The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

"Houdini meets Two-Guys-in-a-Garret" could be a suitable subtitle for this novel which follows the heyday of the comic book industry in America.
Joe Kavalier is the tortured escape artist, a brilliant cartoon illustrator, who has studied magic and Houdini in his native Czechoslovakia, and who escapes to New York via a circuitous route in a coffin carrying the Prague Golem. Sam Clay is his New Yorker cousin who also worships Houdini and writes fantastic scripts and pulp novels. Put these two together and they come up with a series of comic books that rival the established superheroes of the day: Superman, Captain America, Batman et al.
Kavalier impotently fights the Nazis through his superheroes and dreams of helping his family escape the concentration camps to America, while Clay is trying hard to cover up his latent homosexuality. Both are trapped in metaphoric coffins, while their alter-ego hero, The Escapist, with his Hitler-bashing escapades, becomes a hit and makes them rich in the New World, and makes their unscrupulous bosses even richer.
The theme of entrapment and escape runs through the novel: Kavalier's escape from Prague, his enslavement in an observation station in the Antarctic in the company of dead crew and dogs, his later forced hiding inside the Empire State Building as he feverishly works on his new line of comic books, his desire to escape again by jumping off the said building. Clay too has his share entrapment: his sexual orientation, the marriage he falls into out of duty and as an escape from homosexuality, the dead-end jobs at various publishing houses after the magic of Kavalier & Clay has run out, the public inquisition into his sexual preferences for creating his superheroes with young male wards (even Batman and Robin are not spared here). In the end, the love of a good woman and her son conquers all, our two heroes find their niche, and there is a hint of the triumphant reincarnation of Kavalier & Clay.
I liked several aspects of this novel: the snippy and witty dialogue, the creativity of the young artists locked in a garret coming up with amazing storyboards, their self-deprecating humour, "I didn't know they were making detectives out of Jews," the footnotes in various sections which read like factoids and lend a sense reality to this work of fiction. There are bold extensions into the real world as well, when the legal wrangling of real-life competitors in the comic book industry is brought into the mix, and when the author comments on the personal grooming of Gala Dali or observes that Orson Welles smells like Dolores Del Rio - I guess one is allowed to take license with dead people!
What I did not like was the elaborate set-ups, the stories within stories that are "told" by a rather didactic and pompous omniscient narrator to bring us up to speed on what had taken place during a time gap. The prose is clunky and littered with heavy doses of information on the history and mechanics of the comic book industry. Much of this could have been cut out to create a tighter novel. The author himself sums up this vilified art form (which has re-emerged as the more dignified "graphic novel today) as "the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art" - need he have said more?
Excesses and digressions notwithstanding, I liked the story. This is story-telling at its peak; and in the end, great novelists are great story tellers.
Shane Joseph is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories. His work After the Flood won the best futuristic/fantasy novel award at the Canadian Christian Writing Awards in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His latest novel The Ulysses Man has just been released. For details see