Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is marked by intricacy of plot structure and sophisticated use of language. Critics unanimously praised the work: The New York Times found the novel to be a "towering achievement," while the Denver Post described the author as a "literary Houdini." The novel utilizes different genres of creative writing including that of referencing comics in telling the story of both Prague-born Joseph Kavalier, who escapes from Europe on the eve of the Shoah, and his New York cousin Sammy Clay, née Klayman. In the process, Chabon's plot plays out against the background of America's pre-war isolationist policy that advocated an escape from moral responsibility. The novel in fact employs the metaphor of escape as a governing principle. Kavalier studies with an escape artist before escaping his natal city and the Shoah; Sammy overcomes or escapes the limitations of his physical handicap; the Holocaust is dealt with only obliquely.
Kavalier & Clay is comprised of two narratives, a longer and a shorter one. The former story deals with America and the history of the comic book industry and its oppression of creative artists between 1939 and 1955. The latter story treats response to the Holocaust in a distinctive yet problematic manner. Very few critics have, however, analyzed the novel in terms of Holocaust representation in the third, non-witnessing, generation of American-born novelists. Consequently, important issues such as the moral role of fiction, the relationship of imagination to history, and the contemporary use of Jewish myth in representing the Shoah have been largely elided. [End Page 80]
Third Generation Novelists and the Holocaust
Unlike Lot's wife, the third generation runs the risk of turning into pillars of salt if they do not look back. They are the new bearers of Shoah representation. But what does it mean to look back from a distance of three score years and ten? How do third generation authors represent the Shoah when they lack personal memory of the Jewish catastrophe? In short, third generation works represent the Holocaust through indirect means, as Jessica Lang argues in her insightful article "The History of Love, the Contemporary Reader and the Transmission of Holocaust Memory." Lang notes the common thread in the Holocaust writing of authors born in the 1960s or after, whose "fiction regularly refers to and incorporates events from the Holocaust, but it also balances and counters these references with other narrative strategies or counterpoints" (46). Furthermore, third generation authors view the Holocaust "as an indirect part of the narrative, one balanced by other, also important histories" (46). I add that these works tend to be inflected by the use of magical realism and motifs from Jewish myth, folklore, and mysticism.
Chabon's novel is, however, a significant departure from Nicole Kraus's The History of Love both in terms of distancing the Holocaust from American concerns and in the way it represents the Shoah. His "survivor," Joseph Kavalier, is a refugee who does not have firsthand experience of the camps. Furthermore, unlike Kraus's protagonist, Kavalier does not write a book. Rather, he draws over two thousand pages of the adventures of "The Escapist," an action hero based on the golem. Consequently, rather than confronting the horrors of the Holocaust, Chabon's protagonist seeks to escape them. Lee Behlman perceptively writes: "Chabon is most surprising, [in that] his novel guardedly presents the idea that … distraction may be itself a valid response. Kavalier and Clay is an extended meditation, with comic books as its central subject, on the value of fantasy as a deflective resource rather than a reflective one" (59). Moreover, unlike Art Spiegelman's Maus volumes, which use the comic format to bear witness to the real story of his father's Holocaust experience and Art's own traumatic inheritance as a member of the second generation, Chabon's novel avoids encountering the Shoah, suggesting instead that escapism is an appropriate response. The novel pivots on Will Eisner's comment, which serves as the book's epigraph: "We have this history of impossible solutions for insoluble problems."