Tuesday, December 03, 2013

On the appeal of the Escapist

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) is an extraordinary joy of book, one I shall buy for friends and relations for some time to come.

It's the tale of two teenage boys in the late 1930s, one a fey dreamer who's grown up in New York, the other his cousin who's just escaped the Nazis in Prague. Together, they create a new superhero comic, imbued (though they're not quite aware of it) with their own hopes and fears. "The Escapist" is a huge success, at least in terms of sales, but the boy still have battles to fight - Clay with his whole identity, Kavalier in trying to rescue his family from Europe...

We follow their efforts to produce good work and not be ripped off by the management, and see them fall in love, suffer the most terrible calamities and live through momentous history. It's a huge book - 636 pages, spanning more than a decade, epic in scale and geography but also great on the tiny detail. We're peppered with all sorts of data on the comics scene and New York and culture and world of the time. Stan Lee has a cameo role, as does Orson Welles.

It's funny and moving and utterly absorbing - one of those rare, perfect books that you want to race through and yet don't ever want to reach the end.

Then, in the last section, it pulls an extraordinary trick of making you aware of the themes underlying all that's befallen our heroes. It's the coming-of-age for these two geeky kids but there's something more profound. This is the story not only of the Escapist but the escapist artform.
"Having lost [things he's lost], the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf."
Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), p. 575.
The defence of the escapist could have brought the whole thing crashing down, but its expertly done. I thought, as I started it, that it was ironic that a book about trash culture form had won such a serious accolade as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2001. That validation of the form is not only well deserved, it's also the whole point.

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