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Michael Chabon is primarily a “mainstream” author (some of his book titles, such as Werewolves in Their Youth and A Model World and Other Stories are misleading). Even his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay looks, if one is not careful, like a wholly mainstream book. But it is not.
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Regrettably, this is one of those cases in which I cannot explain an important point without giving a material “spoiler” for the book, so till you read the book you will just have to take my word for it that there is definitely an element of the fantastic in it; that element is thematically important, too, though Chabon manages to relate it so simply, briefly, and realistically that the casual reader will scarcely realize that something not of the real world as we know it has been snuck in.
Even were the book wholly mainstream, it would be of interest and amusement value to many readers of speculative fiction, because many such readers’ interest in the fantastic will go right back to childhood and comic books, and the comic-book industry in its proverbial “Golden Age” is the tapestry on which the characters of the tale play out their parts. Chabon spent quite some time interviewing major figures in the trade before undertaking the book, and thus the atmosphere as well as the realities of the trade, today and then, are portrayed with an accuracy that is alternately uproariously funny and deeply sad.
The plot of the book much resembles in many ways (but by no means all) the real-life story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the fellows who, as teenagers, created the character Superman and, scarcely realizing what they were doing, sold the rights for $140 (worth more then than now, but still), and were eventually driven away from even working on their creation as employees and lived thereafter in genteel poverty till well along in years, when some meager restitution was finally made (Chabon has explicitly acknowledged their story as his inspiration).
(Some relevant comments and interpretation on Siegel and Shuster, and on the larger significance of their creation, can be found here, though the degree to which they were viciously screwed is thoroughly glossed over.)
But Kavalier & Clay is not a tale focussed on the incidents in Siegel’s and Shuster’s lives: it is a tale that uses their general history as a springboard for a story much wider and deeper, both in time and geography and in meaning and implication. The character young Sammy Clay and his refugee cousin Joe Klay devise, “The Escapist”, is at first a costumed mortal, then—as such things often went in the comics—becomes possessed of superhuman powers. His forte, of course, is escaping—escaping from ever-more-ingenious seemingly impossible cliff-hanger situations. In reality, the entire book is, in several different and subtly interwoven strands of treatment, about “escape”, from the overt escape of the young Jew Joseph Klay from Nazi-controlled Prague to the needs so many of the various characters in the tale feel to escape one or another circumstance of their own lives, or even of their own selves. The moral displayed, if we can speak thus glibly of this magnificent tapestry of tale-telling, is that you don’t ever escape anything: you turn and fight it or it eventually catches you in one way or another no matter how far you run.
As usual, I will now look at the book in the light of the four criteria I so often mention: writing, plot, setting, and characterization. Chabon’s writing is of that delicious crystalline sort that does not stand between the reader and the text by any stylistic tricks but yet describes what it sets out to describe with exactness. Here’s one sample:
The following day, a Saturday—this was about a week after Joe had learned of his father’s death—Sammy took him to see a Brooklyn Dodgers football game. The idea was to get Joe out into the air and cheer him up a little. Sammy was partial to football, and seemed to have a particular fondness for the Dodgers’ star back, Ace Parker. Joe had seen English rugby played in Prague, and once he decided there was no great difference between it and American football, he gave up trying to pay attention to the game and just sat smoking and drinking beer in the sharp raw breeze. Ebbets Field had a faintly ramshackle air that reminded him of a drawing in a comic strip—Popeye or Toonerville Trolley. Pigeons wheeled in the dark spaces of the grandstands. There was a smell of hair oil and beer and a fainter one of whiskey. The men in the crowd passed flasks and muttered comically violent sentiments.
It starts off with almost Hemingway-esque punchy sentences, then expands and breathes deeply, as it were. We get the full sense surround, an atmosphere deftly portrayed in a few crisp phrases where others might labor away for paragraphs. It is the sort of quiet, unassuming prose that is always a pleasure to read—a trick that looks so easy when done right, yet is so sadly scarce. (It has been famously observed that the hallmark of a top professional at any difficult task is to make whatever it is look easy.)
As to plot: here too Chabon satisfies. There are, as I remarked above, distinct strands in the narrative, but while Chabon develops each with as much care as if it were an entire tale on its own (which, in a sense, each is), he also manages to eventually weave them together in ways that not only make a grander overall plot, but which play them off one against another as variations on a theme, each highlighting some aspect of the others. Each strand has its own plot, with twists and turns, and the end result of their weaving is at once as complex as life itself, yet—because of their unifying theme, ultimately not only comprehensible but elegant.
Chabon’s setting is our ordinary historical world of the eras portrayed, from the 1930s through the ’50s, but as Chabon depicts it, through the eyes of his characters, it is a marvelous, wonderful, brightly colored place (as the past so often is compared to the present—it’s a sobering thought that someday our times will seem so to others). Sammy and Joe and their numerous co-characters are, for much of the tale, young and filled with the exuberance and optimism of youth. As the quotation above demonstrates, Chabon can convey the very smell of the times and places with almost heartbreaking perfection.
