The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Praising a novel nearly two decades after it won a Pulitzer Prize feels a bit irrelevant, like applauding with mittens after twenty thousand pairs of fleshy hands have ceased clapping. But since any review says as much about the writer as is does about the subject, let me declare, by way of explaining why I find Michael Chabon’s 2001 novel so exceptional, the type of fiction I aspire to in my own writing.

The novel is set during the late 1930s and early 1950s, almost entirely in New York city with a brief interlude in the most unlikely of World War II battlefields, and follows the careers of three comic book professionals in what is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Comics.” As an avid fan of the medium, I’ve always been uncomfortable with using precious metals to describe the various eras of comic book, as it proposes a hierarchy that in many ways isn’t justified. For all their innovation, the comics in the Golden Age were far inferior, in both their writing and artwork, to their Silver and Bronze age descendants. Yet the Golden Age was a time when comic book sales and their cultural impact (wonderfully depicted in David Hajdu’s excellent The Ten-Cent Plague) were at a height they would never reach again, even in today’s world of blockbuster superhero movie franchises. To his credit, Chabon hails the achievement of the era while acknowledging its inferior quality, writing comic books of this time were “like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory… larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant.”

The scope of the novel is ambitious, dealing with the immigrant experience of 1930s America, the global fight against fascism, and the crushing social conformity in post-war America. These large experiences are told through three main characters: Joe Kavalier, Sam Klayman, and Rosa Parks, who forms one of the oddest yet entirely believable love triangles in literature. Joe is the illustrator and Sammy the writer for the Escapist, a superhero who is part Superman, part Houdini. (The book cover image at the top of this post shows the Escapist socking the jaw of Hitler).

Chabon’s writing is excellent. What I like best are his paragraphs, which are long and meandering, sometimes containing a long passage of exposition between two lines of dialog — were I to attempt imitating this style, I’d need a much longer interruption than this (with several more variants in punctuation) — that somehow maintains grammatical cohesion. He has some great metaphors as well, such as “her eyes the pale gray of rainwater pooled in a dish left on the window ledge.”

I’ll conclude with a juicy quote from one of the minor characters, an editor named George Deasey, who subtly attempts to convince Joe and Sam to be more ambitious in their licensing negotiations for the Escapist:

“There is only one sure means in life,” Deasey said, “of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. Ad that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money.”

Deasey represents the cynicism which both Joe and Sammy attempt to overcome through their work in the comics. Although not entirely successful in their quest, their journey makes for a memorable adventure.

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Rules for Reviewers, Part 1: Critique the Writing

I belong to a couple writer’s groups, informal gatherings of novice authors who share their work and critique the work of others. These groups have been where I’ve learned what I do well (dialog, and creating narrative tension) and where I need to sharpen my game (exposition, and resolving narrative tension). As a reader, I’ve developed a reputation as a tough but fair critic, someone who provides thoughtful analyses that are constructive, rather than destructive. It’s not easy being critical in a supportive way, and to help me succeed more often in reaching these goals I’ve developed some rules for working in a writer’s group. Over the course of several posts, I’ll discuss each of the articles in my code of conduct.

Critique the writing, not the writer

Some of the material I’ve read in these groups has been quite good. On more than one occasion, I’ve concluded my comments with these words: Get. This. Published.

But there’s also been a lot of sub-par, fair-to-middlin, not so great, and at times downright awful work as well, even from writers who had previously submitted very good stories to the group. And as I’ll explain further in a subsequent post, empty praise does little to service the writer. Yet as a reader, it’s important to remember that novice writers fail not because of some personal character flaw, but rather because their enthusiasm is a little ahead of their expertise. Readers need to focus on the words: here is the passage where the writing falls short, this is why it doesn’t work, and (where appropriate — more on this in a later post) here is how it could be improved.

I’ll illustrate this approach with an anecdote from the only session I will ever attend of one particular writer’s group. Authors in this group came with copies of their material, which were handed out to readers before the author gave an oral reading. One of the pieces delivered the evening I attended had a number of flaws, one of which was the second paragraph — five sentences long, each beginning with the words He then. When it came time for reader responses, I pointed out this repetition to the author, and suggested a few variant sentence beginnings would speed up the pace of the narrative. Critique the writing, not the reader. A few readers after me, however, took a far different approach. Slapping the manuscript onto the table, this reader leaned forward in his seat, glared at the author, and declared: “You’re a lazy writer!” A statement which revealed a lot about the character of the speaker than of his intended target.

