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 well-being.2 As Suzanne Keen notes with skepticism in Empathy and the Novel, many recent arguments on behalf of literature and the humanities depend on the presupposition that venturing imaginatively into the lives of others is essential for sympathy, understanding, and engagement. The social effects of such activity manifest in a "sense of solidarity … with other actual and potential readers who respond in a similar fashion" (Aubry 36). What Rachel Greenwald Smith calls the "affective hypothesis" thus locates fiction's efficacy not in critical discovery but in imagination and affective experience (Smith 1). Such an approach seeks to invigorate literature and literary studies at a moment when critique has, as Bruno Latour argues, "run out of steam" ("Why" 225).
Kavalier & Clay nests firmly within this milieu by asserting the urgency of escapism. But, I will contend, Chabon's celebration of such work is at once more ambivalent and his narrative resolutions more limited than has been acknowledged. Underlying the criticism on Kavalier & Clay—and the embrace of popular genre forms more generally—is a presupposition that the market acts as a largely neutral medium for the transmission of affective experience between author and audience, in which commercial forms provide a set of expectations and conventions that the artist can deploy to aesthetic and critical ends. If Chabon's writing on genre abets this assumption, Kavalier & Clay does not sustain it. In modeling the widespread turn from critique to imaginative flight, the novel demonstrates the consequences of that shift: its concluding embrace of the therapeutic qualities of escapist art comes by way of the systematic disappointment of the political and critical hopes attached to art, following the systematic exploitation and commodification of the creative labor of the protagonists. Read against the protagonists' hopes and experiences, the concluding notion of entertainment as escapistry resembles less a triumphant resolution than a capitulation to necessity.3 Escapistry in Kavalier & Clay is not a passageway but rather a cul-de-sac, a way of circling back on a lost past. It engenders in this respect what Lauren [End Page 3] Berlant terms "cruel optimism," sustaining affective attachments that "contribute to the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of attachment in the first place" (25). In contradistinction to readings of Kavalier & Clay as a work of aesthetic or formal possibility, I emphasize the nostalgic character of the novel's resolutions.
I contend that the politics and the limitations of escapistry manifest specifically in Kavalier & Clay's thematic use of Harry Houdini. In the novel, Houdini is the apotheosis of a conception of art in which imagination trumps critique and fantastical escape transcends the political and economic conditions that make it desirable. Many of Kavalier & Clay's escapes are economic in nature, grappling with the privatization of imaginative production and the subjection of aesthetic creation to market processes. These features have passed largely unremarked precisely because their constraints are evaded through miraculous escapes and extraordinary circumstances. Considering the formal and ideological features of the historical Houdini and Kavalier & Clay's internalization of them, I argue that this artistic disposition entails a number of other presuppositions about art. In granting primacy to the affective experience of the individual, it valorizes private goods over social ones, individual pleasure over political engagement, marketability over difficulty, and uncritical sincerity over critical irony. In short, it renders art readily susceptible to a neoliberal rationality—of entrepreneurial subjects, privatized goods, and market mechanisms in all aspects of life—that engenders the artistic crisis from which the novel aims to escape.4 For this reason, I argue, Kavalier & Clay's Houdinism sharply curtails the types of resolution that are possible within the novel, as we witness in its recalibration of Houdini's magic as one of nostalgic recuperation. My reading reveals Chabon's novel as attesting not simply to the representational virtues of comics or the therapeutic capacity of fantasy, but rather to an ongoing crisis of aesthetic production under neoliberalism of which the revivified Houdini is symptomatic.
A central claim of Kavalier & Clay is that the desire for escape is no childish evasion but rather a fundamental human longing. The escapism of popular entertainment offers much-needed relief from the litany of twentieth-century forms of dehumanization the novel exhibits, including totalitarianism and sclerotic bureaucracy, ideologically and racially motivated violence, police brutality, the exploitation [End Page 4] of the vulnerable, the Holocaust, Cold War McCarthyism, the drudgery of suburban living, and mass production (to name a few). Given these realities, "the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed … actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf" (Chabon, Kavalier 575). The novel thus offers "an extended meditation … on the value of fantasy as a deflective resource rather than a reflective one" (Behlman 62). Implicitly, the power of art lies not in mimesis or critique of existing conditions but in departing from them entirely. Such departure might perform what Latour calls the work of "composition" ("An Attempt" 474), generating "cartographies of the unreal world" that help us think or move beyond the present (Castiglia).5 Or, it might simply be gratifying: the raison d'être of literature, Chabon writes, always "boil[s] down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure" (Maps 14). Kavalier & Clay filters all art through this prism of escape, and escape permeates the novel thematically and formally. The urge for creative transcendence, allegorized in picking locks and breaking chains, is the "vain wish" to break from reality's shackles and create something "exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation" (Chabon, Kavalier 582). For this reason, Harry Houdini figures centrally in the imaginations of the protagonists: Sammy harbors "Houdiniesque" dreams (3), while Joe studies escapistry under a magician who was Houdini's pupil. Even though Houdini is a decade dead when the narrative begins, his spirit presides over it as a touchstone of artistic vitality.
