It is 1939, Hitler has just started his orgy of violence that would culminate his own Valhalla 6 years later, the world is as yet fully unaware of the schemes he has in mind or rather even if aware they are more inclined to dismiss it as a mad man's ravings, underestimating him . America is still following the policy of isolationism and has not yet got into the war, as it is taking ginger steps after the great depression of the 30's. It is also the period when the comic book genre has taken off, with superheroes beginning to do the skies of America. Sammy Klayman (Clay), a 19 year old boy, comic book enthusiast meets for the first time his cousin ' Josef (Joe) Kavalier (aged 17), who has escaped from German occupied Prague. Joe has trained to be an escape artist, has also studied in the art school and his only aim right now is to bring his family also to America. Their meeting sets the stage for their partnership in the comic book industry and also for their 'Amazing Adventures' which is as astonishing as the comic book heroes/stories they created and poignant in a way that most of us cannot even imagine. If the words 'amazing' and 'adventures' invoke visuals of pulse pounding action across the pages you would be mistaken. As Chabon says at a point in the novel "... cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man", this is the story of ordinary men caught up in extraordinary situations and isn't each individual life an adventure in it's own right, it doesn't need guns blazing, bombs dropping to be an adventure. Chabon takes his time unraveling the story of his protagonists, creating a separate world for them and even the secondary characters, giving distinct characteristics to each, the entirety of which forms the universe of this novel.
Once the boys meet up, Chabon goes back in time and shows us a portrait of Prague under German occupation. The Jews of Prague have started to be prosecuted, but they are still not aware of how far this depravity of the Nazis would go. The crowded trains to the concentration camp have not yet started running, but the Jews are being slowly stripped of their material possessions and their dignity. What was once one's homeland is becoming a completely alien place, a place which they cannot recognize even though they have lived their entire lives there. Joe's parents, both doctors have lost their jobs and are trying their best to get at least Joe to America. Generally when we read about Nazi atrocities, it is about the concentration camps when the blow has fallen on them. But here, in this short section, Chabon captures a moment in time where they are waiting for the blow to fall, with no one aware of the exact nature of the blow or even when (of if at all ) if it fall. There is still a hope against hope that things may not actually turn to be as bad as they expect as the Nazi propaganda puts a completely different spin on what it's doing and why is it being done. It's what people in the sub-continent would have felt in the months leading up to the partition, it is what the Tamils are facing in Sri Lanka with their homes, lands being overrun by outsiders, a feeling of unwillingness to let go of the place and possessions of their homeland and at the same time aware of a darkness descending on them. This awareness is what prompts the Jews to send at least some members of their family to America at the earliest. Joe, with the help of his teacher in magic 'Kornblum', escapes to America making a horrifying journey in coffin. (This is not germane to this novel, but whenever I read about WWII, Jews or Holocaust, I cannot but imagine how a race that suffered like this can think of inflicting the same suffering on their fellow human beings just because they belong to another race and however much one imagines, reads both sides of the story, the horrific events that have been happening in Palestine doesn't make complete sense, but then wouldn't it be too much to expect any orderliness in this dysfunctional world)
Though Clay is a comic book enthusiast he is not much of an artist, Joe on the other hand has artistic tendencies but doesn't have any idea
about this genre, being as he is from Prague. Clay wants to make it big in the world and comic book is the one avenue that opens up to him on Joe's arrival. In fact throughout the novel, Clay looks down on 'comics' as an inferior art form and the only reason he gets into it is because he has caught the zeitgeist of the time and he has got an able collaborator in Joe. Joe on his part needs money and lots of it to try to bring his family to the U.S and so they form a partnership to create comic books. The way they go about it becomes the major difference between their works and their competitors. As Clay and Joe discuss, the 'why' part of the history of the superhero is what makes each one them unique and they hit upon a truly unique 'why'. Their hero is the 'Escapist' who frees oppressed people anywhere in the world and his main enemy, a character modeled on Hitler and the Nazis. In a period where America is still not into the war, this shakes up quite a few people, getting the initial eyeballs and the quality of their work takes over and the series becomes a big hit. The way Chabon details their creation of the super hero is interesting in that it once again raises the question of how much of the artist is present in his art. Clay has suffered from polio and so does the alter ego of the 'Escapist'. Joe's training and experiences as an escape artist (picking locks, handcuffs etc) form the basis of what their super hero does. And the main villain is the product of Joe's experience though it must be said that it is Clay who first understands the potential of showing Hitler as the villain, even convincing their bosses when they are skeptical about it.
