Every two or three books I consume fall squarely into the "Great American Novel" category. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, certainly is of this class (and a Pulitzer Prize winner). This novel is one of several examples of Chabon's embrace of genre fiction and tells the tale of characters escaping their identities. Although escape as a theme is explored throughout the book (e.g., immigrants fleeing Nazis, comics books as escape into fantasy, actual escape artists), I'll focus on one for this book review: gay male "escape" in mid-20th century America and Chabon's calling out of masculine hegemony.
In case I lost you there: it's also about comic books and there's a golem. So, there's really something for everyone here.
Sammy Clay and Josef Kavalier, our protagonists, are cousins who team up to create Empire Comics and their main character, The Escapist.
Throughout the story, Sammy struggles to cope with being a gay man, first in a New York Jewish community and later in the suburbs. His primary coping mechanism is escaping into comic books--both reading them and, eventually, writing them. Although he first feels a "stirring of passion" for Joe, he soon finds solace in his lover, Tracy Bacon. (The irony of Jewish Sam's "Bacon" lover is not lost on us.) However, Tracy soon abandons him to move to Hollywood to star in the movie version of "The Escapist."
Josef, who has narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia leaving the rest of his family behind, is plagued by the guilt of leaving his family to die. When the ship carrying his younger brother Thomas is bombed by a German U-boat, Joe joins the army. This leaves Sammy to care for Joe's pregnant girlfriend, Rosa. The loss of both his lover and his best friend, along with shame he feels for his homosexuality, forces Sammy into a state of denial. Sammy claims that “...he would rather not love at all than be punished for loving.”
The next several years are self-imposed punishment for both Sammy and Joe. Much as Joe feels it is his masculine duty to avenge his family, Sammy feels it is his to take care of his cousin's girlfriend. He marries Rosa, moves to the suburbs, and plays father to Tommy, Joe's son.
Sammy lives a life of repression and duty until, one day, Joe appears in suburbia (after a year of secret rendezvous with his son, Tommy), ready to pick up his mantle as husband and father and potentially letting Sammy off the hook. Joe moves in with the family. The Joe-Sammy-Rosa-Tommy dynamic is complicated, to say the least, and is stressed further when Sammy's homosexuality is exposed on television. Sammy takes the opportunity to make a final escape, heading out in the middle of the night without saying goodbye.
In the words of Joe's teacher, Bernard Kornblum, "only love could pick a nested pair of steel Bramah locks." The reader expects Joe and Sammy's love for each other to set them free of their "masculine" duties, allowing them finally to express their own desires without the yoke of machoism. But the final chapters describe Sammy's apparent reticence to truly do so, leaving us yelling at him like grandpa yells at the TV screen: "Just do it already! Be happy!"
This is why Chabon's writings are important for the "Great American Novel" canon: he tackles hegemonic masculinity, but he does so in a palatable way for the average reader. On a superficial reading, Kavalier offers nothing high brow or academic: I could easily recommend it to a male friend under the guise of a story about the rise of the comic book industry. Little would he know (until it is too late) that he has been influenced by a "new masculinity," or, at least, a novel that calls into question traditional masculine ideals.
That's really the point: Chabon masterfully veils difficult topics in an enjoyable wrapping. This subversive nature of best-sellers like Kavalier is important in shaping the next masculinity.
In reading Chabon, I felt the echoes of another recent read: Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands, in which she explores the ambiguities faced by a nonwhite, nonheterosexual woman wrestling with multiple identities and no identity, and the broader cultural nostalgia we currently face--exemplified by Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again"--for a male-dominated unitary culture or race. In it, she says,
"Men, even more than women, are fettered to gender roles...Only gay men have had the courage to expose themselves to the woman inside them and to challenge the current masculinity...We need a new masculinity and the new man needs a movement." (Anzaldúa's Borderlands)
Kavalier sneakily offers up a counter perspective on masculine hegemony in an otherwise fun story about escaping persecution, escaping stereotypes, and the rise of the comic book in 20th century America. I recommend it for your comic book-reading friend or, perhaps, as hand-out at the next Marvel movie opening.
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