Houdini's presence is particularly evident in Sammy and Joe's creation of The Escapist, the project in which their imaginative longings for escape converge. Their comic book's superhero, the eponymous Escapist, is conceived as a hybrid of Houdini and Sammy's vaudeville strongman father, a stage magician who roams the world "to procure the freedom of others, whether physical or metaphysical, emotional or economic" (133). The narrator suggests that the "still-fresh memory of Harry Houdini in the American mind thirteen years after his death—of his myth, his mysterious abilities, his physique, his feats, his dedicated hunting down and exposure of frauds and cheats—is a neglected source of the superhero idea in general," even "an argument in its favor" (120). If Houdini's example validates The Escapist, it likewise provides artists in the novel with a vocabulary for articulating hope and desire. When Joe's lover Rosa paints Joe, it is in a pose "borrowed from a photograph in a book about Harry Houdini" (388). She also includes an image of [End Page 5] Houdini in a welcome-to-America mural for Joe's younger brother Thomas. In similar fashion, Thomas gives Joe a drawing just before he departs from Prague: it is from the libretto of an opera Thomas is writing about Houdini and depicts the magician "in a dinner jacket, hurtling from a crooked airplane in company with a parachute, two chairs, a table, and a tea set" (30). Resurfacing at key junctures in the narrative, the drawing is a leitmotif of the hope for escape from inescapable reality.
Kavalier & Clay also internalizes Houdini's escapistry self-reflexively in its narrative, which advances through a series of unlikely escapes, transformations, and returns featuring Joe's escapist mentor, the Houdini disciple Kornblum. Kornblum first rescues Joe and Thomas from drowning when a stunt goes awry, then smuggles Joe away from the Nazis after disguising him in costume props from the estate of Houdini. Years later, when Joe miraculously escapes carbon monoxide poisoning, he hallucinates the figure of Kornblum carrying him to safety. Joe again recalls Kornblum's words, years later, when he sees his long-lost son and finds himself, "[l]ike Harry Houdini," freed by love from his own "self-created trap" (536). In a quite literal sense, Houdini galvanizes, sustains, and resolves the narrative: it opens with Sam Clay's declaration that as a boy, "sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini" (3), and it reaches its conclusion in another haunting, as Joe receives at Houdini's tomb (again via Kornblum's apparition) the inspiration to return to his family.6
In these respects, Kavalier & Clay self-consciously practices the escapistry it praises. But in subscribing to escape as the primary function of art, it internalizes a decidedly mixed bag of Houdiniesque features beyond those the novel cites as his legacy. For while the popular conception of Houdini has little truck with the ideological content of his escapistry, the trappings of Houdini's magic merit closer examination if we are to understand the politics and limits of escapistry in Kavalier & Clay. Indeed, Chabon's novel invites consideration not just of what precipitates escape but also where it leads and what goods a commitment to escapism might realize or preclude.
Houdini, although he betokens a commitment to straight-shooting authenticity in the popular imagination, had a genius for free publicity cribbed from P. T. Barnum's playbook of staged controversies, news-making rivalries, and sensational challenges. His bridge jumps, escapes from police stations, and denunciations of spiritualists were all planned so as to ensure ample news coverage. Similarly, a market-based insistence on originality propelled Houdini's stunts: [End Page 6] "There was, Houdini was keen to establish and always to stress, only one Houdini; you couldn't satisfy the particular appetite for whatever this show was anywhere else" (Phillips 117). Houdini had to mask the extent to which his escapes were commercial spectacles, however, because of the nature of his tricks. A peculiar feature of many of Houdini's greatest escapes was that they occurred out of sight, behind a curtain or under water, and thus their effect depended on the audience's affective identification with his struggle. For this reason, Houdini continually asserted his artistic commitment to reality and truth. Eschewing the tendency toward exoticism in stage magic, he took his props from industry or institutions (crates and milk cans, handcuffs and straitjackets) and used skyscrapers, bridges, and prisons as his stages, policemen and passersby as his audience. He presented himself as a straight-talking everyman, reliant only on his own physical abilities and labor. Whereas most magicians seek the appearance of transcending labor, Houdini would display his exhausted body; his torn clothes, sweat, and blood testified that his magic was hard work. Both on stage and in his writing, he insisted compulsively on his own honesty and genuineness.