Since writing is an intensely personal expression, this approach won’t work for some writers, who will take any critique of their writing as a personal attack. Readers can’t control how their analyses will be taken, but they can pay attention to how they deliver their messages. And if those messages focus on the writing, the people who compose those works will be far more likely to use these messages to their benefit.

Information Infestation

The twentieth anniversary of the Columbine school shooting will occur in a few days, and today I stumbled across an interesting series of essays on the incident’s aftermath from Denver-based 5280 magazine. Among those essays were two pieces of information I have known for years about the killers:

  • They were members of a brooding clique of social outcasts at the school known as the Trench Coat Mafia
  • They had created levels in the game Doom
  • What I didn’t know until today was that both of these items are pure bullshit. In the days after the massacre, these were among the many rumors that journalists scavanged from the ruins of the community’s shattered psyche, and they did as they were trained — run with the story, and get the scoop on your rivals.
  • Then ask questions.
  • And if the answers you get suggest your scoop may have relied on a falsehood… the falsehood you reported becomes urban legend despite numerous updates and corrections… your emphasis on the sensational and salacious inspires copy-cat atrocities…
  • Well, you were just doing your job.
  • Maybe I shouldn’t care so much about two trivial details of this horrific event. And yes, shame on me for not conducting the five minutes of Internet research that would have disproven these myths. But I can’t help thinking that information has become a disease, an infestation of deception that has crippled our ability to think critically. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but the way out of our predicament is not through more learning, but better discerning — sorting fact from rumor, no matter how appealing the fiction may be.
  • Technology’s Role in Driver Retention

    A former employer of mine, a software company for the trucking industry, has asked me to write occasional articles on their company blog. I’m hoping to use this opportunity to research topics and discover unique and interesting angles on them. And the pay is decent — that always helps.

    My first article is about the high level of driver turnover at many trucking companies, and how technology can either reduce or increase that problem.

    Unseen Movie Reviews #2: The Graduate

    Like fine literature among intellectuals, great movies so dominate populate culture that we have no choice but to be familiar with them. Much as I’ve never read a certain American literary classic but can tell you most of its plot and recite many of its famous lines, there are films I know so very well despite never haven seen them. So far in this series, I’ve fabricated memories of a horror classic and an epic fable of the American south; the next entry is a bit more contemporary. 

    Why I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Seen This Movie: If you were a cynical undergraduate between the years 1967 and 1987, enjoyed films, and had ambivalent feelings about the adult world into which you were about to enter, there simply was no way you could not watch this film. It was a perfect expression for the anxiety of a generation. And the soundtrack from Simon and Garfunkel was absolutely awesome.

    The One Time I Came Close To Finally Seeing The Movie: One night in graduate school, my roommate rented this film and invited a buddy of ours over to watch. I was in the graduate student office, and a bunch of fellow students talked me into going out drinking with them. I had just done poorly on a paper, and decided to get bombed. The next day my roommate said I could watch it if I wanted, but I was too disgusted to allow myself even a pleasure so small as watching a movie. So I returned it.

    Why I Probably Won’t Ever See It Now: A sentiment that once appealed to me so strongly no longer has any attraction. In “My Back Pages,” Bob Dylan said it with far more eloquence: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

    The One Image I’ll Never Forget, Even Though I Haven’t Seen It: Dustin Hoffman being seduced by Anne Bancroft. I mean, it’s on the friggin’ poster, after all.

    The One Line I’ll Always Remember, Even Though I’ve Never Heard It: “Elaine! ELAINE!”

    I Haven’t Seen This Film, But I Have Seen: The Freshman, a quirky 1990 dark comedy starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick. Like “The Graduate,” it follows the journey of an intelligent young man struggling to understand the world around him, but doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously. Brando plays a character who claims to have been the inspiration for Brando’s performance in “The Godfather,” Bert Parks dances and sings about a Komodo dragon, and Broderick’s attempt to ruin the film with his typically awful acting go unnoticed through all the bizarre plot twists.

    Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction

    Benjamin Percy was the keynote speaker at a literary conference I recently attended. I generally dislike these opening addresses, and fully expected him to deliver yet another self-congratulatory homily, followed by a desultory reading and a perfunctory exhortation to “believe in your writing.” Yet immediately after being introduced, Percy pulled out a dry-erase marker, went over to a white board, and launched into an informative and engaging discussion of the craft of writing fiction — creating engaging characters, building suspense, the strategic placement of scenes, alternating between action and moments of repose. After compiling seven pages of notes over the next hour, I bought his book with the enthusiasm of a Marvel fan on opening night of an Avengers film.

    I won’t reveal the advice offered in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, partly out of fear the author would hunt me down if I did (while affable and inviting, Percy can be physically imposing — broad shouldered and deep voiced, he seems capable of sprouting fangs or claws at any moment). I do feel safe in revealing his central theme, introduced in the opening essay and expanded upon in the following fourteen: the accepted distinction between literary fiction (think Antioch Review) and genre fiction (think Fantasy and Science Fiction) is arbitrary, and writers wholly committed to either category suffer from not adopting the best practices from the other. “Literary writers tend to overdo thoughtfulness,” he writes, “just as many genre writers tend to neglect interiority in favor of action.” Percy, who has published in both literary magazines and comic books, advocates eliminating this distinction, and combining “the careful carpentry of storytelling” with page-turning excitement that makes the reader want to know what happens next.

    In his description of the worst qualities of literary fiction — elaborate prose, abstract ideas, and lengthy dialogue leading to underwhelming epiphanies — I recognized a lot of the problems I’ve been seeing in my own writing. To put it bluntly: Nothing happens. My characters talk (a lot, and to be fair to myself I’ve been commended for my conversations), but they live in a world where inertia is as common as air. Having recognized this problem, I’m contemplating (there I go again with the thinking) following the advice of what Percy calls The Exploding Helicopter Clause: “If a story does not contain an exploding helicopter [or similar spectacular event or character], an editor will not publish it.” As authorial recommendations goes, this sounds both reasonable and a heckuva lot of fun.

    Percy is a storyteller, not an academic, and true to his calling he weaves an engaging memoir through his essays. We learn a lot about Percy — his childhood fascination with genre and later respect for literature, a wonderful marriage, early struggles and eventual successes in his writing career, unintended lessons about writing learned from his in-laws, a mortifying illness of a son that lead Percy to dread watching Toy Story, a decrepit home he and his wife refurbished — revealed not in chronological order, each anecdote chosen to underscore the ideas of the current essay. Among the more interesting facts we learn is that as a teen, Percy conducted a ceremony which failed in its stated intent to turn him into a werewolf. My trepidation around him seems fully warranted.

    I was impressed enough by Percy’s keynote speech to have him autograph the book I purchased. He signed it with advice I imagine he includes with all his signatures: “Go the distance,” the title of the his last essay and a reference to Rocky, a film that inspired him through his early days as a writer. Stallone’s plucky pugilist, waking before dawn to run and beating a speed bag until his knuckles bleed, succeeds in his goal to leave his bout with the heavyweight champion standing on his feet — going the distance — and Percy sees in him a model of tenacity for all novice writers in their struggle to rise to the top of the slush pile: “you must develop around your heart a callus the size of a speed bag.” There could be no better end to Percy’s marvelous collection of essays than this eloquent metaphor based on a gritty work of pop culture.

    Review: Little Fires Everywhere

    Little Fires Everywhere begins with a fire that’s actually pretty big — a concession, it seems, to the demand of contemporary literary agents and editors for a dramatic first sentence. But then, for the rest of Celeste Ng’s novel, nothing happens. There’s a lot of conversations, and people do things they probably shouldn’t and discover long-hidden secrets, but aside from a subplot that doesn’t involve the central characters, not one event occurs that would make the headlines of a community newspaper.

    And yet, the novel is engrossing from cover to cover. The characters may lead mundane lives, but Ng makes them memorable. The novel focuses on the Richardson family; Elena and her husband Bill (who the narrator nearly always refers to as Mr. and Mrs. Richardson) are hard-working parents of four high school students, and own a townhouse they rent to an artist, Mia, and her own teenaged daughter. The Richardsons define success through their accomplishments — good paying jobs, athletic victories, admission to Ivy League colleges. Mia hardly fits in their world; her artistic instincts keep her moving throughout the country, never settling in any place any longer than a couple of years while working an assortment of menial jobs. Mia’s daughter becomes involved with each of the Richardson children, and neither family comes out of these meetings the better.

    The novel takes place in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, but unlike another novel with a similar setting I recently reviewed, this is one where I actually cared about the characters. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson are decent people who deserve better than what comes to them, and Mia is as engaging as she is enigmatic. It would be easy to portray the Richardson children as pampered and self-centered, and Mia’s child as a victim of her mother’s unconventional career, but Ng instead invests each of her characters with intelligence and empathy. It’s difficult to create an engaging tale around ordinary people who don’t do much, but Ng makes it work.

    Hulu is producing an eight-episode adaptation of the novel, and episode one will likely begin with that spectacular fire. Here’s hoping the series has the same focus on characterization as its source.

    Review: Five Rings

    I have two requirements for sports books:

    1. Tell me something I don’t know

    2. Don’t tell me something I know is false

    Neither rule sets the bar too high, but on both counts, Jerry Thorton’s history of the New England Patriots over the last two decades falls short. It’s really disappointing, as I hoped to pass the interminable wait for New England’s latest trip to the Super Bowl with an engaging read. The experience, however, was more like watching the Patriots waltz through a desultory November game against an opponent who had already packed it in for the year.

    I found no information in this book that wasn’t either common knowledge among Patriots fans like myself, or could be discovered through a simple Google search. As far as I could tell, the author conducted no new interviews, did minimal additional research, and scanned a couple DVDs from his entertainment center to perform his “analysis” of key Patriots games. It’s a disappointing performance, the equivalent of a wide receiver jogging through his route, and particularly upsetting when you consider the opening scene: the author roaming through the White House as part of the media team covering the Patriots’ perfunctory presidential visit. (The support for The Fraud among the quarterback, coach, and owner of my favorite professional football team is at the top of my Things I Don’t Like To Talk About list.) I fully expected some revealing anecdote or observation — a funny offhand comment, an unusual portrait hanging in the hall perhaps — but, nah. To use yet another football analogy, the lack of any memorable information from the White House visit was like having your quarterback overthrow a wide-open receiver in the end zone.

    Moving on to my second rule, I found a disturbing number of factual errors. To give one example, the author states that after the Patriots lost the 2017 AFC Championship game to Denver, Tom Brady’s playoff records against Peyton Manning fell to 2-2. Because I devote far too much of my memory to meaningless sports statistics (a malady I share with 95% of sports fans from the New England region), I know Brady and Manning have actually met five times in the playoffs, with three of those games won by (and I’m forcing myself to complete this sentence) Manning. Call them trivial errors, but for someone who claims to be a dutiful fan of the team, they’re just not excusable.

    His dust-cover biography claims the author is a stand-up comic, so I was even more disappointed to discover very few laugh lines (although I must admit, “there are two things I know to be true: Witches don’t exist. But witch hunts always manage to find them” is as insightful as it is funny). It’s odd, because Thorton at times can be a clever writer, with a gift for metaphor; when describing Tom Brady’s cool response in a high-pressure situation, he writes: “his body language was that of a guy flipping through the channel guide looking to see what’s on.” I admire writing like this; I just wish there was more to admire about this book.

    If you’re a Patriots fan with a short memory, you may find this review of the Patriots’ remarkable run (which could result in yet another championship later tonight) refreshing. But if you’re looking for more, you’re likely to be disappointed.

    Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

    I would gladly sacrifice certain non-essential parts of my anatomy in order to write as well as Sarah Vowell. “Gladly” is perhaps an overstatement, but if blood sacrifice did indeed have the power of conferring literary talent, I’d seriously consider which areas of my flesh I could do without.

    Vowell’s 2011 book on Hawaiian history combines extensive research with Vowell’s characteristic snark. While some find her wit self-indulgent, I find her voice authentic and engaging. When writing about renowned Hawaiians such as historian and poet David Malo and the ill-fated Queen Liliuokalani, her tone is properly reverent; her sarcasm kicks in when addressing the outlandish beliefs and behavior of the New England missionaries who came the “save” the islands in the early 19th century. I especially enjoyed the analogy she used to describe the conflict between the missionaries and shore-leaving whalers who came in their wake: “Image if the Hawaii Convention Center in Waikiki hosted the Values Voter Summit and the Adult Entertainment Expo simultaneously — for forty years.”

    Much like James Michener did in his epic novel, Vowell shows too much admiration for the pluck and erudition of the missionaries. (She shows an identical soft-spot for the Massachusetts Bay colonists in an earlier book of hers.) She is less forgiving in retelling the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, engineered largely by missionary descendants. In Vowell’s estimation, the 1896 annexation of Hawaii by America was criminally outrageous; only the most naive proponents of American imperialism could disagree.

    At 230 paperback pages, “Unfamiliar Fishes” is hardly an exhaustive history, but for a book that’s more entertaining than educational it still provides valuable insight into this land, its people, and the haoles who stole it from them. It probably shouldn’t be the last book you read about Hawaii, but it definitely serves well as a first.