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Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon, 2000)

“Lit thus from behind by a brimming window, Josef Kavalier seemed to shine, to incandesce. ‘Look at him,’ said Sammy, ‘Look what he can do.’”

Well this is a masterpiece.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for this superb novel, which takes in the Golden Age of Comics, World War Two, Jewishness, the creative process, American culture, ambition, love, fatherhood, and sexuality, though it’s all worn so lightly, and is so impeccably well-written, that it just races by.

Kavalier & Clay opens in ‘30s Brooklyn, as Josef Kavalier arrives at his aunt Ethel Klayman’s apartment having managed to narrowly escape from the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. That same night he forms a close bond with his energetic, creative, polio-stricken cousin Sammy.

Josef is a brilliant artist and Sammy has a knack for storytelling, so they decide to have a stab at creating one of these new-fangled ‘comic books’, the aim being to raise enough money to get the rest of Josef’s family out of Europe. ‘The Escapist’, their anti-Nazi superhero who aims to free the oppressed from the chains of tyranny, is a massive success, and before long the cousins are embroiled in the corporate and creative rat-race and the difficulties of growing up and falling in love, all against the backdrop of the continuing war in Europe.

It’s a book with an epic sweep that spans years of these characters’ lives and charts some of the huge changes in society and culture wrought by the war. At times it’s tragically sad, but it can also be funny, thrillingly propulsive, and, I think, incredibly romantic. Sammy and Joe are both such complex and likeable creations, and there’s a large cast of colourful characters alongside them, from their hard-nosed employer Shelly Anapol, to handsome voice-actor Tracy Bacon and Joe’s eccentric muse Rosa Saks, with cameo appearances from real-life figures such as Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Stan Lee.

The birth of the comic book industry is a topic about which I was totally ignorant and my knowledge of superheroes in general only really extends to a few of the Marvel films, but this didn’t impact at all on my enjoyment of Kavalier & Clay. The morphing of pulp novels and cartoon strips into the new form of comic books is a fascinating turning point in modern culture and Michael Chabon explains the process and the excitement of the ensuing Golden Age of Comics in a way that the reader can learn a lot from but which doesn’t seem heavy-handed or isolating to non-fans.

Chabon’s prose itself is gorgeous – I don’t think there are that many other modern authors who can compare. There are so many beautifully crafted sentences here, and descriptions of emotions and sensations that I had to write down so I’d remember them. He’s very good at evoking the energy, the glamour and the grime of New York City, as I think this quote shows:

“To the south, he glimpsed the Manhattan Bridge, with its Parisian air, refined, elegant, its skirts hiked to reveal tapered steel legs, and beyond, the Brooklyn Bridge, like a great ropy strand of muscle. In the other direction lay the Queensboro Bridge, like two iron tsarinas linking hands to dance. And before him, the city that had sheltered him and swallowed him and made him a modest fortune loomed, grey and brown, festooned with swags and boas of some misty grey stuff, a compound of harbour fog and spring dew and its own steamy exhalations.”

To nitpick, if I had one criticism it would be that there was a bit too much narrative focus on Joe at Sammy’s expense, which is a shame as Sammy was my favourite character and I would have enjoyed spending more time with him.

But really, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a tour de force and a new favourite of mine, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Edition:

Harper Perennial | 2008 | 636p | Paperback | Buy here

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Book Review: You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames, 2013)

youwereneverreallyherecover

A one-sitting wallop of a novella by Jonathan Ames.

You Were Never Really Here is a breathless, noirish revenge thriller which reads like a distillation of Raymond Chandler and Lee Child. Rain, blood, broken bones, and despair, in less than a hundred pages!

The main character Joe is a middle-aged man with extreme psychological scars. He was horrifically beaten as a child by his father, and then went on to see appalling things both while serving as a Marine in the First Gulf War and then while working on an FBI anti-sex-trafficking task force. After a mental breakdown led him to go completely off the grid for a few years, he is now an untraceable independent contractor, hired out via a middle-man to break girls out of the sex trade. On these jobs he tends to favour his father’s domestic weapon of choice – a hammer.

His latest assignment is to rescue the thirteen-year-old daughter of a New York State Senator from a high-end Manhattan brothel. It seems straightforward but complications quickly rear their ugly heads.

As you can maybe tell, this is a bleak and nasty read, but it’s also fantastically gripping. Ames is a skilled writer who gets Joe’s pain and suicidal self-loathing across so well with very few words, as well as the seedy damp greyness of New York City. The violence is kinetic, staccato and wince-inducing. As mentioned above, the off-the-grid loner trope calls to mind Lee Child’s Jack Reacher – though Ames’s prose is better than Child’s – and the PI sleaze aspect is Chandler with a modern polish.

My one criticism is that I do wish it was either a bit longer or had a more conclusive ending, as it finishes on a rather frustrating cliffhanger. Perhaps Joe will return?

Apparently a film version starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Lynne Ramsay (both of whom I love) is due to be released next year, and I’m excited to see whether it can equal the white-knuckle pace and energy of the book. I’ll also look forward to checking out the other titles in this superb new Pushkin Vertigo crime imprint.

Edition:

Pushkin Vertigo | 2016 | 96p | Paperback | Buy here