In short, Houdini relied on what biographer Walter Gibson calls "intense sincerity" (xi) to offset both his thoroughgoing commercialism and the widespread feeling of "somehow [having] lost contact with 'real life'" (Lears 232).7 Because the impact of his escapes depended on the successful assertion of his sincerity, critical or ironic distance was antithetical to Houdini's art: Houdini biographer Ruth Brandon writes that "irony requires self-consciousness, detachment, self-awareness, and Houdini was sensationally free of any of these qualities" (94). Doubt would threaten to reveal his escapes as melodramatic, even absurd. This meant that his escapistry eschewed any of stage magic's skepticism or epistemic uncertainty to partake of what Tom Gunning has called "the aesthetics of astonishment" of fin-de-siècle spectacle (116), which "supplied an immediate thrill, summarily fulfilling visual curiosity rather than inducing contemplation" (Solomon 609). The earnestness of his persona was a necessary bulwark to the immediacy he was selling. Houdini demanded of his audiences an uncritical immersion in his fictions; that is, he precluded consideration of reality even as he invoked it.
This elimination of critical distance helps to explain what might otherwise be a perplexing feature of Houdini's escapistry: that he strenuously avoided any hint of politics in his art even as his performances drew their affective power from latent anxieties of political powerlessness and economic constraint. Houdini did not become [End Page 7] "one of the three most famous men in the world" (as he liked to boast) simply because of his chops as an escapist or showman (Gold 129). Rather, his phenomenal success derived from the populist appeal of his magic, which symbolically invoked political, social, and economic anxieties only to suppress them by offering catharsis through his spectacular, individual triumph. His acts were "one-man revolution[s]," dramas of individual liberation from political, institutional, and industrial forms of constraint (Kasson 115): the Communist Manifesto as magic show. Hence, Brandon notes, "His popularity was greatest where authority was harshest … in the two most authoritarian states in the world—Germany and Russia—his success was phenomenal" (105). His escapes revealed the arbitrariness and permeability of boundaries and strictures by "bringing technologies of constraint and restraint into the public gaze surreptitiously and altering his audience's way of looking at institutional scenes" (Laurier 379). At home in the US, his heyday coincided with that of populism and attendant anxieties of working-class masculinity: by presenting his exposed body to threats and then triumphing over them, Houdini staged the triumph of (white) masculinity beleaguered by the modernization of labor and the "feminization" of culture at the turn of the century (Kasson 124). And yet, as Laurier comments, "For all of his exposure of the defeasibility of material restraints, Houdini was no social reformer nor direct critic of social constraints or conventions; in fact, his critical energies were devoted to exposing the seemingly harmless targets of mediums and the Spiritualist movement" (379). The boy born Ehrich Weiss, son of a Czech rabbi, suppressed his origins by casting himself as that distinctively American creature, the self-made man. His escapes channeled the iconography of political and economic liberation into functionally individualist catharsis.
