Golem Crafting with Michael Chabon

14/02/2009

9781841154930Crafting a golem, as any rabbi will tell you, is a dangerous business.  One need only think of that popular patchwork icon of horror, Victor von Frankenstein’s monster, to know that they have the nasty potential, like any creation,  to turn against their creator. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a golem by American author Michael Chabon, is a 600 page eloquent, peripatetic monster that speaks most often of escape and of that most dangerous of feelings, love.  But, like its famous forebears, Kavalier & Clay, this creature not of dirt and water and clay but of words and metaphors and ideas, ultimately turns its hand against its creator in the final hours of its prolonged life (hurting Chabon but doing no lasting damage), long after the e etched into its forehead should have been wiped clean with the blank oblivion of a final white page.

Chabon’s early life mirrors (in a distorted, carnival kind of way) the lives of his novel’s two male protagonists, the eponymous Josef Kavalier and Samuel Klayman.  Like these two Jewish boys, Chabon achieved a moderate success (moderate for an aged author, astounding for all of his twenty years) early in his life when he published his first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.  His work continued to garner favourable reviews and after one other novel, Wonderboys, and an aborted five-year bout of dyspepsia called Fountain City, Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for the work here considered.

Told from the view of a wistful narrator, Kavalier & Clay unfolds under the golden glow of a nostalgia (something that Chabon indulges in often) that illuminates each period , each character, every moment with romantic exaggeration, from the Golden Age of comic book sales in 1940s New York to an appropriately surreal encounter with Salvador Dali at a house party in Greenwich Village.  The first part of the novel chronicles Josef’s escape from Nazi occupied Prague, fleeing for fabled New York and a distant cousin, Sam Klayman.  Once safely across the Atlantic, Joe and Sam soon become great friends and Sam introduces Joe to comic books.  Having studied at the ‘School of Fine Arts’ in Prague, Joe’s talents in drawing and Sammy’s in inventing the stories – one the muscles, one the brain- become evident to each other and, within days of arriving, the partnership of Kavalier and Clay is born.  Ideas and characters and ambitions as grand as any soon start to fly from the pair like electrons from the nuclei of excited atoms and, before long, inspired by the events of Joe’s thrilling escape from Europe, the Escapist is conceived.  A publishing deal is brokered, a contract is signed, fortunes are made.  Finally, Joe allows himself the hope that one day he may accomplish a task he has set for himself but which, until then, he had no idea how to achieve: the rescue of his parents and younger brother from that war-ravaged continent and their safe journey across the ocean to the city that had adopted him as one of its own.  In Prague the answer had been an elaborate plan involving disguises, escape artistry and a long-lost golem; in America the answer was simply money.

At its core, Kavalier & Clay is about love: familial love; the boys’s love of comic books; physical love as Joe and Sam mature and explore their sexuality.  But, above all, guiding and shaping much of the work, is Chabon’s mutual love for literature and genre fiction.  For the better part of the novel Chabon achieves this union with subtlety simply by combining the kind of adventurous, peripatetic plot (Europe, America, Antarctica) that drives much popular genre fiction with themes of identity ( the struggle of the Jew in exile, sexuality, masked superheroes and their alter-egos), love, nostalgia and escapism, believable characters and well-written prose.  But there are times when Chabon, like a well-meaning child making a dinner date for his divorced parents, handles this with the clumsiness of clay hands: ” ‘I don’t know, Joe’, Sammy said… ‘we’re talking about comic books.’  ‘Why do you look at it that way, Sammy?’  Rosa said.  ‘No medium is inherently better than any other.’  ‘No, that’s not right.  Comic books actually are inferior.’ ” and, later, ” ‘I know you think it’s all crap’, he [Joe] said.  ‘But you should not of all people think this.’  ‘Yeah, yeah,’ Sammy said.  ‘Okay.’ ”  These concerns are certainly minor, though, and detract from the work only in the slight and fleeting feel of juvenility that they conjure.  The other themes of the novel are all handled with the wit and panache for which Chabon is celebrated.

On a north European book tour, Michael Chabon was asked by an interviewer, in reference to his book Wonder Boys, this question: “Your Grady Tripp is full of drugs and having sex with many women.  Mr Chabon, how about you?”  The publication of Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, led some readers to conclude that the author was gay.  An essay on a Yiddish phrase book was condemned (the excoriation of the author called for, no less!) as ” quite offensive” and an “ignorant insult to the World of Yiddish.”  These examples all serve to highlight the other major theme of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: the dangerous potential inherent in any creation for it to harm its creator.  That creation of rabbi Judah ben Loew, the Golem of Prague, is the most immediately obvious metaphor that Chabon employs in service of this idea, flavouring the text early on with the kind of supernatural folklore that fills the pages of the comic books of Kavalier & Clay.  Other expressions, both literal and figurative, of this theme are manifold: the war fought against the Axis powers in the pages of their first comic books, one that motivates a mentally unstable member of the “Aryan-American League” to attempt to murder Joe, believing himself to be the villainous character the Saboteur; Joe’s self-destructive pugnacity in seeking Germans living in New York and his desire for vengeance; even the guilt that Joe feels as the unfair restrictions he has placed on himself – that he should not take his leisure until his family is safe in America – begin to loosen; and one moment towards the end, the most literal expression of the theme in the novel (unfortunately another fumbling of clay fingers), when a not so well kept secret of Sammy’s is revealed.  There is one last observation of this idea that Chabon certainly never intended: unaware of the weakness of the final part of his novel, a weakness that taints the last hundred and fifty pages with the feel of an unnecessary post-script, the author is indeed injured by his own creation.  It is a wonderfully bitter-sweet irony that at once reinforces one of the central themes of the novel, but which also drags it down.  The last part loses the lustre of nostalgia that the rest of the novel has  and it becomes something that we feel we should not be privy to.  This is in part due to to the point of view of a boy named Tommy who, at age 12, is still assembling the instruments through which he will look back on his life; he is still measuring and refining the brew from which he will sup the heady nectar of nostalgia.

Despite the last quarter of the novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an excellent, accomplished work rich with beautiful prose, an infectious enthusiasm for the unashamed, unapologetic joy of comic books and a sweet, almost tart, nostalgia for their great golden age in 1940s America.  Sure, it stumbles towards the end, but this is one golem that moves with a grace and fluidity that belies its sedimentary origins.

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