On my way to and from London, I had time to read Michael Chabon’s “Kavalier and Clay”, which won a Pulitzer Prize several years ago. It was the second Chabon book that I have read, having digested “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” several months ago.
I can’t say that I was overwhelmed; I had expected a bit more, particularly since others in my family really enjoyed the book.
Kavalier and Clay are adolescents and cousins, Kavalier being a refugee from war torn Prague, who find their true career path as the creators of a comic book hero to rival Superman. The Escapist (based on Kavalier’s experience as a magician and escape artist in training in Europe) becomes an enormous hit, not only in print, but on radio (although the radio royalties escape our heroes, because of the one sided contract they signed when they were excited to get any contract to actually publish their work).
Kavalier is someone who can do anything, and Clay is a nebbishy nice guy. Kavalier can do card tricks, draw, escape from locked crates, break into locked rooms, and win the ladies (or in this case the lady). Clay can negotiate (sort of) and put together the words to create the story lines, but is a much more naive and self conscious soul.
And they have their troubles, starting when Kavalier leaves his life and the girl of his dreams to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor and disappears for years and years, unknowingly leaving an unborn infant behind. I thought that whatever promise the book had at the start, pretty much vanished when Kavalier fled the scene.
Chabon has a very readable style, and the 600 pages of this book pass surprisingly quickly. But his plot line, which also includes realistic scenes involving the famous golem of Prague (don’t ask), is a bit to fantastic, although it is set in real time situations. Just the opposite of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is a realistic plot set in a fantastic situation.
I also think that Chabon is too much of a name dropper – every magician known to history and every trick, every comic book creation ever published, they are all named and named again, along with other references to names and events. And, he has another trait which I find off-putting. Although his language flows smoothly, he inserts a lot of big words that most readers (like me) don’t recognize readily.
Let’s take one chapter at random. Chapter 6 of Part 3: Salvador Dali, Leonard Lyons, Ed Sullivan, E.J. Kahn, Auden, Isherwood, “Talk of the Town”, Surrealism, Olmecs, Tartarus, Brass Lamp Rye, Balzac, La Baule, Andre Breton, recherche, ruelle, Topkapi, Al Smith, Hauterives….and that was only on the first three pages.
As to “Jews and Power”, a recent book by Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse, I was equally disappointed, but for very different reasons. It is a much shorter book (under 200 pages) and equally readable, and goes through the history of the relationship of Jews and power — biblical times, Babylon, Roman conquest of Jerusalem, the Middle Ages, the ghettos, emancipation in Europe. Her premise seems to be that Jews without power were a natural target for those peoples who had power, and that Jews with power (here she discusses Zionism and Israel) became natural targets for those who thought Jews should have no power.
For someone relatively well versed in the history she discusses (I consider myself in that category), I can’t say that I learned much from what she had to say, but at least she was able to put a lot on this topic into relatively few pages that might be helpful for later reference. For someone not versed in the topic, perhaps the book is more valuable, but I wouldn’t guess that many of those people would be attracted to read it.
When she gets to Zionism and Israel, I thought that the book pretty much fell apart. Here, she is clearly giving her own take on a contemporary situation, not looking at it as a historian would. And her take (right or wrong) is very one sided. Even if you agree with her highly anti-Arab attitude, you would conclude, i believe, that this book does not do anything to advance the progress of the world.
Ruth Wisse believes that the Jews will always be targets, so it doesn’t really matter what you say to or about their enemies. And she surely has not taken a prospective Arab reader to heart in her writing of her book.