Taken as exemplary, Houdini models artistry in which sincerity licenses commercial spectacle and imaginative pleasure subsumes political considerations. Kavalier & Clay manifests these features in how it imagines the relationship between art and criticism, and especially in how it handles its own political and economic content. Chabon's novel suggests that the political and social goods of art, though worthy of consideration, are subsidiary to the good of individual therapeutic escape. In privileging private affective experience, Kavalier & Clay dramatizes not only the therapeutic value and artistic vitality of imaginative escapism but also the misguidedness of any expectations of lasting critical or ideological import in art. At first, Joe and Sammy conceive of the Escapist as a superhero to rescue Europe's Jews. This political purpose, in Joe's eyes, is the only justification for [End Page 8] the work: he is plagued with guilt that while his family suffers under Nazism he is "making up a lot of nonsense about someone who could liberate no one and nothing but smudgy black marks on a piece of cheap paper" (135). In filling the series with "unabashed" anti-Hitler propaganda, Joe hopes that The Escapist might spur America into war. He is thoroughly disabused of his political ambitions, however, as his "funny-book war" serves only to line the pockets of his suddenly wealthy employers and to slake "the remarkably bloodthirsty children of America" (171). He also discovers, when he raids the office of a Nazi agitator, that the man is a devoted fan of The Escapist. Clearly, the pleasures of entertainment float free of ideological commitments. The more pragmatic Sammy likewise harbors hopes that The Escapist will bring about real change, not through persuasion but through the "big pile of money" that will allow Joe to buy his family's passage to America (136). In that spending power, Sammy reasons, the Escapist "really will be real." Using the same logic, he later convinces Joe to accept the censoring of his anti-Nazi agenda: "Think of what you could do with all the money they're talking about. Think of how many kids you could afford to bring over here. That's something real, Joe" (286). But even this equation yoking art to reality leads to disappointment. When Joe heeds Sammy's advice, he merely hastens his brother's death, as a U-boat torpedoes the ship carrying Thomas and the other children Joe has sponsored. Immediately thereafter, Joe abandons his career, Sammy settles unhappily into generating grist for the genre mills, and their editor gives up his literary aspirations to join the CIA.
Although The Escapist is engendered by political and economic urgencies, Chabon implies that its success comes in spite of those ambitions. The boys undergo an aesthetic renaissance when they are forced to abandon ideological messaging. Influenced by Citizen Kane, they reinvent The Escapist through modernist aesthetics and experimental narrative devices. This, the narrator insists, is the reason why The Escapist remains in "the national memory and imagination" (360). He dismisses what-ifs concerning the potential costs of the cousins forsaking their political commitments for the "delightful fruit" of unbound artistry (369). Questions of whether they "might somehow, incrementally" have hastened the onset of the war (and thus saved lives) now "have only an academic poignancy" (370), being not only unknowable but also misplaced in demanding of literary activity something it cannot deliver.
Denying the possibility of sociopolitical efficacy in art, Kavalier & Clay locates the ends of escapistry in the potentially transformative [End Page 9] value of individual experience. This dynamic becomes particularly clear in Joe's massive, unpublished graphic novel of his lost world of Jewish Prague, titled The Golem. His most visceral and aesthetically sophisticated confrontation with the horrors of the Holocaust, it is also wholly private. Chute argues that it is Joe's most important work, realizing the promise of yoking mass-market forms to aesthetic innovation and historical confrontation, but she overlooks the fact that it can be these things only for Joe. With over 2,200 pages of textless images and an accompanying script in German, it is for all practical purposes unpublishable: not the least because the more therapeutic Joe finds it, the less willing he feels ever "to expose what had become the secret record of his mourning, of his guilt and retribution" (579). While Kavalier & Clay celebrates the representative possibilities of such art, it does so only by starkly limiting what art can be and do. In making Houdini the avatar of vibrant commercial entertainment, the novel embraces the notion that personal, therapeutic pleasure must preclude critical insight or political action.
The Houdiniesque mode demands affective immersion rather than critical distance, a stance Kavalier & Clay's sweeping narrative invites and Chabon explicitly calls for elsewhere. He argues in the opening essay of Maps and Legends that we must drop the "gloves of irony and postmodern tongs" in order to encounter entertainment with a properly sincere disposition (13), and he insists that affective experience precedes intellectual frameworks.8 I contend that Houdini embodies the turn from critique, and it is this facet of his persona that explains why, almost a century after his death, he has become a popular totem for artistry. Since the turn of the millennium, Houdini has been the subject of a PBS American Experience documentary (2000), a contemporary art exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York (2010), an episode of The Simpsons (2011), a History Channel miniseries (2014), an in-production Broadway musical, and multiple biographies, films, and works of young-adult fiction. But as Kavalier & Clay suggests in presenting Houdini as artistic inspiration rather than as living performer, the symbolic content of Houdini has shifted. Whereas Houdini in his day embodied populist and masculine triumph, today he represents fantasies about artistic production and consumption: he is no longer the heroic everyman but rather the empowered artist who inspires wonder and belief, thereby preserving escapist entertainment from cynicism and suspicion. In various [End Page 10] contemporary narratives, Houdini's sincerity and benevolence bestows on his audience the freedom to enjoy fiction innocently. Hence, these representations focus obsessively on his battle against the spiritualists. Against the easy target of false mediums, Houdini plays purveyor of truth and enemy of fraud, his audience enlightened by virtue of their consumption.9 These texts are not animated by fears of losing an authentic experience of reality (as Jackson Lears argues about Houdini's contemporaries) but rather of losing the ability to enjoy entertainment innocently.