Adding to the verisimilitude, Chabon works historical personages from Salvador Dali to then-Governor Al Smith into the plot, and adds footnotes as if he were recounting actual biographies rather than a fictional tale—some historically accurate and some pure inventions concerning his fictional characters and, usually, some real persons or events.
And on the smaller scale, the specific world of the fledgling comic-book industry, he also conveys wonderfully a sense of that bizarre, at once fantastic and mundane ongoing carnival:
He resumed his pacing and radio-announcer tone and continued to compose his historic series of exclamations.
“To all those who toil in the bonds of slavery and, uh, the shackles of oppression, he offers the hope of liberation and the promise of freedom!” His delivery grew more assured now. “Armed with superb physical and mental training, a crack team of assistants, and ancient wisdom, he roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains! He is”—he paused and threw Joe a helpless, gleeful glance, on the point of vanishing completely into his story now—“the Escapist!”
“‘The Escapist.’ Joe tried it out. It sounded magnificent to his unschooled ear—someone trustworthy and useful and strong. “He is an escape artist in a costume. Who fights crime."
“He doesn’t just fight it. He frees the world of it. He frees people, see? He comes in the darkest hour. He watches from the shadows. Guided only by the light from—the light from—”
“His Golden Key.”
“I see,” Joe said.
Naive, amusing, jolly: and all the while made wrenchingly ironic by the contemporary flowering of the Nazis that the teenage Joe Kavalier himself has so recently escaped. As I said, the variations on “escape” in the tale are numerous and interlocked like a tangle puzzle, save that there never is an “escape”, from Nazi brutality or anything else: it, whatever “it” it may be, must be faced and fought. (Chabon conveys this, at a measured, deliberate pace, much more subtly and elegantly than my necessarily short presentation brutally telescopes it down into.)
Finally, as to characterization, here too Chabon rings true and clear. His people all, down to the least minor figure, are three-dimensional, with enough quirks to be individual but not so many as to be caricatures. These really rather ordinary people have the strengths, the weaknesses, and sometimes the greatness, that real people have could we but look into their lives and minds the way a novelist can into his characters’ minds and lives. But they are not simply sketches from life: each of the chief characters is interesting, even fascinating, for himself or herself, not merely for the times and adventures they live through.
One of the other recurring motifs, related to the main theme, is in part the reason the book falls, if barely, within our fields, but—as I said before—I feel that to even mention it here would subtract somewhat from its effect as it is encountered in the tale.
The solution for you is simple: get this book and read it.
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This is classed a “young adult” book, and it shows that a little more than it should. It is still good reading for an adult, but that is a left-handed compliment for a book from a writer this good.
The book supposedly revolves around baseball, and follows its youthful protagonist through several layers of reality, and practically every mythology ever, to a cosmic confrontation with The Bad Guy. Its chief virtue is that it is well-written and sprightly; and it is sufficiently pleasing in those respects to somewhat more than balance its defects.
Those defects are, regrettably, several. For one, it is unfocussed: it is a very Oz-like succession of ad hoc circumstances, characters, and resolutions: let’s go over this hill and see what new scrap of which mythology will be waved at us. For another, it is, in my opinion, altogether too casual about its metaphysics—the universe is neither so simple and silly, nor so trivial, as it is portrayed here, and even a “young-adult” book ought to do better. For a third, its supposed focus on baseball as some deep universal magic is stated far more than shown; it is as if every so often a baseball game needs to break out to support the metaphor. Chabon knows better: on his site (when he still had one), he exhibited his familiarity with Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, so it is hard to say what happened here. It’s rather as if ideas for several different books got mixed together and came out as one.
(Lest anyone think that baseball somehow puts me off, be aware that I spent almost twenty years as a consultant to major-league ball clubs, and—if I say it myself—helped to some nontrivial extent in the growing modernization of the sport by the use of analysis; I am, in fact, the guy who first instructed Billy Beane in what later became known as “Moneyball”.)
All for all, I’d sum Summerland as a pleasant but distinctly minor work from a distinctly major author.
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Chabon used to have his own web site, but no more. But there is (and Chabon pointed to it as an alternative), The Amazing Website of Kavalier & Klay, whose focus is self-evident but which has much general Chabon-related material. There’s also an essay on Chabon, Exploring larger worlds: The exuberant realism of Michael Chabon at the Pulitzer web site (yes, the prize).
There is quite a lot of further Chabon stuff on the net, including several short interviews, but in my opinion most of it is ridiculously superficial, scarcely worth the “spoiler” effect. The brief bio-sweep at his agent’s Chabon page is mildly informative and not particularly spoiler-ish. Beyond that little, there’s not much with any depth or bite to it.
Those wanting to read some articles and essays by Chabon can find links to several at The New York Review of Books, but beyond the first paragraph or so of each, they are not free reading.
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All I can find is Understanding Michael Chabon by Joseph Dewey.
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