Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kavalier and Clay

When I finished In the Woods by Tana French, I went looking for other Edgar Award winners. I saw that Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union had been nominated. I had seen Michael Chabon's name in audiobook lists, had somehow formed the opinion that he was a formulaic detective story author, and had dismissed him and his work out of hand. Awhile back, I had seen a regular feature on the local news in which the local book store recommends a book of the week, and the book that week had been The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I had not at the time connected the author's name to the impression that I had created of Michael Chabon, the third-rate mystery writer.

So I went to the library to give the Yiddish Union a try. But they didn't have it. But they did have The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which rang a bell somewhere in my mind, so I checked it out. The bell turned out to be defective yeti. Back when I had a full-time job and nothing much better to do with my cubicle-dwelling time than screw around on the internet, I had read through defective yeti's archives. All of them. And in May of 2002, he talked about this book.

I won't re-hash the plot, but I will say it's not a formulaic detective story. I enjoyed it almost as much as The Time Traveler's Wife (and no, I don't select all of my reading material from defective yeti's book reviews). It could have felt very foreign to me: it begins in Nazi-occupied Prague; it ends 19 years before I was born; its characters are chain-smoking New York Jews encountering the likes of Salvador Dali and Orson Welles; and I've never read superhero comics, only the graphic novels Watchmen, V Is for Vendetta, and Sin City, which, in the novel's world, interestingly, are exactly the kinds of works purportedly influenced by the pioneering art of Joe Kavalier.

Despite how far out of my own experience it falls, it drew me in. I loved every minute of the long, slow climb toward perfect happiness that the threesome of Joe, Sam, and Rosa make. I knew that happiness couldn't last, but I still didn't see it coming when it withers at the precise moment that it was coming to fruition. I was intrigued by the threesome; at first I assumed it would be the typical scenario of a man, his love, and his friend: destruction by jealousy. But while Sam is jealous of Joe and Rosa in another way, it becomes clear that he's not capable of wanting her for his own. Then the threesome breaks, and Sam does take Joe's place, coming around at last to the fulfillment of what was inevitable but in an entirely unexpected, and deeply sad, way.

Joe himself is also a roundabout fulfillment of an old storytelling tradition: the man who loses what's most important to him, withdraws into a long, self-imposed, guilt-ridden exile, and then allows himself to be drawn back into the world by a new embodiment of that which he lost in the first place. But this tradition, too, becomes new because Joe doesn't lose his beloved wife, and he doesn't learn to love again when a quirky and charming new woman comes into his life. Sam and Rosa go into their own forms of exile, though not in the same way as Joe, and their rebirths can only come in concert with his.

All in all a beautiful book. Thanks, dy and Edgar and Tana French!

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