In Death Defying Acts, for instance, a film about a fraudulent medium and her daughter who attempt to win reward money for channeling the spirit of Houdini's mother, Houdini is a figure of enchantment and sincerity. In a voiceover the girl speaks of growing up to recognize the world "in all its trickery" until Houdini comes "like a God" to re-enchant their lives. This transformative quality emanates not from his magic (Houdini skips his stage show to spend time with the woman and daughter) but from his charisma and honesty. Hungry for human connection, Houdini dismisses the "nickels and dimes" of show business in an insatiable pursuit of "the truth" about the spirit world. The authenticity he signifies in turn makes imaginative belief possible again, and the film's ending suggests a mystical connection between Houdini's spirit and that of the young narrator. Houdini exerts a similarly powerful spell over the protagonist of Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil, in which he rescues the magician protagonist from obscurity and brings him vaudeville fame. In Gold's novel, Houdini's magic exemplifies the captivating, immersive power of narrative, encapsulating what entertainment can be and how it should be consumed. When young Carter witnesses Houdini's Milk Can Escape, he is caught up in the mass ecstasy at "the spectacle, the suffering, the triumph," as well as the "great personal sacrifice" (Gold 132). Carter's belief contrasts with the cynicism of the evil magician Mysterioso, who mocks the awestruck Carter. "The man risked nothing," he says (133): "He got out of that nice bathtub in five seconds, and sat backstage reading a newspaper while children like you sweated and prayed and felt tremendous sympathy for the third-most-famous man in the world as he painted up his hands with fake blood and counted up the house receipts." Such skepticism is rational, Carter admits, but he doesn't "want to think about it" (134). The real magic of Houdini's performance isn't the escape itself but the pleasure he inspires, the willingness to believe what one knows to be untrue. Gold's novel adopts this notion as its own standard and demands that it be read in such a manner: wonder must supplant cynicism, while participatory belief must replace critical distance. [End Page 11]
Such a construction of Houdini—and, by extension, the place and politics of escapism—is a recent phenomenon, as one can see in the divergence between these texts and E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Like Kavalier & Clay, Ragtime deals with Houdini, graphic narrative, and mass-cultural art, and even more than Chabon's novel it dramatizes Houdini's constitutive political limitations.10 But in Ragtime, far from embodying individual or creative agency, Houdini is presented as confused by and out of step with his times. His art was full of revolutionary significance, Doctorow asserts, yet Houdini "never developed what we think of as a political consciousness. … To the end he would be almost totally unaware of the design of his career, the great map of revolution laid out by his life" (35). Examples of his critical failures are myriad: he cannot make sense of revolutionary events taking place around him, nor "reason from his own hurt feelings" regarding class inequality. At the hospital bedside of a worker who has been blown out of the East River in an industrial accident, Houdini pesters the bandage-encased victim for the secret of his escape until the man's sons rudely eject him. Doctorow's Houdini is hamstrung by his fundamental, almost comical inability to read symptomatically, to discern the latent significance below the surface of his entertainment. Thus, Ragtime depicts Houdini as beset by fears of artistic impotence and obsolescence, even though "[t]oday, nearly fifty years since his death, the audience for escapes is even larger" (8). Houdini is symptomatic of what Fredric Jameson calls the "elegiac backdrop" of Ragtime, the depoliticization of the labor movement carried out by American cultural productions (23). Indeed, Doctorow's presentation of Houdini anticipates Jameson's essay "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture" in that it depicts Houdini's escapistry as animating utopian longings but delivering only false resolution of those desires. What today is presented as Houdini's chief virtue—his capacity to depart imaginatively from reality's constraints—is, in Ragtime, closely related to his primary flaw of political obliviousness.
