- The Politics of Escapistry:Harry Houdini, Nostalgia, and the Turn from Critique in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Late in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Joe Kavalier returns home from years of self-imposed exile with 102 boxes of old comics in tow. Having endured the Holocaust, warfare, and addiction, Joe loves these comics for the escape they offer: when he is immersed in their pages, the ever-present "pain of his loss … melted away without him even noticing" (576). "[S]uch a feat of escape," the narrator declares, is "the genuine magic of art," and the fact that escapism "remain[s] so universally despised" indicates only how "fucked-up and broken" the real world is. In Kavalier & Clay, Chabon aims to correct this injustice by illuminating the therapeutic value of escapist entertainments. A defense of entertainment features prominently throughout Chabon's writing, as he consistently puts popular genres to serious purposes [End Page 1] (for instance, detective fiction in The Final Solution, or hardboiled in The Yiddish Policemen's Union).1 The politics and consequences of this escapism, however, merit closer consideration.
Kavalier & Clay tells the story of Sammy Klayman, a Jewish teen in Brooklyn, and his Czech cousin Josef Kavalier, who arrives in New York as a refugee from Hitler-occupied Europe. Pairing Joe's drawing skills with Sammy's knack for yarns and entrepreneurial spirit, they find success in creating comic books about a Superman-style magician, titled (after its hero) The Escapist. The novel follows the cousins through their personal and professional maturation as they navigate the mass-culture industry, World War II, family, midlife crisis, and the McCarthy years. When Joe abandons his life in New York to join the war, the closeted Sammy marries Joe's pregnant lover Rosa and raises Joe's son as his own, preserving (with Rosa) a dwindling role in the comic book industry. Throughout, Kavalier & Clay underscores the idea that the primary good of imaginative entertainment is escapism, which it serves up in an immersive, harmoniously ordered narrative that reaches a satisfying closure. Criticism on Kavalier & Clay has largely taken for granted its premises concerning the merits of escapism, reading the novel as a vehicle for addressing representational issues of graphic narrative or post-Holocaust fiction. Marc Singer argues that the novel demonstrates how the literalized tropes of comics "have proven effective at embodying the real through hypostasis" because they offer a representative strategy for "transcending the symbolic" (275). Andrzej Gąsiorek views Kavalier & Clay as offering through ekphrasis "a meta-account of the act of creation itself," which thereby self-reflexively speaks to the dilemmas of post-Holocaust fiction (877). In a similar vein, Hillary Chute presents Kavalier & Clay as asking "how one responds to or registers history—especially traumatic history—in a popular medium" (280). She suggests that through graphic narrative it "enumerat[es] the new possibilities of popular forms to confront and articulate history" (291).
This favorable disposition toward escapism, manifested by Kavalier & Clay and its critics, points to a larger trend in contemporary literary and cultural discourse: namely, the ongoing elevation of popular entertainment. So-called serious literature increasingly adopts the forms of genre fiction, while fantasy is lauded as a critically valuable activity precisely for its capacity to depart from existing conditions. Distinct from the postmodern blurring of high and low culture, this turn calls into question the superiority of critical distance to affective immersion. Seeking alternatives to what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick dubs the "tracing-and-exposure" habit of critical hermeneutics, a [End Page 2] number of scholars have offered accounts of literature's function and relevance beyond critique (124). These approaches—surface reading, affect theory, the new sincerity—aim to "engage seriously with ordinary motives for reading," not the least of which is escape from the limits of quotidian life and the self (Felski 14). As Charles Altieri argues, "many readers see their interest in reading precisely as an opportunity to escape the empirical self, to undergo through imagination protean changes of identity and sympathy" (29). Imaginative escape from the self, the thinking goes, fosters greater empathy, sensitivity, and...