Funny, captivating, smart, suspenseful, rich and colorful. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a big novel worthy of all those adjectives. The story of two young comic book artists in 1940s New York City, Jewish boys, one of whom fled the German steamroller heading toward his home in Czechoslovakia in a coffin, Chabon's third and best novel is utterly original, a generous fictional addition to the literature of twentieth century New York.
Chabon's agile prose guides readers through the ins and outs of comic book history; his language delights in retelling of original comic book stories about The Escapist and Luna Moth. From Prague to Levittown to Antarctica, the story spills from page to page with unbridled momentum, a war story, a romance, a fictional biography, a historical record of the comic book industry, all at the same time.
Dave: This novel is a big leap forward from your first two, in scope, certainly, but also in terms of perspective.
Michael Chabon: I definitely had a desire to try something bigger, but I've had that desire for a while. I'd tried once before to do this kind of a book. After I wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I worked on a novel called Fountain City for more than five years. Like this book, it had multiple points of view and took place over a fairly long period of time; it changed locales from one continent to another, all those kinds of things. And I failed. I had to abandon it, and I wound up transforming that experience into what became Wonder Boys.
I wanted to do something more ambitious. Jonathan Yardley's review of Wonder Boys in The Washington Post was very kind and generous - he liked the book - but he closed the review with a paragraph where he sort of clapped his hand on my shoulder and said, "You've done well, but you haven't really tried much. Now's the time to set your sights higher." I took that to heart. It chimed with my own thoughts. I had bigger ambitions.
On the other hand, when I started kicking around ideas for what I might do after Wonder Boys, many were smaller. I talked it over with my agent, and this was the idea she jumped on. I was so surprised by that. I'd been feeling like it was going to sound like a dumb idea, especially to people who weren't comic book fans.
Dave: Did your agent pick up on any particular aspect of the story?
Chabon: I don't know. She's lived in New York for over twenty years and like most people who are adopted New Yorkers she's very passionate about the city. Also, she has a particular interest in this period; she's a big movie fan, especially of golden age Hollywood films.
Dave: A few nights ago, I started rereading both earlier novels, and I noticed that near the beginning of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh there's a reference to comic books.
Chabon: Art talks about how he thought his father had a secret identity. Also, at the beginning of Wonder Boys, Grady thinks he's going to pick his wife up at the office - he's forgotten that she left him that morning - and the name of the building where she works is The Baxter Building. That's the name of the building where The Fantastic Four lived in New York City, so there's that little allusion, too.
Dave: You grew up with comic books, I assume.
Chabon: I was a big comics reader when I was a kid, from about six to fifteen. I collected them, I read them, I even created my own characters in comics. Then I completely lost interest. I sold my collection. I didn't go back to them for fifteen years - until after Wonder Boys.
I found one remaining box of comics which I had saved and I'd been dragging with me for fifteen years. When I opened it up and that smell came pouring out, that old paper smell, I was struck by a rush of memories, a sense of my childhood self that seemed to be contained in there.
Right around that time, I read an article about Superman - in Smithsonian magazine, I think - which talked about how Siegel and Shuster created the character. I had a desire to write something that would be set in this period, which had always fascinated me. That was the flash: I was going to write about comic book creators in the 1940s.
Dave: It's so much more than that, though. For instance, a chapter was published in The New Yorker as an excerpt, which, in itself, is a great story, and there's nothing at all about comic books in it. I actually think it's one of the most riveting parts of the book. That's what hooked me, very early in the novel.
The Nazis, the coming of World War Two, the golem...there are so many different parts of the story, and they seemed to me, at the end, to really come together naturally.
Chabon: I probably should just say "Thank you," take the compliment, and leave it at that, but the truth is that it was hard-going.
It grew very organically. I allowed all these streams to enter the book because they felt as though they needed to. When I started writing about the golem, I trusted that it belonged in the book just as I trusted that escape artistry belonged. With the Antarctic section, the same is true, but I didn't examine closely why. What were the thematic links or why did all this stuff belong together? It was a little scary because a similar thing had happened with Fountain City, the failed novel, all sorts of disparate themes running together, baseball and architecture, cooking and Paris; in that book I trusted my instincts but it didn't work. I couldn't get it to hang together.
