We talk a lot about heroes and heroism in our society, and normally, we divide these topics into small packets of specificity. Heroes like firemen are kept separate from Superman and Batman, and both are in turn are split off from the single mom making it work on one paycheck types of heroes. Still, the same kinds of things lead us to identify certain people as heroes, whether they are the rubber, spandex or sweatpant wearing kind...honor, valor, empathy, morality. In literature, you often find adherence to one type or the other, with the occasional nod towards a blending of type in the form of stories about the Everyday Lives of Superheroes. In my experience, it's fairly unusual to find multiple types of heroism tackled successfully with true depth in the same work, but in Kavalier & Clay, Chabon somewhat miraculously pulls this off. To a certain extent, the entire book is comprised of tiny moments of heroism, be they personal or selfless, appearing from all corners of the rich, golden New York that serves as the stage. It's a little bit like cracking open a pomegranate for the first time; from the somewhat grotty exterior, you'd never guess that you would find so many tiny, luminous pips inside, each one catching the sun and holding the opportunity for growth. The story of Kavalier and Clay is not always cheerful - in retrospect, the bare bones of the plot are generally fairly depressing - but the moments that Chabon describes to tell it are what buoys it all up, full of light and good. This is a story about all kinds of heroes, even the grubby ones who fuck up sometimes.
I wish I had the vocabulary to describe the plot in enough detail you to see how wonderful it is without giving it all away, but I don't, so I'm not going to try. I'll throw out a brief overview, but seriously...you have to read this book. Make it your one giant book of 2009. Make it your holiday reading. Take it on a trip. Just don't pass it by. I promise it will be worth it.
The story follows two young boys as they grow up...American Sammy Clay, and his immigrant Jewish cousin, Joe Kavalier. Joe has escaped Nazi forces by the skin of his teeth, and the two boys forge an immediate bond. Joe's artistic skills are exceptional, and thanks to Sammy's boldness and storytelling skills, the two wind up drawing comic books for a sort of benignly unsavory businessman. Their work in comic books ushers them into a fantastic life more or less by chance, and from there, they meet all sorts of people, including the future loves of their lives. A number of threads wrap and weave around the core of Joe and Sammy's maturation...Joe's dedication to bringing his family to the US, Sammy's social anxiety, Joe's violent internal struggle against the German enemy, the genesis of the comic book industry and the boys' part in it. Eventually, the boys begin to grow apart, until a horrible accident cuts their ties entirely, and Joe more or less falls off the face of the Earth. Thanks to Chabon's skill, the reader is able to follow both sections of the story after this split, never losing track of either one. After this separation, the growth of the two men continues, seemingly separate but never too far apart. The ending is...frustratingly perfect. There is no perfect ending for this story. Just like all of our lives, there's simply too much going on for any pat ending to make any kind of sense at all. But the ending that is written is exactly as happy and exactly as fitting as reality could ever allow, and it is simply stunning.You can't really discuss this without talking about the author's prodigious skill. There is a lot of crap out there, and there's even a lot of very absorbing crap. I think this pares down our hunger for complex, well-written literature, and encourages us to settle for less. Michael Chabon is quite simply not having any part of that. Not only is his style wildly expressive and tonally impeccable, but his vocabulary and mastery of the English language is a cut above almost every piece of modern literature in recent memory. The writing is everything at once - stately, exuberant, mournful, precise - and it is an absolute goddamn joy to read. This book is so many different things that it's useless to even try picking one. It's at least five different kinds of love story, a sweeping history of the Golden Age of comic books, an account of the impact of Hitler's Germany on expatriates before, during and after World War I, an examination of the social pressure on homosexuals in the 1940s (ugh, in a word), a story about the weirdness and discomfort of war, a book about children, art, music, religion. The real magic is in the way Chabon manages to juggle all of these topics, each of which has had reams of paper printed up on it in its own right, and interweave them so skillfully. I found it truly exciting to find small threads of previous pages picked up carefully throughout the work, used as little emotional indicators to ping the reader and emphasize a moment. This is truly the product of a brilliant mind. I would give anything to be able to write like Michael Chabon.