Before others could reject him, Michael Chabon had convinced himself no one wanted to read an epic novel about comic-book creators, mythical Jewish monsters called golems, New York in the 1930s, daring escapes from Lithuania, Nazis, and the Empire State Building's elevator system. He wanted to write the book — desperately, one might say, if only because such a tome would allow him the opportunity to tie together his childhood memories and adult obsessions — but thought his agent and his editor would shoot down such a proposal. In the end, they did not, but Chabon's idea seemed such an enormous undertaking — it would be less a novel than a thousand-mile walk through history in bare feet — and enormous undertakings have never been Chabon's strongest suit. He is, after all, the very same man who once wrote a book, titled Wonder Boys, that is more or less about how he failed to write another book, which was to have been titled Fountain City. The former was made into a film, released this year, starring Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a weary English professor haunted by his incomplete brick of a book, all 2,000 pages of it. The latter sits in Chabon's Berkeley, California, home, forever unfinished.
Fountain City was to be about Chabon's greatest passions: baseball, ballparks, architecture, and cooking among them. It was (is?) about an architect who wants to build the perfect ballpark; it becomes his obsession. But Chabon couldn't finish the book, because he found he didn't want to spend any more time with the book's protagonist. Turns out, the creator wanted little to do with his creation, so he ditched the book; Chabon ran into a creative wall, and like a crash-test dummy the author buckled upon impact. Even now, he doesn't quite know how the book slipped away from him, only that his failure to complete it haunts him.
“And it's going to be the question that haunts me forever, I think, because in a way, I sort of felt or persuaded myself that there was something inherently flawed with that book,” Chabon says. The tone of his voice suggests there are other things he'd rather talk about; he talks about the book the same way a man might talk about the woman who got away. “It was misconceived from the beginning. No matter what I did, I was better off abandoning it, because it was inherently unfinishable.”
There were moments when he felt as though his latest book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, was just as unfinishable. Besides being so much longer than his earlier works, among them The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and two collections of short stories, it also contains dozens of characters; chief among them are a Czech immigrant named Josef Kavalier, who abandoned his homeland and family just ahead of Hitler's encroaching footsteps, and Joe's Brooklyn-born cousin Sammy Clay (née Klayman), an aspiring artist and would-be creator of comic books. The book, which unfolds over several decades, demanded extensive research: Chabon found himself buried in university libraries, pouring over blueprints for the Empire State Building, books about Antarctica, and transcripts of Congressional hearings condemning comics in the mid-1950s. He went to comic-book conventions and interviewed Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and so many other heroes during the late 1930s and early '40s. He talked to Stan Lee, the man who helped birth Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, in addition to so many other angst-ridden, super-powered good guys. Chabon expected it would take him two years to complete Kavalier and Clay; he wrote the book in “four years, four months, and four days,” he says with the smallest of chuckles, explaining that “life got in the way.”
But he would not discard this book, because he had fallen in love with his characters. Chabon wanted to know what would become of Joe and Sam, and what would become of the superhero they create, The Escapist (such an appropriate hero for European Jews in the 1930s, so many of whom longed for the magical golden key that would liberate them from the coffin). The father wanted to see his children through to the very end; he would not abandon them, not this time. As a result, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ranks among the year's best-reviewed books, and it's worthy of such praise: Every paragraph reads like a tiny poem, and the tale only picks up steam over its 638 pages (it feels half that length, at most). It reads like the world's finest comic book, filled with heroes (writers, artists, filmmakers; even Orson Welles and Salvador Dali show up) and villains (Nazis, publishers), good guys and women (and, in Sam's case, men) who love them. What he ended up with was a tale as thrilling as leaping a tall building in a single bound.
“What's good is when you can respond to what you're writing as a reader and enjoy it and say, “These are characters I would like to read about even if I wasn't writing this book,'” Chabon says. “I hadn't ever read a novel about two Golden Age comics creators before, and so, as a reader and as a fan of comic books, it was fun for me just to be able to read a novel about these two guys as I was writing it. My goal is to try to write the kind of books I would like to read, and I do have this perfect novel somewhere in my mind, and every book that I read is held up to it. Certain books do come up to that, like Love in the Time of Cholera, for example, which is my personal, perfect experience as a reader. Another one is Lolita, which comes close. There's a Platonic ideal, and these are reflections of that, and I would like to write that book myself if I can.”
But critics and author be damned; the highest praise comes from Will Eisner himself, who lived through the era Chabon has recreated in Kavalier & Clay. Indeed, Eisner lives in those two characters, the Jew shut out from work in New York's biggest ad agencies, but an artist who never believed comics were beneath his dignity. Like Sam and Joe, Will Eisner and his contemporaries — among them Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman's papas; and Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, creators of Captain America; and Stan Lee, born Stanley Leiber — were also Jews who wanted their heroes to fight the battles they could never win, even if that meant creating one fascist to destroy another. (The first issue of Sam and Joe's comic book features The Escapist — described as “Houdini, but mixed with Robin Hood and a little bit of Albert Schweitzer” — punching out Hitler, an homage to the cover of the first issue of Captain America Comics in March 1941.)
“I think Michael was very courageous and innovative to do a book set in that era,” Eisner says from his home in Florida, where even now the 85-year-old continues to work (this week, DC Comics published his graphic novel Minor Miracles). “Michael's made a real contribution to the young cartoonists, because they write me and want to know what it's like. His book captures the feel of the time; I can see the people involved. I would applaud and agree with the approval.” (Chabon, at the time of our interview two weeks ago, had not heard from Eisner and worried he had not read or did not like the book.)
Perhaps Kavalier & Clay is the perfect book because it springs from that most perfect of places: the child's desire to walk in his ancestors' past. Chabon, like so many of us in our 30s, longs for the past only because it's lost forever — a memory that disintegrates a little more each day. We've been so inundated with representations of long-ago yesterdays, but they feel hollow. They're nothing but faded portraits of buildings that have been replaced by parking lots and strip malls. They mean nothing, because they feel intangible, temporary. Chabon wanted to construct a very real past, built on the foundation of his own family's history.
Chabon's grandfather was, in fact, the first to bring comics into the Chabon household. He worked as a typographer in a printing press in New York City, and although his grandson doesn't know if he actually printed comics, he would bring bags of them home for Michael's father. Years later, Michael's dad would buy his own son comic books, reading them before handing them over. Father and son would talk about Batman and Captain Marvel and Sub-Mariner the way other dads and their boys would talk about Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
“It was something we shared,” says Chabon, who will soon begin writing the screenplay for Kavalier & Clay. “And in a way, the book is kind of that sharing that took place between me and my father, and it was more than just comic books, because my dad really stirred my passion and my interest in the world of his childhood. He got me interested in things like radio programs and details about the New York City subway and Coney Island and going to the serials when he was a kid. He has a lot of nostalgia for his childhood, and he communicated that very successfully to me, to the point that I could actually be nostalgic for a childhood I never even had, which is not an unusual experience for me — to feel nostalgia for something I never experienced. I think it's a common feeling of our generation, because the past feels at once very real and, at the same time, totally gone and unrecoverable. I wrote the book for one reason: I wanted to travel in time.”