And…scene -or- Das ist bemerkenswert

On the back cover of my (and probably your) copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the Chicago Tribune is cited for deeming Michael Chabon “a reader’s writer; with sentences so cozy they’ll wrap you up and kiss you goodnight,” suggesting that the novel’s six hundred and thirty-six pages, though menacing, would be knocked out in no time (and, particularly, right before going to bed).

This was not my experience (I tend to do a lot of my reading during the day, and before work).  It took me more than a month to finish this book.  I stopped in the middle of it, read Paul Auster’s City of Glass, and came back to it.  I think my problem is that, while I am still very much a reader, I fancy myself as more of a writer than a reader.  I am studious.  I read with pen in hand, poised to underline the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that demand my so doing.  I cannot simply enjoy a work of art.  Rather, I have to examine it, in this case word for word, figure out what I think is good about it, and learn from it.

And there were so many overwhelmingly good things about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:  the idiosyncrasies of each character (on Tommy:  “He had just eaten three bowls of rice pudding, and he had a milky baby smell.”); Chabon’s familiarity with the time period, and his insertion of the likes of Salvador Dali and Orson Welles to add to its Realist nature; and the rich descriptions and calculated word selection (“…inside the box, Joe lay curled, roped and chained, permitting himself sawdust-flavored sips of life through his nostrils.”) that comprised his beautiful and elegant prose, to name a few.

What I was particularly taken by was Chabon’s ability to write in scenes in an almost Salingeresque manner.  By the end of the very first chapter, I was completely blown away.  I felt as though I had just read something that could stand alone within the pages of The New Yorker, with no expectation of the six hundred pages that follow.  The first chapter is A Perfect Day for Bananafish, and the rest is Franny & Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction combined (but somewhat more sequentially, plotwise).

The scene I would like to focus on here can be located in the fifth chapter of the third part of the novel, The Funny-Book War.  This is the chapter after Joe, having already begun his rampage on everyone in New York City who looked remotely German, stumbled upon the office of Carl Ebling’s one-man Aryan-American League and, [E]scapist that he was, broke in, only to find that “Carl Ebling was, in spite of himself, a fan.”  During their brief encounter after Ebling returned to the office, Joe identified himself as Tom Mayflower, they scrapped a little bit, and, victorious, Joe took off.

It’s three o’clock on a Friday, the 25th of October, 1940.  Carl Ebling, well aware of the location of Empire Comics’ headquarters, and under the pretense that Sam Clay has recently ransacked his office and concussed his head, has called in a bomb threat on the Empire State Building, claiming that it would be going off within the half-hour.

Amid their efforts to evacuate, president of the building and former New York Governor Al Smith and his political crony, James Love, are informed by Harley, “the captain of the building’s private police force,” that there is a bit of an issue getting Joe to join them because, “He says he has too much work to do.”  By some sleight of hand, Joe has lifted the handcuffs off of Harley’s person and subsequently “seen fit to handcuff his self to his drawing table.  At the ankle, to be exact.”  Smith is convinced he can talk Joe into uncuffing himself and leaving, and Love, his interest piqued by the caricature of a situation, decides to come along for the ride.  Chabon writes of Love: “He had recovered from his spasm of mirth, though his pocket handkerchief now contained the evidence of something evil and brown inside him.”  Now there’s a sentence to wrap me up and kiss me goodnight.

After Joe politely declines Smith’s invitation to “stand [him] to a drink,” Love, beginning to share Joe’s “air of amused disconcern,” says to Joe, “You’re quite attached to your work, I can see that.”  Subsequently, as Joe obviates his devotedness towards his work, and Love actually sees the work and recognizes it as a job well done, this witticism turns into something more profound:  Love finds himself attached to Joe’s attachment to his work.  He shrugs off the potential seriousness of the situation and opts to engage this artist, with whom he has just become acquainted, in conversation.  Here, Chabon writes of Love:  “he was fascinated, as always, by the sight of someone making something skillfully.  He wasn’t ready to leave either.”

Love is an incidental figure that disappears entirely from the story three pages later, but within this scene, and due his idiosyncrasies, he is perhaps the most well-developed character of the bunch.  But also in this scene, Love is the audience, the reader.  Because he is not ready to leave, the story, though told by a slightly more objective narrator (than, say, the one who, later on, can read Rosa Clay’s mind), sticks with our protagonist, our artist, cool as a cucumber, handcuffed to a bolted desk, so that we too may, in that moment, live vicariously through him.