Houdini's contemporary appeal no longer lies in the desire to escape the material constraints of quotidian life, but rather in the fact that he legitimates a simple, uncritical form of enjoyment that locates the value of art in affective qualities of belief and wonder. But just as Houdini's insistence on his own sincerity masked the extent to which he was beholden to market-driven spectacle, this insistence on postcritical belief might give us pause. There is a growing critical sense that privileging the affective dimension of literature might reflect and reinforce a broadly neoliberal rationality, defined here as "extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social [End Page 12] action" (Brown 40): the self as entrepreneurial and self-managing individual, experience as a commodity, goods as predominately private rather than social. As Rachel Greenwald Smith shows, the rise of the affective hypothesis—the idea that we read to cultivate empathy by enlarging our affective experience—as the dominant paradigm for evaluating literature "coincide[s] startlingly" with neoliberalism in both its assumptions and its historical consolidation (4). That is, the affective hypothesis assumes that emotional experiences offered by literature are, like money, to be pursued, extracted, stored up, and enjoyed for personal enrichment. As the reader's private experience of a work is valorized over its critical content, Smith argues, fiction becomes valuable inasmuch as it offers readers sufficient return on their reading investment, a market-driven exchange of attention for emotional satisfaction (which thereby indexes formal difficulty to expectations of emotional payoff). The affective hypothesis imposes, in other words, a market rationality on both the consumption of literature and the contours of a reader's experience. In translating literary value into coin for purchasing emotional and interpersonal enhancement, the idea that literature promotes "being a good person enters into the self-care of elites, who learn to see themselves as… enlightened multicultural global citizens and to uphold certain standards as (neoliberal) multicultural universals" (Melamed 141). Empathy, rather than offering any corrective to the injustices of current economic arrangements, is thus "part and parcel of being a self-managing and self-enterprising individual in a neoliberal order" (Pedwell, qtd. in Anderson 738).11 The potentially social and political dimensions of affective experience become tools for personal gain. Hence the elevation of such affective experience resembles, Charles Sumner argues, simply consumerism with a literary critical veneer.
It would of course be anachronistic to speak of a neoliberal Houdini. Nevertheless, his persona exhibits tenets of selfhood that are widely perceived as distinctive to the neoliberalism(s) of today: a fetishistic attachment to self-management and self-improvement; the presupposition that such improvement is occasioned by consumption; identity reimagined as branding and self as commodity; and the rhetoric of individualist labor and freedom from restraint, which David Harvey argues has offered cover for the drive to restore class power through economic inequality. What sets Kavalier & Clay apart from other contemporary representations of Houdini is the degree to which the novel's treatment of escapistry is bound up with crises in the privatization of art, the commodification of creative labor, and the translation of artistic value into individual enrichment. That is, [End Page 13] Kavalier & Clay does not simply internalize these neoliberal aspects of contemporary Houdinism but rather manifests them as problematic throughout the plot. Practically speaking, the artistic dilemmas Sammy and Joe experience involve the production of art when "all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality" (Brown 40). If, as Sarah Brouillette argues, artistic self-expression and the breaking of formal strictures become valued under neoliberalism for the creative disruption and marketable ideas they produce, an unresolved question Kavalier & Clay faces is how creative work can be "at once newly valuable to capitalism and romantically honorable and free" (4). The same question must be asked of literary engagement construed in terms of private feeling.
Sammy and Joe's rise to success with The Escapist, for instance, develops against a backdrop on which creative labor is subject to market forces. Soon after creating the Escapist, they face a fate similar to that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, who famously were deprived of the millions in royalties that sprung from their creation after they sold it to National Allied Publications. The narrative details a series of negotiations between the cousins and their employers, and records their contractual agreements and earnings. Initially, Sammy imaginatively literalizes the rhetoric of the mythic land of opportunity, feeling that "he was standing on the border of something wonderful, a land where wild cataracts of money and the racing river of his own imagination would, at last, lift his makeshift little raft and carry it out to the boundless freedom of the open sea" (87). They are quickly dispossessed of the rights to this newfound land: after The Escapist is franchised, the boys are informed that "the course of the river of money beside which they had pitched their camp had been diverted, and would henceforth flow no more around them" (220). Once imaginative creation becomes intellectual property, they are denied ownership of their own creations. As employees of Empire Comics, Sammy and Joe had "signed all their rights to the character away, now and forever" (281). Like other property rights, intellectual property rights always gravitate to the moneyed and powerful: The Escapist is produced under continual threat of lawsuit by National, the company that owns Superman and that attempts (not unsuccessfully) to destroy its competitors by means of copyright infringement lawsuits. In addition to being commodified and monopolized, imaginative productions in Kavalier & Clay are constrained by a host of market considerations, including the whims of public taste, the demands of advertisers, and the interests of the powerful. As The Escapist is franchised its product tie-ins multiply, [End Page 14] from mass-produced "Keys of Freedom" and rubber figurines to advertising for "Frosted Chaff-Os" breakfast cereal (291). German advertisers end The Escapist's war against Hitler, and Sammy is later humiliated before the House Un-American Activities Committee on charges of corrupting the country's youth.