So it was scary, but that's how it goes. To my great delight, I discovered that it did all belong. There was something about the golem which tied in with Superman and the superhero figure, the messianic figure who would redeem the suffering and helpless of the world. There was a Jewish element to all that, and the creators of all these golden age comic books, many of them were Jewish kids. When I started working the Houdini vein, very quickly I realized that escapism is always a charge leveled against comics: why would one want to waste time reading them? It all belonged together.
Dave: The Antarctic section seemed like the ultimate expression of that: how much bigger could the novel become? It's huge, the scope of the novel. But also, what could be a more appropriate metaphor for escapism? A lesser book might try to bring a moral to the escapist aspects of the plot, but there are so many contradictory impulses within the characters and the way the story plays out. It's not a book about morals, it's about these people.
There's so much history in here, too. I was relieved in a way when I found the Author's Notes detailing the sources of your research. I was starting to wonder how you could have possibly known so much.
Chabon: Having chosen to set the book during this period, from the first day I was writing, I knew I was going to have to do something about World War Two. From the moment I began working on the book, some part of my mind began seeking a solution to that problem.
I didn't want to go to the battlefields of Europe. I didn't want to go to Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima. That's been written about so many times by people so much more qualified than I, people like James Jones and Norman Mailer who lived through it. I was always searching for my own theater of war.
At some point, I stumbled across a reference to a mission the United States sent to Antartica in 1941, just before the war began. In case any of the Axis powers made a grab for the Antarctic, the United States wanted to have a foothold. As soon as I read that, it clicked: that's my theater of war. It was exciting to think that I could write about World War Two from a totally new place.
I was thinking, too, of Superman and his fortress of solitude. The Superman story is one of the underlying threads of the story, coming from another planet, leaving his parents and his world that got blown up behind. He comes to this other world and he has to reinvent himself. Again, it felt natural, even though I'd been working really hard trying to come up with something.
Dave: Maybe that's what I've been trying to get at: I imagine this went through many revisions, but it feels like you really knew the story, so when you had those separate threads, it became clear why and where they belonged.
Chabon: Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors the prepared mind." If you're really engaged in the writing, you'll work yourself out of whatever jam you find yourself in.
When I was working on The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and I had just written the love scene between Art and Arthur...that was a hard scene to write; I was uncomfortable handling the material and I wanted to make sure I did a good job of it. I didn't know how to end it. I didn't know what to do, so I got up and I went for a walk down the boardwalk where I was living, along the Balboa Peninsula, trying not to think about it. As I was walking I passed a person with his head back and a handkerchief pressed against his nose, trying to staunch the blood. He had a nosebleed. It just clicked: if the character had a nosebleed, it would be like a 'losing the virginity' thing, physical evidence like blood on the sheets. That was exactly the kind of image I'd been looking for.
That's the best thing about writing, when you're in that zone, you're porous, ready to absorb the solution. If you put yourself out there and you're lucky, it comes to you. You find it, and you know right away that's it.
Dave: The publisher's comments on the book jacket compare The Amazing Adventures to a couple novels, one of which is Don Delillo's Underworld. I don't know how you feel about that. You probably had absolutely nothing to do with it, right?
Chabon: Absolutely not, no. They seem like very different books to me. Underworld is not my favorite Don Delillo novel, although there are parts I thought were incredibly brilliant and wonderful, but he's doing something so different, so much more analytical and critical in the sense of being a critic of history, American history in particular. Sometimes his story seemed secondary to that purpose, whereas to me, I'm more interested in just telling a story.
Dave: I'd agree. They're very different. Yet there are certainly similarities: New York City, obviously, but other aspects, too. One thing they have in common is the use of celebrity characters. Delillo uses Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and J. Edgar Hoover. In your book, we find Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and Eleanor Roosevelt. How did Salvadore Dali become a character?
Chabon: He kept coming up in my research. I was reading a lot of The New Yorker magazines from that time, week after week after week of incredibly detailed snapshots of the city from each year that I was writing about. It was an incredible resource. I'd sit with a big stack of bound New Yorkers in the library and read through, especially the "Talk of the Town" sections. The "Talk of the Town" was really that in the 1940s: it was all about New York, it was only about New York, and it was about people.
Salvadore Dali cropped up in a lot of them. He was around a lot, then, in New York. I kept noticing him. He designed a whole attraction at The World's Fair, "The Dream of Venus," and I was writing about that same time. He worked his way into the book because he seemed to have worked his way into New York City during those years.
That's true also of Orson Welles. His name was on everyone's lips for a while. He was well-known as the boy genius. It seemed natural that the people who were a part of the city should work their way into the book just the same as the automat or Schraft's restaurants. They were necessary parts of creating that world.
Dave: I thought Orson Welles's role was especially effective. I loved Joe sitting in the theater watching Citizen Kane, blown away by the possibilities of what he could do with comic book frames, the same way Welles was reinventing uses of the camera and lighting in film. Joe was obsessed with the means of expression.
Chabon: That makes Joe pretty unusual among comic book artists of his time, though there were a couple, the foremost among them being Will Eisner, a brilliant artist and a very talented storyteller. He's the guy who created The Spirit. Right from the beginning, he saw comics as art. He didn't have any compunction about it. He wasn't apologetic. He didn't have that "yeah, sorry, I draw comics" kind of attitude that almost every other artist at the time did.
It is unusual for Joe to be that way, but that's what interested me. I wanted to write about someone who was a true artist and, yet, his medium was despised - the tension there, which is exemplified by his partner, Sammy, who does have that embarrassed, apologetic demeanor - that interested me.
Dave: It must have been challenging, even fun, to write the chapters that were essentially prose presentations of the comic book strips.
Chabon: It was fun. That was something I came to fairly late. I started to feel that I had a large problem: my comic book characters didn't exist, and none of my readers would have seen them. The Escapist existed only within the covers of this book.
I wanted to give readers the feeling of knowing the characters, a mental image. How was I to do that? If I wrote about them in the same language that I was using to write about Joe and Sammy, it would give the comics characters the same level of familiarity. I wanted to elevate The Escapist to that level, but I didn't want to lose the comic book flavor, so, for instance, I tried to preserve the dialogue in those sections, the way people talk in comic books.
Dave: I've been surfing through your web site over the last few days. How invested are you in that? There's a lot of interesting stuff on there, essays published in magazines over the years and also something about the novel that failed. It's interesting to me that an author would take the time to reach out to fans in that way.
Chabon: That's the thing, the time, that's the problem. I love tinkering with the web site. I'm a Mac user, and it's fun for me to create a web page with HTML, but I have two kids and a lot of work to do, so it's rare that I can steal the four or five hours it takes to pack together a good addition to the site. But I'm such a devoted web user, myself, that it feels important to me to have a presence, to be a part of that whole collective enterprise.
And I like giving readers an opportunity to get a hold of me in that way and to read things I've written which might disappear otherwise. If I'm published in Vogue, say, or in The New York Times Sunday magazine, once it disappears from the beauty salons and doctors' offices, it's gone forever. Those things tend not to get reprinted. It's nice to be able to give them another chance at life by putting them on the web.
Dave: A.M. Homes, when she was here, had mentioned John Cheever's story, "The Swimmer." I found the short essay you'd written about it posted on your site. It had been years since I read the story, maybe not since college, so I went back to it last night. It's such a fantastic story. How long ago did you write that essay?
Chabon: Five years ago.
Dave: You wrote, "Cheever's mastery lies in the handling of Neddy's gradual, devastating progress from boundless optimism to bottomless despair, from summer to fall, from swimming pool to swimming pool, no two alike, each described with Cheever's lyrical precision."
It's such a perfect story. From the very first paragraph, everything about it. I even love the names: Neddy Merrill, Donald Westerhazy...
Chabon: It's a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, with all these deep mythological layers to it. It's Cheever's best story, if not one of the best ever written, really.
Dave: Are there other stories or books that come to mind, stories that seem so right?
Dave: That's funny because Homes mentioned that book, too.
Chabon: Really? It's a devastating novel. The things I keep going back to, rereading, maybe they say more about me as a reader than about the books. Love in the Time of Cholera, Pale Fire, Moby Dick....That book is so amazing. And I guess I knew this, but going back to it I just realized that it starts with two characters meeting in bed; that's how my book begins, too, but I hadn't noticed the parallel before, two characters forced to share a bed, reluctantly.
Dave: Having finished this book and seeing it published must be a huge relief.
Chabon: It is. People keep saying, "Oh, you're getting all these great reviews, that must make you really happy." I guess it does, but mostly it's just a relief. Every time another review comes out I let out a deep breath. It's good to have it over with. I worked on it a long time, and I didn't know what people were going to think of it. Would people like it? Would they buy it? So far it's been doing pretty well.
Dave: Being different from your earlier novels, do you think it will appeal to older fans or do you think it will bring a whole new audience to your work?
Chabon: I hope it will appeal to people who haven't read the other books or people who thought they wouldn't be interested in them. At the same time, I do see it as forming a continuum with the earlier books. It shares some of the same themes, in particular that of the friendship between a gay man and a straight man. That seems to be a figure that gets repeated in all my books - not just that relationship, but all the permutations of male relationships that are a little skewed: father-son relationships between two men who aren't really father and son, this loving relationship between two men who aren't lovers, unlabelable male relationships. Hopefully, readers who liked the earlier books will find things they recognize, including the language, too.
Dave: I saw on your web site that the movie adaptation of Wonder Boys is going to be re-released.
Chabon: Yes, in a matter of weeks, though I'm not sure if it's going to play in Portland or not. It did really well here; this was one of the few cities where it stayed for a long time. People in Portland seemed to like it, but in most places it didn't do as well.
Dave: How much did you have to do with the script?
Chabon: I wasn't involved, except to the degree that they sent me drafts of the script as the writer turned them in. They asked me at one point to write a memo about what I thought of it. That was all very nice of them. They didn't have to do anything because I wasn't officially involved at all.
Dave: I thought it came out well. I'd read the book about four years before seeing it, and I think that helped because I'm usually disappointed by adaptations. The book wasn't so fresh in my mind.
Chabon: I agree. I thought it worked as a movie pretty well. I got lucky. I got a really good director, a good script, great music, and a really nice look - the cinematographer was brilliant. But it was a tough sell. It was hard for them to find a target audience.
Dave: Are you interested in writing screenplays at all?
Chabon: I'm going to adapt this, Kavalier & Clay. I'm a little daunted. It's intimidating. What's going to be hard for me is to try to divorce myself as much as possible from what I wrote. I'll have to approach it simply as raw material and try to craft a film script out of it.
Dave: Will you be working on that instead of starting another book?
Chabon: I will. In fact, I have a deadline. I'm glad. I think that will help me get it done.
Dave: What do you think of the novel now that it's published? Is it what you imagined it would be?
Chabon: I was afraid that the book, on its surface, would be off-putting to women readers. It's about comic books, and in my greatly enlarged recent experience it's become clear that women have a very negative attitude toward comic books. They didn't grow up reading them, for the most part.
I was surprised that my wife thought it was a good idea, then again with my agent, another woman, then my editor, another woman - in spite of the fact that all three of them reacted positively I still have this fear. It probably reaches deep down into my childhood history as a geek, being interested in comic books and getting nowhere with girls. Those two things going hand-in-hand. But the response has been very positive; women readers are finding lots to enjoy.
Dave: For the record, I didn't read comic books, but to me, the story is about a lot of more than that. Mostly, it's about Joe, and as important as comic books are to so much of the story, it's all incidental to Joe's story. He could have been a filmmaker. He could have been anything, really.
Chabon: I agree: Joe is the hero and Sammy is the sidekick. That's how I feel about it. Comic books were just the means for me to tell the story.
Michael Chabon visited Powell's Hawthorne Street store on October 12, 2000. Actually, he had quite a Powell's afternoon, first visiting the Internet Annex downtown for this interview, then sneaking across Tenth Avenue to our City of Books to browse for an hour or so before heading east across the river to read.
"Who was that handsome man?" one of my coworkers asked later that evening.
"A geek who played with comic books," I said knowledgeably. "Michael Chabon."
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State