Kavalier & Clay runs the emotional gamut.  Some of it is heart wrenching.  The whole basis of the novel – the context behind Joe’s venture to America – is horrible.  History is horrible.  History, and thus this novel, is filled with things I don’t want to write about:  Holocausts and anti-Semitism and homophobia and Capitalism and war and boats filled with refugee children sinking into the Atlantic and dead dogs and planes made of dead dog hides and the Surrealist movement.

But a good deal of Kavalier & Clay is really funny.  On my first read of this book, the above scene was the first, and perhaps the only, part of the book during which I actually laughed out loud.  It was Kavalier & Clay at its most funny.  Given the pretext of Joe’s encounter with Carl Ebling and the AAL, and the fact that there were four hundred pages behind it, it wasn’t difficult to approach the situation with a light heart, and a certainty that, by the scene’s end, Joe’s arm would not be “lying down on Thirty-third Street.”  Chabon took a situation typically of great concern – of horribleness and tragedy – and turned it into such a richly layered comedy of disregard and disconcern that by the time Love says, “Das ist bemerkenswert,” not of the bomb threat, but of Joe Kavalier’s work that, amid a bomb threat, Love has ever so carefully examined, one cannot help but to be left completely and riotously in awe.

There are enough scenes like this one throughout the book that Kavalier & Clay could pretty easily be adapted for a (two and a half, three hour) film without using very much artistic license in the screenplay.  Chabon’s prose develops each scene so well, so cinematically, that it is difficult to not see it unravel as a mental motion picture as you go.  IMDB tells me that a motion picture version is in development for a 2012 release date.  But IMDB also told me three years ago that Ed Norton was directing a screen adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.  So, you never know.  If it is done, and it’s well-done (and how could it not be?  Anyone see Wonder Boys?), then it would probably receive some Oscar (and/or Sundance) nods.

Perhaps Michael Chabon is a reader’s writer, and perhaps I’m just not a “reader”.  What I’d like to assert is that Chabon is also a writer’s writer – a writer that writers read and learn from, a writer who sends lesser writers into fits of jealousy, who usurps all of the ink from their studious pens.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a great book and quite the accomplishment, for the American canon, as well as for the American reader.  I am very glad to have read it.

RANDOM THOUGHTS:

  • Over the last couple of weeks, I have incidentally stumbled upon a couple of works that deal with eras that overlap the time period covered in K&C.  The first is the HBO television series Carnivale, which takes place in the Depression-era (1934) U.S., particularly in the Dust Bowl, and is truly a companion piece to Twin Peaks and LOST.  The second is Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, which takes place in Chicago circa 1942-3.  They are both very good.  Check them out if you haven’t already.
  • I don’t recall ever having read a comic book in my life.  Am I missing something?  Any suggestions?
  • I’m all for ambiguous endings.  My stories are filled with them.  But try to imagine an epilogue to this story, say, in 1960, or during the war in Vietnam.  What the hell would be going on with these characters then?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Grawlsy just ate three bowls of rice pudding, and he has a milky baby smell.  He is fascinated by the sight of someone making something skillfully.  He is twenty-five years old, and resides in Austin, Texas with his bowling ball, Bertha.

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11 Responses to And…scene -or- Das ist bemerkenswert

  1. T-bag says:

    I agree with everything you said, 100%. I tend to read rapidly, with my eye already on the next book in line, but Kavalier & Clay required my absolute attention. I read as slowly as possible, to soak up every sentence and delay the ending. I truly haven’t felt that way since I read Catch-22 in high school.

    I especially agree with what you said at the end. This novel made me simultaneously want to write, because the book made me fucking love the English language even more, but it also made me never want to write again, because nothing could ever compare to Kavalier & Clay.

    As for comic books, you are missing something. There’s a good amount of modern comic books that are simply fantastic pieces of literature – obviously Sandman and Watchmen are required reading because no duh. But also Bone, Fables, Invincible, The Walking Dead, and Scud: The Disposable Assassin for a bit of light humor. Older comics are also fascinating, although the descriptions of the comic book era and style in Kavalier & Clay basically sums it all up. That shit was WAY heavier than adults thought.

    • grawlsy says:

      Ah, man. Thanks for the reply. I was starting to feel anxious about how this piece would be received, and it’s relieving for the first response to be from someone who can relate to my reading experience as well and as eloquently as you.

      Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll take them into serious consideration, and come off of that literary high horse upon which I have been sitting.

  2. Grinth says:

    While I didn’t particularly like Franny and Zooey that is a pretty great comparison of writing styles.