Chabon creates a minutely detailed world for each character going deeper into their lives, but hanging back just that little bit for us to imagine the rest. Joe meets and falls in love with 'Rosa Saks' an artist in her own right. But even with good money coming in and a person (actually 2 including Clay) to share his feelings, Joe is a nowhere man. Wracked with survivors guilt at his having made his life in America while his family languishes in Prague, he is mortified to find himself happy. And his art through which he was able to get his own back at Hitler fails to fortify him after a time because after all the high that the destruction of Hitler in comics gives him, he has to get back to the reality which states that Hitler has now overrun France too. The sometimes insurmountable gulf between reality and imagination, the invisible barrier between art and life starts haunting him, and unable to either cross the gulf or tear the barrier, he starts becoming disillusioned with his works. Clay on the other hand is detailed a bit more ambiguously. Where in the case of Joe you are pretty much sure about or can at least guess his motivations, with Clay you are on less sure ground and Chabon adds to the ambiguity by treading softly in his world and retreating more quickly than in Joe's case. Is his motivation comic art, money, fame or all there is something we don't know right at the beginning (in Joe we know that it is money more than art) and only as the novel progresses we understand him more. There are a couple of instances in the novel, a passage on the confusion that Clay feels when he sees two men kissing and there is the line where he ruminates about the relationship between Joe and Rosa and thinks why he isn't jealous of Rosa where Chabon tenderly explores his sexual orientation, dropping hints for what would follow next.
The other characters are also given their due, whether it be the duo's deliciously acerbic editor 'George Deasey' (delicious only if are a spectator and not on the receiving end of his caustic remarks), their one time artist turned full fledged capitalist boss 'Sheldon Anapol' who in the words of Chabon has a 'modest but genuine conscience' which however doesn't stop him from ripping off the duo (though it is all legal to be fair to Anapol) or Clay's parents. Rosa is mostly a peripheral character until the last portion where she comes into her own. One could write a separate novel on many of these characters alone, say what made George such a cynic, what failure pushed him to be such a unforgiving judge of the written word, what was the moment when the violinist Sheldon became a ruthless boss, in both cases the question being 'when did art lose out to survival and how does the artist live with it'. There is also a sub-plot involving racist domiciled Germans/Aryans in America who take offence at the duo's comic series and set out to hurt them. This sub-plot could have been developed further, giving an insight into how did the Germans domiciled in America live during the war, how did the general public react to them, did their feelings towards the Germans change and if so how did it change, but as such it just seems to be jutting out of the natural progression of the narrative.
Interleaved between the narrative of the lives of these characters are the stories of the comic heroes that the duo create. The stories are not fully fleshed out and rough at the edges which is want one can expect from two teenagers and in that context they fit perfectly into the scope the novel. A passionate advocate of comics, Chabon makes a plea for it be treated more seriously. When Joe in a moment of disquiet picks up a Archie comic and reads he feels
The escape from reality was, he felt—especially right after the war—a worthy challenge… The pain of his loss—though he would never have spoken of it in those terms—was always with him in those days, a cold smooth ball lodged in his chest, just behind his sternum.
For that half hour spent in the dappled shade of the Douglas firs, reading Betty and Veronica, the icy ball had melted away without him even noticing. That was the magic—not the apparent magic of a silk-hatted card-palmer, or the bold, brute trickery of the escape artist,
but the genuine magic of art. It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world—the reality—that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised.
'Archie comics and art? duh' could be the response to what Chabon says, but eescapism is not necessarily always a bad thing, and it need not be treated as something to be looked down upon, especially if it does offer some solace to the reader. Given his childhood vocation for magic and escape tricks it's natural that Joe is drawn towards comics (though money is a big factor Joe genuinely likes the genre) . Even if there had been no Hitler, Joe would have gotten into comics, maybe not immediately but once the genre made its mark in Prague too, because a magician/escape artist like Houdini has as much ownership over the concept of art as a painter, writer or musician and all of them in a way are working towards the same thing which is to try to escape from the confines of the physical world to a world where there are no boundaries, a world where all the shackles binding people can be unlocked. This is why Joe thinks of it as
"...the expression of an yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something - exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater creation"
And considering the fact that this yearning is what kept Joe sane among all that he had to endure, can one just brush off comics as escapist entertainment? Like in all genres you get good, bad and indifferent works in comics too and can one say that a masterpiece of comic fiction is inferior to a mediocre work of fiction just because fiction does not have funny characters parading around in 'long underwear' (in Chabon's words) and because adults read it? Clay and Joe differ on their take on the comics genre. Clay is never comfortable working in the comic book industry,which he looks down as inferior, which is why he takes to writing an novel which is unpublished(and probably will remain so), the genre is but a way for him to break the shackles of his life and in a way he is also subconsciously accepting it as art, but unable to tell it aloud due to his fear of supposed ridicule. An example of it is that even his mother isn't too impressed by his work and the money it brings, she is always thinking that the latest comic issue could be the last one and the comic fad would end soon.
It is said that 'God is in the details', but in this novel (as in other works of Chabon that I have read), 'God and sometimes Devil both are in the details'. The painstaking narrative that Chabon builds comes off for most of the time but in some cases the devil rears it's head putting us off. Lets take the happenings after Joe learns of his father's death. His survivor guilt becomes even more heavy and in a streak of masochistic behavior, he sets off on a series of violent confrontations with Germans in New York which results in him being beaten black and blue most of the time. The point here is not whether a person would behave like this (though I believe this to be a perfectly valid reaction and I am a person who is willing to accept the concept of two moons in the sky) and to me the reader of any fiction cannot always expect the experiences and reactions of the characters to be in sync with his, if that were the case the whole purpose of fiction is lost then. The reader has to be willing to be subjugate his experiences to that of the authors and see if the author convinces him (which again is a subjective thing). What happens here is that after the first or second time when Joe gets into a scrap, we feel a disconnect from his emotions, all the events that follow after that (which run into nearly one whole chapter) seem to be just another trick of Chabon to get more of our emotional investment into Joe. And surprisingly Chabon goes in for cliches or set tropes in managing certain events, like when Clay and Tracy Bacon get together. It happens on a stormy night amid thunderstorms, when Clay is on the watchtower doing observer duty. In general, the heterosexual relation between Joe/Rosa is handled much better than the one between Chabon/Tracy. Given that Clay is unsure about his orientation, there will some awkwardness in his relationship, but the awkwardness that we feel is sadly in the writing and not in the relationship itself. This part and the one about racial supremacists in America are when one feels that the author was a bit unsure as to how to proceed and compensated for it by laying it on thick for most of the time. One can contrast this with the brutal things that happen when Clay/Tracy and a few other of their gay friends go to a friends manor and they are raided by the police. In an depraved abuse of power, two G-men who are not part of the original party use the raid to sexually abuse Clay, thus scarring him from which he doesn't recover for a very long time. Even the scenario of two G-men sexually abusing men on a raid may seem far fetched to some who cannot even imagine such things, but in this scenario Chabon makes a very convincing case for us to accept it and thus identifying with Clay's pain even though you may not be gay. This alchemy where the narrative turns into our emotional connect with the characters does not happen always in the authors rendering of Clay's relationship.
As Clay and Joe try to get the lives on track and seem to be succeeding in it a couple of events happen in their lives which changes them entirely. A minor crib here, that both events happen on the same day could be accepted as something valid or a leeway to artistic license, but when it is said that it happens in conjunction with Pearl harbor, it becomes a bit too much and one can see right through the author's positioning of this coincidence which will fuel the last part of the novel and as such the dramatic effect makes sense. The last part of the novel takes place about a decade after Pearl Harbor, where we see Sam working as a editor in a different organization. With the war over, the demand for superheroes falls and the golden age of the comics (and the duo too) comes to an end. In what could be the worst possible humiliation for an artist, Sam is now working in mediocrity, working just to make ends meet. An artist can be felicitated as a genius or denounced as crap, in both cases he will not lose his own sense of worth which will continue to propel him. But when he gets mired in mediocrity, when no one any great opinion, whether positive or negative to offer about him, it is when the actual decaying of the artist starts and it is something no artist can handle. His attempts at writing a 'literary novel' has also got stuck and he has no hopes on that end too to gain what he feels as respectability. Joe comes into his life again and after a hiatus, Clay,Rosa and Joe meet at Clay's house. This meeting has the purest and most heartfelt dialogue spoken by anyone at any point in this novel. When Joe tries to explain his diffidence on certain things, Clay bursts out
"Christ, Joe, you fucking idiot," Sammy said. "We love you".
A succinct sentence yes, but loaded with so much meaning and love. What else can one say when we meet someone we love a lot after a long time, there is no way we are going to give a bloody speech. First the repressed anger comes and then the love and that's probably enough to set things, if not completely like before, at least near to what they were earlier. As Chabon says in a different context in the novel
The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place
Only love can beat this magic, only love can make sure that even vanished things can exist albeit in imagination so that in the rare case that the vanished thing reappears it has someone to relate to as its own, someone to love and to be loved by without fear of making mistakes, because what finally is any life with no one to share it with. It is this fear, diffidence of Joe about the various mistakes that one makes that is allayed in the statement by Sam. It is one of those rare fictional point, where one the reader, author and characters become one and where one is not sure whether it is the author or character or we the reader who is living in the pages of the book. The line may seem simple in isolation, but to one who has read the book already the impact of this statement would be clear, giving his knowledge of what all happened in their lives. Even now, writing this particular paragraph gives much the same emotional high I had when I first read it.
The novel is about multiple things, but one things stands out and it is as one of the comic book character created by the duo says
"there is no force more powerful than that of an unbridled imagination". This in a nutshell is what the novel is all about, the capacity of humans to imagine even the most outlandish things and try to break the barrier between imagination and reality, after all haven't most of the great things in the world begun as just the figment of someones imagination before they became reality. This is the force that drives Joe to imagine to somehow bring his family back, it is the force that drives Clay to imagine and build a comic empire even when both he and Joe are little more than kids, this is the power. We don't always succeed in making our imaginations come true and Clay/Joe are no different. They succeed some, fail some, the fire of their imagination extinguishes sometimes, but the embers are always there, waiting for an opportunity to glow once again and the novel's ending gives us a glimpse of that ember which one hopes will burn brightly in the future as we take leave of the characters.