Saturday, September 21, 2013
Amazing is the story of Josef Kavalier, who starts off as a teenage boy living in Prague as Hitler rises to power. Josef is interested in magic, and worships Houdini. His mentor, Bernard Kornblum, teaches him illusions and the tricks of escape artists. Joe's training is tested when he escapes from Prague and manages to find his way to the United States. Joe's cousin, Sammy Klayman, is living in New York, where one day Joe appears. Joe and Sammy are about the same age, and form a quick bond. Sammy wants to find Joe a job at the Empire Novelty Company, where he works. Joe has an artistic talent that gives Sammy a great idea. What if he and Joe could create a comic book that Empire could publish to compete with the new Superman comics?
Joe has never even heard of a comic book before, but he trusts Sammy, and will do what Sammy says to help him get a job. As Sammy tries to persuade his boss to start a comic book, Joe draws up a few quick sketches of a Golem. A Golem is a character from Jewish folklore which is formed from inanimate materials, such as sand, but becomes alive and powerful. The Golem is all wrong as a superhero for America in the 1940s, but with Sammy's boss' tentative approval, they try to come up with something else that the American public will embrace. And so, the Escapist is born. The Escapist fights Nazis and other evil forces, and becomes an immediate hit.
Sammy and Joe's boss becomes incredibly wealthy from the success of the Escapist, and even Sammy and Joe are making more money than they need. Joe saves every penny to try to help the rest of his family escape from Prague before it is too late. The juxtaposition of the golden age of comics in the US versus the oppression of Jews in Prague is stark, and leaves Joe feeling lost and conflicted. The years go by, and the cousins grow up and grow apart, while always remaining connected by one woman, Rosa. Rosa is the inspiration for their most successful female character, Luna Moth. The love triangle between Joe, Sammy and Rosa is entirely unconventional, but it works.
There are a couple great quotes in Amazing. The first that I loved is when Joe is explaining that he's not satisfied to write the Escapist in more commercially viable terms. He says "I'm tired of fighting, maybe, for a little while. I fight, and I am fighting some more, and it just makes me have less hope, not more. I need to do something . . . something that will be great, you know, instead of trying always to be Good."
Another is explaining why Joe loved comic books, even years after he had quit working for Empire: ". . .he loved them for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lubrications of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could dream 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."
A few years back, when I was reading McSweeney's 36, which included Fountain City: A Novel Wrecked by Michael Chabon, I mentioned how he had given us such intimate details of his writing process and personal life, that I knew that he slept in the nude, which was maybe a little more than I wanted to know. In Fountain City, Chabon comments about how although he hadn't realized it, other people had told him that in his novels he seems to have a thing about sleepwear. I laughed the first time that I noticed a detailed description of pajamas on page 471 of Amazing, but by the end of the book I had turned down the corners on 4 more pages of PJ descriptions. A thing indeed.
I have often wondered, and complained to anyone who would listen, about why Carter Beats the Devil by Glenn David Gold has gotten so little attention, when it is a truly great book. I have attributed its lack of acclaim to the fact that it was published less than a month before The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen which was ridiculously (but deservedly) hyped, and also less than a month before 9/11. It seems obvious now, that while Gold and Chabon likely took years to write their respective books, it was really unlucky for Gold that Chabon was able to publish a great book also focused on magicians just before Gold's book hit the stores. While the stories are entirely different, there may have been a little bit of magic burn out in 2001. But, if you do read and like Amazing, I recommend that you also give Carter a try.
I am adding The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to my Favorites list. At 636 pages, it is also a BFB. Amazing is the last book that I need to complete my revised goal for The Off the Shelf Challenge. This is THE book that has made doing the OTS Challenge for the last 2 years worthwhile for me. I never would have gotten around to it if I hadn't had a goal of trying to get through the books that had been crowding my nightstand. In its honor, and since it's only September, I think I'll extend my goal by another 5 books, to 25.
Next Up: Who Asked You by Terry McMillan
Still Listening to: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin