Kavalier and Clay: 18 Thoughts

{ Tuesday, March 4, 2008 }

I've procrastinated writing about Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer winner by Michael Chabon. I enjoyed reading it so much that I sped through it with my critical commentary function on mute. I'm afraid I won't do it justice after a few weeks away, but there's no way I'm re-reading it just yet.

It's worth re-reading, but there's too much in the queue. Here's my first shot at it, and I may take another sometime soon.

  1. Who the heck is the narrator? The footnoting, benefit-of-hindsight, I-was-hiding-behind-the-curtain narrator? The narrator who seems to be writing both a researched history and an eye-witness account? I get the feeling it's a puzzle I'm supposed to figure out and that there are clues I probably missed.
  2. The writing is satiny smooth. Subject, predicate, object in the Sunday suit of clause, clause, clause. Delicious words. Words that have a mouthfeel, a comfortable nonacademic mix of consonants and sibilance. Words that would sound great read aloud on the radio.

  3. Now this is dialogue! Direct and snappy: - "What plan?" His mother narrowed her eyes. - "Comic books," yelled Sammy, right to her face. - "'Comic books'?" said Joe. "What are these?" - "Trash," said Ethel. - "What do you know about it?" Sammy asked. Do you hear that? It's like an opera libretto.
  4. Unlike an opera, the characters' dialogue provides almost no exposition. The dialogue is action. The dialogue is decision.
  5. But the dialogue is exposition in one way: Chabon uses it to expose the characters' histories with one another. He doesn't show us or tell us Sammy and his mother in their neighborhood. He just has her do this to one of Sammy's pals: "Jerry Glovsky," she said. "A fine example. He's retarded. His parents are first cousins."
  6. Where does the interior life of the characters come from? Not from that chop-chop dialogue. It comes from the narrator telling us what the characters want. Not what they feel -- always, what they want.
  7. The golem -- now there's some good freaky action. You can't read about the golem without getting your hands dirty -- good honest mud-pie dirty. Reading about this golem creates a golem.
  8. In writing that invokes comics, sports writing, pre-1970s newspaper journalism, and boy's adventure tales, here comes Sammy. Wiseass, hardworking, regular guy, comic-book and business-loving Sammy. I think Chabon set out to do this -- make straight guys want to hang out with Sammy so much that they discover they don't care he's gay, only that he doesn't get hurt. I know you're not supposed to guess at what an author meant to do. But this book is a blueprint for how to use the "Luke I am your father" gambit -- subverting sympathies toward a character whose identity is purportedly anathema to the audience suggested by the text.
  9. I'm still sifting, sifting, whether I think Sammy's marriage to Rosa is too convenient a plot point, whether it asks too many incidents and historical necessities and unexposed character truths to be plausible at once.
  10. The way Chabon builds Sammy's and Rosa's dynamic makes minor plot conveniences less relevant.
  11. Chabon lets Sammy respect Rosa's intelligence. He does something that many writers cannot do with their characters of the opposite gender -- he gives her an intelligence separate from the character of his own gender. Male writers do it to female characters and female writers do it to male characters: make their intelligences reflective of the opposite gender, reactive to it, but not creative in their own right. Rosa is creative in her own right. She has the capacity to surprise the other characters with what she thinks, says, does.
  12. She does get passed from hand to hand, though. Maybe it just seems that way because it happens so quickly. But to a reader, what is the difference between what things seem to be and what they are?
  13. I'm still musing over the poison pill in the bon-bon of the ending: Sammy leaves his son. I don't care if the kid knows the biology of this triangle. Sammy's been his dad, and he leaves, with just a cryptic little promise of continuity scratched onto a business card. It's just hard to swallow that the kid really doesn't care except in the most abstract way. That's the fairy tale here . . . we will all live happily ever after in a time when our indifferent fathers can leave us to find their own true loves and it doesn't hurt us at all.
  14. Oh, hey, the action sequences! Read this book if you want to: a) perform an underwater escape, b) smuggle yourself out of an occupied country, c) survive a plane crash, d) carry the enemy whom you have mortally wounded across the Antarctic, e) bungee jump off a skyscraper.
  15. I love the way Chabon creates space. He does so by having characters move around inside it and bump into its hard boundaries -- they hang coats on chairs, they lie down in the middle of the floor, they lean across desks. You are watching the characters and listening to that quick-step two-cent opera they talk and all the while Chabon is creating space. By the time you finish a scene you know the space you have inhabited though he has never painted it for you.
  16. In its particulars, this book doesn't have a chink in the brick, not a whisper crack in the drywall. Sometimes in the early pages it puffs up and declares: "I am researched! I am well researched!" But every word works, every word is weight-bearing and serves the story. Every sentence is a supporting beam. I would have been frightened and thrilled beyond belief to be the editor of this book.
  17. I'll have to read it again to make sure, but for now this is my favorite thing in the whole book. It made me so happy when I read it. I wanted balloons and cake. - "Eleanor Roosevelt," Rosa said. - "I'm going to call her," Joe said, going to a telephone on a nearby desk.
  18. Yes. I liked that even better than going upstairs at Salvador Dali's party. I liked it even better than Sammy kissing Tracy Bacon.

There, my first go at Kavalier and Clay. I'm coming back to point 13 next week. Boy, do I have more to say on point 13.


Foodie said...

That was wonderful! Kavalier and Clay is one of my favorite books. Did you read Middlesex? I want your 18 Thoughts on it. Please?

ann pai said...

I haven't read Middlesex yet - but I will! Next up though is The Tenth Muse (my other book club book for the month) and The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Those should keep me busy for another week or so, along with the Ralph Ellison book of essays on jazz. I've got some huge books waiting in the wings...

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