This commodification of creative labor takes a toll on Sammy and Joe. Having started a "funny-book war" (163), Joe finds himself compelled to produce strips of perpetually escalating violence, at one point literally chaining himself to his desk to complete his work. Soon Sammy also begins "to be plagued by the same sense of inefficacy" that haunts Joe (296). As creative labor becomes commodified and routinized, Chabon imagines the protagonists' own minds and bodies as sites of industrial production. Shortly after they have negotiated their initial contract, Joe hears "a humming sound everywhere that he attributed first to the circulation of his own blood in his ears before he realized that it was the sound produced … by a hundred sewing machines in a sweatshop overhead, exhaust grilles at the back of a warehouse, the trains rolling deep beneath the black surface of the street" (91). This misrecognition anticipates the way that imaginative activity becomes inextricably joined to commercial production. Sammy is unable to develop his literary projects, even as his brain, blessed with an "inexhaustible stock of cheap, reliable, and efficient ideas" (570), "become[s] an instrument so thoroughly tuned to the generation of highly conventional, severely formalistic, eight-to-twelve-page miniature epics that he could, without great effort, write, talk, smoke, listen to a ball game, and keep an eye on the clock all at the same time" (486). This mechanization of the imagination even extends to his dreams: "when he went to bed at night his mind remained robotically engaged in its labor while he slept, so that his dreams were often laid out in panels and interrupted by surrealistic advertising, and when he woke up in the morning he would find that he had generated enough material for a full issue of one of his magazines." It is symptomatic, then, and not simply poor hygiene, that at night Sammy "folded into the envelope of [his] bed an olfactory transcript of his day" at work (561). For his part, Joe obliterates any difference between workspace and home, living secretly in an office he rents in the Empire State Building.
Kavalier & Clay thus captures the contradiction Brouillette ascribes to neoliberalism between the valorization of the entrepreneurial individual (implying faith in free enterprise and social mobility) and the exploitation and marginalization of creative labor. A commitment to the former persists within the novel, in spite of the [End Page 15] realities of the latter. In his contractual negotiations over The Escapist, Sammy finds his Horatio Alger fantasies of "showing initiative" and "seizing an opportunity" crumbling around him "once deprived of their central pillar of Enterprise Rewarded" (155). But neither this humiliation nor others like it lead Sammy fully to relinquish his battered fantasies. He attempts to found his own advertising house, be "an epic novelist" (480), and start a correspondence school for writers before settling back "into a deep and narrow groove" of writing and editing pulp and low-circulation comics without any prospect of meaningful economic or artistic betterment. Nevertheless, the plot of Kavalier & Clay shares Sammy's persistent attachment to Enterprise Rewarded: even as the novel depicts the trials of the commoditized imagination, it adheres to the narrative contours of what Daniel Punday suggests is the bildungsroman of economic development. This narrative feature is embodied in the prominence of the Empire State Building in the story as "the building around which the untold Escapist millions had coalesced for so many years" and which, at important moments in the narrative, both Sammy and Joe surmount (495). Comparing Kavalier & Clay to other novels about comics, Punday argues that Chabon turns away from twentieth-century narratives in which corporate control and modes of reproduction eclipse individual authorship. Instead, Chabon returns to a nineteenth-century mode of bildungsroman in which economic and personal development align, a mode that lives on in contemporary memoirs of "business figures [who] 'changed the rules' of an industry" (Punday 300). "The key to this shift," Punday writes, "seems to be Chabon's belief that the economic landscape itself can be altered, a belief that makes possible again the economic bildungsroman."12
But this belief is only tenable in the novel because of its Houdinism, which serves to resolve contradictions rather than pressing them. Repeatedly, the characters escape economic determinants not (as in business memoirs) through innovation but through exceptional fortune. Sammy and Joe avoid the fate of Superman's creators, for instance, because their editor discloses to them National's copyright infringement lawsuit, giving Sammy bargaining power through the act of perjuring himself about the Escapist's creation. Similarly, Sammy is rescued from a life of corporate toil by Joe's miraculous return (clad in Escapist costuming), and specifically by the fact that Joe's Escapist earnings provide the necessary capital to buy Empire Comics. At moments when harsh economic conditions threaten to constrain the protagonists irrevocably, The Escapist provides a temporary reprieve. But Houdini's escapistry was a "magic of [End Page 16] no-progress," inducing only wonder and the possibility of a repetition of the performance (Phillips 82), and in Kavalier & Clay it effects only continuation or return. It enables the optimism Lauren Berlant characterizes as cruel: attachments to ways of living and ideas of the good life that persist even after their possibility has been extinguished, or even after the attachments themselves have become harmful. In performing escape from its own economic situation, the novel allows notions of creative liberty and enterprise rewarded to improbably win out and thus defers reckoning with the underlying constraints.
