Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Amazing Adventures of Jewish Boys Who Draw Comic Books

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am far from the first person to have loved this book, and I certainly won't be the last.  If you haven't read it yet, stop reading this review and go check it out from your public library.  It's been around for awhile, so it should be relatively easy to find.

 The concept itself is pretty simple: an American boy and his Czech cousin, an escapee from Nazi annexation, develop a comic-book superhero in the 1940s. But this story has some of the most wide-ranging and well-developed side plots I've ever seen in a novel.  We get to witness Josef's extensive training in magic, à la Houdini, and his eventual escape inside a coffin holding a giant corpse rumored to have been a golem.  We attend a cocktail party featuring Salvador Dali in a scuba-diving suit.  We experience a period of wartime service -- in Antarctica of all places -- complete with frozen corpses and trusty sled dogs, that could probably have stood alone as a separate book.
The Call of the Wild
Wait, am I reading about comic-book heroes or sled dogs?
Mostly, though, I'm impressed by Chabon's style of writing; his words make impressive necklaces as he strings them together. For example, "they arranged him with the care of florists in front of a glass of bourbon and ice..."  Maybe it's the flower-arranging I've been doing on the side lately, but for me, this created an incredibly distinctive picture, especially for such a short phrase devoid of adjectives.  I can see them carefully arranging him on a barstool, adjusting his posture when he leans a little to one side, and the image evokes an impression of tenderness and love between the characters without it being put into words. The next time I have a bad day, I think all I want is for someone to arrange me with the care of florists in front of an alcoholic beverage.
If it's all the same to you, though, I'd prefer an Aviation to a glass of bourbon and ice, thanks.
Chabon's phrasing is impeccable, even when his powers of prediction are not:
Poor Judy Dark! Poor little librarians of the world, those girls, secretly lovely, their looks marred forever by the cruelty of a pair of big black eyeglasses.
Clearly, Michael Chabon did not anticipate hipsters.
My favorite hipster.  Also, meme + font joke = win.
Photo from
Here is one more example of beautiful writing, though you should not need any further encouragement to pick up this book. This is Chabon's description of a child's drawing:
Although the man's parachute was far beyond his reach, the man was smiling, and pouring a cup of tea from an elaborate plummeting tea service, as if oblivious of his predicament, or as if he thought he had all the time in the world before he would hit the ground.
I want to name something Elaborate Plummeting Tea Service.   I really do.  It's probably too unwieldy for my entirely fictitious punk rock band, though.


Anonymous said...

I am always happy to read your posts about books. They are at once entertaining and insightful. You bring a real sensitivity and flair to the art of popular literary criticism. You can turn out a pithy phrase but never overdo things so as to render your prose egregious or self-indulgent. Reading your reviews, I know there is a creative mind at work--and at play in the fields of the word.

Brian S. Wise said...

I'm angry with myself for just now learning that the Hipster Ariel Tumblr site exists.