Ideally, I would underplay this. I would temper my language, or slip in ‘Kavalier and Clay’ among other recommendations as if it were just an ordinary book.That way, its genius will come as a revelation, and be all the sweeter for it. But I’m going to state right now that this is an astounding novel, everything a great story should be, and that it knocks into a cocked hat all the specious arguments which seek to separate “readability” from “good writing”.
It won the Pulitzer Prize, but you don’t have to give two hoots about the Great American Novel to love it. It is set in New York during the Golden Age of comic books, and you don’t have to care very much about that either to be tugged into its story of two cousins, the comicbook superhero they create, and the real-life dangers which threaten them.
Josef Kavalier smuggles himself out of occupied Prague in a coffin and ends up “slumped like a question mark against the door frame” in the Brooklyn bedroom of his cousin Sam Clay. Together they invent The Escapist, a superhero “whose power would be that of impossible and perpetual escape”. And escape is this novel’s preoccupation. While their superhero trounces Hitler in their pages, Josef obsessively tries to free his family from the Nazis and Sam, covertly gay in an era of bigotry, has his own bonds to slip.
There are, as promised, amazing adventures here, tales of dangerand romance, tragedy and triumph, delivered with sly humour in forensically beautiful prose. It’s a confident novel – laughably so at times, Chabon spinning yarns in parentheses pages long, or leading the reader down audaciously- constructed sentences on which we never, not once, miss our footing. This is hardcore stuff, utterly uncompromising: a gripping adventure in language which sings.
‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ is the book of a lifetime for the uncomplicated reason that I’ve spent my whole life reading, and it’s the best book I’ve ever read. But it’s the book of my writing life, too. Writers read double, I think: once in readerly abandonment to the story, a second time with a critical distance. In that second pass I watch ‘Kavalier and Clay’ as I might, appropriately enough, watch an illusionist. I try to work out the trick, to see how those movements, which seem perfectly ordinary - a shiftingaround of the same words we all use - might produce that dazzling effect. I
’ve started re-reading the novel, taking joy in it all over again, offering people unsolicited extracts. Listen, I keep saying, This guy “always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money”.’ Listen, his boss writes with “hints of Jehovah and George Raft”. You have to read this – it’s brilliant, it’s genius, it’s… and then, dammit, I’ve blown it again.
Shelley Harris’s novel ‘Jubilee’ is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
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