With The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Michael Chabon has given us an epic tale of World War II and the history of American comic books as seen from the perspective of two Jewish cousins, Sammy Clay and Joseph Kavalier. Together they create the famous comic strip The Escapist, which chronicles the adventures of the eponymous Nazi-fighting master of elusion. Joe Kavalier has arrived in New York after escaping from Prague, having been forced to leave the rest of his family behind, unprotected from the Nazi regime. Sammy dreams of making it big in the world of comics, while Joe thinks of nothing but liberating his parents, grandfather and younger brother. Sammy and Joe’s newfound success finds them at the epicentre of the new popular culture, mingling with the avant garde and bohemian New Yorkers of the 1930s and ’40s, until war changes everything. It’s the friendship between Joe and Sammy that is the soul of Kavalier & Clay. They may not always be together but their love for each other is what keeps the novel alive.

Kavalier & Clay has a grandeur that suits it ambitious depiction of World War II, the birth of comic books and the pursuit of the American dream. It’s written in a style as if it’s a biography of Sammy and Joe, or a history of American comic books. Chabon includes footnotes that add historical detail, and blends fiction with fact, using stories involving Superman, Will Eisner, Stan Lee, and Salvador Dalí, and interlocking them with the ‘history’ of The Escapist. Chabon is clearly a keen researcher. His novel is strewn with references to people, places and events that greatly enrich but, at times, threaten to overwhelm. But ultimately Kavalier & Clay’s historical style doesn’t add distance; it’s far more intimate than any straight history ever could be.

Kavalier & Clay has elements of a comic book adventure but grown up, fleshed out and made real. Over the past few decades comic books have earned the right to be considered a serious art form capable of expressing complex stories. In 1992 Art Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Award for Maus, a graphic novel biography of the author’s father, Holocaust survivor Vladek Spiegelman. Joe Kavalier foresees the future of the comic book. He sees its beauty and ability to capture truth through modern folklore. Kavalier & Clay owes more than just its subject matter to comic books; it’s a magical, enthralling, larger-than-life adventure. That being said it felt heartbreakingly genuine. I honestly had to remind myself not to get so involved but it was like I was inhabiting the world Chabon had created.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is lyrical and playful, and so beautifully written that I almost didn’t care what happened next, I was engrossed in the journey. It is, by turns, funny, hauntingly sad, erudite and yet unpretentious. The novel has everything to do with the events of World War II, its spectre looms over the characters’ lives but the horrors of warfare are never really described. Instead the pain of war is told from the perspective of those, like Joe, that are isolated from it.

Since its publication Kavalier & Clay has been heaped with praise (including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001), and rightly so, it’s one of my new favourite books. Sammy and Joe both possess a combination of innocence, determination, and melancholy that I found endearing and the story is captivating. I love a book that manages to blend the beauty and sadness of life, a sense of fun and a brilliant plot, and this is most definitely it.

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