Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Peanut Gallery: Kavalier and Clay

Well, after my brief soliloquy on escapism, it's funny that this should be my following post. However, this post is going to be difficult to formulate coherently because I've not been able to do anything on this topic but form half-finished gushing sentences.

I recently finished the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. In the aftermath of finishing it, there's only one way I can describe my feelings:

(This is brilliant. I've already begun using the term book hangover and gotten some weird looks from my friends for it. Thanks for your judgement, Zach :P)

But truly, I cannot stop thinking about this book. It's become my new favorite. Yes, you heard me right; it's replaced Jane Eyre which is kind of crazy because I've been in love with that book since I was fourteen or fifteen. But this book is just that amazing (plus, I loved every part of it, even if it made me feel like I'd just been run over by a tank. However, every time I get to St. John's portion of Jane Eyre, I loathe it. I have even, on occasion, skipped it on my re-reads (*gasp!*)).
Here's my attempt at a brief summary of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: Joe Kavalier, a young escape artist, flees Nazi-occupied Prague to live with his cousin, Sammy Klayman. Sammy discovers Joe is a skilled artist and the two of them endeavor to start a series of comic books. That's the bare basics. Very bare basics (like, literally the first chapter and that's it). But I hate it when I read a book and already know half of the plot (especially when the description on the back gives everything away, which this book very wonderfully did not) so I'm not going to give any spoilers. But trust me I say it's the most bloody brilliant novel I've ever read.  It's so well-written that it makes me want to crawl into a dark hole and bemoan the fact that I will never, ever be able to write like Chabon. Example:
As he watched Joe stand, blazing, on the fire escape, Sammy felt an ache in his chest that turned out to be, as so often occurs when memory and desire conjoin with a transient effect of weather, the pang of creation. The desire he felt, watching Joe, was unquestionably physical, but in the sense that Sammy wanted to inhabit the body of his cousin, not possess it. It was, in part, a longing - common enough among the inventors of heroes - to be someone else; to be more than the result of two hundred regimens and scenarios and self-improvement campaigns that always ran afoul of his perennial inability to locate an actual self to be improved. Joe Kavalier had an air of competence, of faith in his own abilities, that Sammy, by means of constant effort over the whole of his life, had finally learned only how to fake (113).
This book is such a masterpiece. Every word is perfectly selected and the flow of the sentences... it's like eating fine chocolate or gazing at a Bernini sculpture. 

It's so encompassing as well. From Houdini to Nazis to Dali to famous superheroes to Jewish Culture to New York City, this book is so... broad. I don't know how else to describe it. I feel a bit like most of the things I'm interested in or find provoking are prominent parts of this book (there's even, I kid you not, a reference to Sherlock Holmes at one point). I am in utter fangirly awe of this book. Michael Chabon, you are amazing (now I've definitely got to read The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I've only wanted to read for three years. And I've just found his autobiography, Manhood for Amateurs which I've read the first few pages of and it's AMAZING. So yes, I've become an total Chabon fangirl).

Perhaps most of all in what I love about this book is its way of talking about comic books. I grew up in a mindset that comic books were either rude and violent or cheap and for kids. Which is a goddamn shame because it's take me far too long to actually start reading them (of which I have actually read a pathetically, pathetically low amount). But comics are so, so brilliant. Visual and verbal and complex, utterly influenced by the era in which they were written, full of kick-ass superheros and interesting, complex characters. Fortunately, I started gaining an interest in comic books in high school in part because my friends read manga and I read a few of those and though, "Um... why didn't I pay attention to this stuff before?" And then I started hearing about graphic novels and read Maus and Persepolis. And now, knowing people who are interested in comic books and after watching too many Marvel movies (which is funny, because I was biased towards DC in my youth because I like Batman - at least until George Clooney played Batman. Sorry, Mr. Clooney - you are a very talented man. But that Batman movie... yeah, you know where I'm going with this), I myself have finally realized how much I love comic books. Or at least the idea of them. The only ones I've really read were Scooby Doo ones the grocery store in Warsaw (Indiana, I should emphasize that's Warsaw, INDIANA not Poland. Fun fact - all my family live in exotic-sounding towns in Indiana that when mentioned, sound way cool than the actually are. They all live in Warsaw, Kokomo, and Peru. Name-dropping those make people really excited until you explain that they're towns in the northern part of a boot-shaped state). And I recently read V for Vendetta after wanting to read it since seeing the movie when I was sixteen (fun fact number 2: I saw that film shortly before going to London for the first time ever (and only time, so far). It was really interesting how that played with my perception of the city). So, I have some serious learning to do when it comes to comic books. Fortunately for me, there's so many books that talk about comic books and movies about comic books that I know a bit about them already. So when I saw this photo on Facebook, it made me laugh as I instantly connected it back to a part of Kavalier and Clay:

And to finally round out my love of comic books is the link they have with film. Chabon goes into this great description of how comic books are influenced by the style of storytelling in narrative films like Citizen Kane (I think I'm honestly one of the few people who actually enjoy this film for both its filming techniques and its story; so many people think it's boring!) and I absolutely loved this. There is this brilliant sort of parallel between film and comic books and I love how much this has reemerged with all the superhero movies being made.

The more I write this post, the more I realize I simply can't do this book justice. I could prattle on about how much I loved the character development (I'm a sucker for really interesting character development), how much I loved the romances attached to Joe and Sammy's lives, how much I loved the inclusion of the Golem throughout the narrative, how wonderful it was to actually have to look up words once in a while because the vocabulary of this book is so beautiful and extensive, how brilliant I thought it was to express American society through the growth of the comic book industry, how I wish every book I ever read could be this perfect, how I actually enjoy having my emotions being wrecked with in a story (but don't tell Steven Moffat that). But it simply can't encompass how truly marvelous this book is. It's just that amazing.
One last note and fangirl confession and I'll let you go on your merry way: I should admit where I heard about this book. One evening in May while watching a live stream for a Q and A about Sherlock on Facebook, the lovely Benedict Cumberbatch recommended this fine book whilst discussing projects he'd like to work on. Yes, I read this book because Mr. Cumberbatch recommended it. But I love book recommendations. I'll read anything, recommended by anyone (well, almost anyone). I did however wait a while to buy the book because, as I could tell from Tumblr, everyone and their mother was buying it then and I was sort of embarrassed to be part of that trend (but hey, it's good for Michael Chabon; I'm sure he wasn't complaining :D) But then I found the book at a display table in the Mall of America Barnes and Noble when I was trying to find The Elegance of the Hedgehog and decided it must be fate or something so I bought that book (along with Hedgehog and Monstrous Regiment, which are up next on my reading queue). Yes, I'm a Minnesotan who occasionally shops at the Mall of America. No, I do not think the Mall is the coolest place on the face of the earth. Yes, it is actually the biggest tourist hot spot in the state. Which is lame (downtown Minneapolis, the state parks, and the Guthrie Theater are about a trillion times cooler, just so you know). Anyway, tangents aside (which there have been many of in this post; terribly sorry about that) I'm inclined to think that Mr. Cumberbatch has brilliant good taste in books. So read this one. Seriously. Do it. It's long (wonderfully long; I adore long books) but it's worth it. Trust me.
PS: Reason #204 I love this book -Joe Kavalier creates a female superhero named Luna Moth. Do I think this is the coolest thing ever? Hell yeah.

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