of potential instants to arrest and depict, the one in which the characters’ emotions were most extreme.
After a while, these sentences weigh you down as you are reading, not only making you conscious of the heavy-handed narrator, but also making you conscious of the fact that Chabon is “telling” you quite a bit. I’m partial to minimalist writers – there’s no shame in writing a SBS “short but sweet” sentence.
There are also moments of extreme beauty, where the art melds seamlessly with the telling:
Joe felt feverish and a little dizzy, and the cool talcum smell of Shalimar she gave off was like a guardrail he could lean against. They had drawn very close together, and now, as he tried and failed to prevent himself from thinking of her lying naked and facedown on Jerry Glovsky’s bed, her broad downy backside with its dark furrow, the alluvial hollow of her spine, she took a step backward and studied him.
My other complaint would be that in the extreme wordiness Chabon sometimes employs, there were moments that felt rushed. *Spoiler* Nearly midway through the novel, Rosa invites Joe up to her studio/bedroom, and Sammy walks in as they are kissing. Sammy is shaken:
In Joe’s absence, he had undergone a strange experience. He had wandered through the ballroom …. [and] had come upon the unlikely sight of two men, each wearing, with the overdetermination of a dream, a necktie and a mustache, embracing, their mustaches interlocked.
He asks himself
What had so rattled Sammy about the scene he had witnessed? What was he afraid of? Why was he running away?
And then moments later, Rosa asks Joe,
Is he a fairy?
The setup, to me, was all just a little too obvious and forced. It is surprising, then, that Chabon writes some of the most beautiful scenes about Sammy and his lover. The buildup here is natural and filled with wonder. Tracy Bacon, Sammy’s boyfriend, takes him to the fairgrounds and the exhibit of the future, a place Sammy loved growing up. They sneak inside using their lighters to see. Sammy burns his fingers, and
They lay there for a few seconds, in the dark, in the future, with Sammy’s sore fingertips in Tracy Bacon’s mouth, listening to the fabulous clockwork of their hearts and lungs, and loving each other.
I guess, for me, this was the biggest struggle in reading this book: there were moments I was thrilled and following Chabon’s characters, loving them, knowing them, and moments when I wanted to skim through the sentences that felt somewhat superfluous in such an intriguing story.
All in all, I suggest it because of the points above. This is an epic novel, spanning decades, wars, loves, hates, and too many deaths. It is lovely and brutal, but I sure hope Chabon’s editor is a bit more heavy-handed in the future. A few more reviews here and here.