    The line that made me laugh out loud was right near then end when Tommy is inside his ‘bug’s nest’ and accidentally makes some noise alerting Joe and Rosa to his presence. When asked if he is in there he responds “no” and then Chabon writes that he immediately knows it is the most pathetic thing he has ever uttered (or something close to that).

    • grawlsy says:

      I appreciate the compliment. That is a great scene, and since I almost laughed out loud at your recollection of it, I must have given it at least a chuckle when I read it.

    • thepurplemonk says:

      Yeah, I finished the book on an airplane and laughed out loud at the line. Got some looks from the lady reading a Steve Harvey book. And I thought to myself, “You don’t know. You’re reading Steve fucking Harvey.”

  3. hotspur says:

    Nice writeup about the experience of reading this book. At points I was aware of some sentimentality but it is done with such charm that I just loved it even so, which is hella rare for me. Chabon really seemed to be having a good time writing this book and that was contagious. Like smallpox. Funpox.

    Can anyone tell me, though, whether they felt the same issue I did: that after WWII, maybe a little air went out of the writing? There were some fantastic episodes in the last 100 pages — but for the most part, once we settle into Bloomtown, the sense of adventure contained in the prose itself really flagged for me. I feel like maybe Chabon didn’t enjoy writing this time as much as the younger days. I also felt like that was maybe part of his point, that it was time to let the adventures just be stories and get on with real life — as Bookface noted a few days ago, “Everything was a long time ago.”

    • T-bag says:

      I agree that it felt like that at the end, but I do think that was the point. There weren’t any adventures, there wasn’t really anything exciting and fantastic about the world. Everyone just needed to get by.

      I do, however, think it perfectly echoed the time period it was set in. I think post-WWII was kind of a downer time period (any old people (BOOOOO) who were there care to comment?), when people stopped living in fantasies and started to face reality. Sorry to bring in the H-word, but I think Holocausts tend to have that effect.

      That’s what I loved about the book so much. It’s a total cliche, but the book was about AMERICA. The date the boat sank wasn’t a coincidence: reality came crashing into Joe’s world the same time reality came crashing into the rest of America’s worlds. Or something more grammatically correct than that. Once that happened, and then I turned the page and found Joe fighting in the war, I got super depressed. I just wanted him to be young and in love and having fun and living the dream and causing mischief in the city. Even when sad things were happening before the boat sank, like when Tracy Bacon left, I just kind of assumed he and Clay would find their way into each other’s arms and live happily ever after. Then when World War II happened, I realized, “Oh, fuck. Things are terrible and Tracy Bacon is totally going to die.”

      So, I’m sure it was terribly hard to write, because it was certainly hard to even read that big of a tonal switch. But I think it was kind of a perfect summation of that time period. The only way my little pea brain can relate to it is by (again, SORRY) thinking about 9/11. I mean, it doesn’t help that it happened on my first week in high school, but I tend to believe the majority of us were feeling the way I did that morning, that things were great and everything was getting better. And then it was like, “Fuck. Things are really terrible,” and everything changed forever.

      Long response distilled down to one sentence: This book was totally amazing, right guys?

  4. Bookface says:

    Great write-up, Grawlsy.

    Regarding your epilogue question, I think the 1960’s would be very boring for Joe. Successful comic book artist working during the Silver Age. He would be doing some wonderfully creative things, but his personal life would be more stable. I could see Sammy working in television but I do not know enough about the history of television to make an educated guess.

    Also, for comics recommendations, perhaps check out any of Jack Kirby’s stuff to get a sense of a “master” of the form. Also, Will Eisner’s stuff.

  5. A good book about Jack Kirby’s career is Tales to Astonish by Ronin Ro. Kirby’s story in particular seemed to be a huge reference point from which Chabon drew for thematic elements of K&C, and your musing of what life would be like for these characters in the 60’s-70’s is pretty much covered in Kirby’s own experiences, namely, Kirby co-created romance comics in the 50’s, co-created Marvel’s entire line of iconic ’60’s superheroes that Hollywood is strip-mining even as I type this, and in the 70’s Kirby debuted his Fourth World opus through DC, which they have integrated into their stalwart superhero mythologies to an almost obscene extent, and continue to do so.

  6. TheLostChildren says:

    Reading this made me want to go back and read the book again, like, right now. Thanks for reminding me why I loved it so much.

  7. Pingback: And…scene -or- Das ist bemerkenswert: 1500 or so words on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay « grawlsy.

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