At Houdini's Tomb
To show that escapistry in Kavalier & Clay evades political engagement and economic constraints alike need not entail hounding the novel into a corner for ideological unmasking. Part of Chabon's point, I would argue, is that one cannot reduce the function of literature to a binary of complicit pleasure or critical action: that if it refuses to challenge the existing social order, it abandons some fundamental literary duty. What Michael Saler calls the "as if" capacity of fiction (7)—to imagine reality as otherwise, or as a future that seems fanciful—in fact facilitates a range of distinct possibilities. Among these are practices of preservation (of values, ideas, or institutions) and "composition" of previously uncontemplated or speculative futures (Latour, "Attempt" 473).13 (Consider also the life-saving comfort Joe derives from his boxes of old comics.) Speculative fiction may, in short, galvanize hope: "Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did" (Sedgwick 146). We must ask, then, what hopes Kavalier & Clay's escapism animates. Chabon invites this very question, early in the novel, in advice that Kornblum gives to Joe: "Never worry about what you are escaping from. … Reserve your anxieties for what you are escaping to" (37).14 It is an injunction the impetuous Joe struggles to follow, however, and in a larger sense Kornblum's words also haunt Kavalier & Clay. The novel's ostensibly optimistic spirit belies the extent to which it directs its imaginative energies toward recuperating a lost past.
Chabon has characterized himself elsewhere as suffering "intensely from bouts, at times almost disabling, of a limitless, all-encompassing nostalgia, extending well back into the years before [he] was born" (Maps 135). In Kavalier & Clay, such longing coalesces [End Page 17] around art forms and objects that are somehow sheltered from market operations. This bears out not only in the obsolete art forms the protagonists venerate (particularly magic, vaudeville, and old comics) but also in the priority the novel grants to aesthetic objects that have been lost, outmoded, or removed from circulation. Hence the narrator lavishes attention on the "hand-painted" covers of old comic books (74), which when opened give off "an inevitable flea-market smell of rot and nostalgia" (75); the "nostalgia" is inextricable from the decay and secondhand bartering. Kavalier & Clay imagines the comic book industry, in effect, as one of artisanal production and personal relations rather than impersonal forces: it describes at length how the pages Joe draws are inked, colored, screened, printed, and distributed by hand and by people identified by name and physical characteristics. For the same reason, the novel contains a trove of relics and souvenirs: drawings that have been misplaced or kept privately, diaries, lost letters, a signed playbill, and dusty photographs. The most notable of these preserved objects is Thomas Kavalier's drawing of Harry Houdini, which Thomas gives "by way or in lieu of expressing the feelings of love, fear, and hopefulness that his brother's escape inspired" (65–66). The drawing, marking the convergence of escapistry and nostalgia, resurfaces at several crucial moments in the narrative. At first, when Joe opens it on his arrival in America, it crystallizes a motif of escapist magic resolving impossible difficulties. This hopeful invocation of Houdini's escapism subsequently becomes nostalgic as the drawing is materially lost and then narratively recovered. In a brief coda to Joe's World War II sojourn in Antarctica, thirty years later a melting ice shelf carries off the German exploration hut in which Joe had sheltered, ending a tourist trek to "respectfully examine" the relics of an earlier era (468). These erstwhile visitors would reflect "on the dignity and poignance that time can bring to human detritus," but pause to
puzzl[e] over an enigmatic drawing that lay on the workbench, done in colored pencil, frozen solid and somewhat the worse from long-ago folding and refolding. Clearly the work of a child, it appeared to show a man in a dinner jacket falling from the belly of an airplane… as if oblivious of his predicament, or as if he thought he had all the time in the world before he would hit the ground.(468)
This narrative recovery of Thomas's drawing, so utterly lost to the world of the narrative and of the hopes it had contained, signals how the magic of escapistry within Kavalier & Clay becomes primarily a magic of nostalgic recovery. [End Page 18]
This shifting preoccupation finds expression in a peculiar feature of Kavalier & Clay's narrative. Running contrary to its embrace of romance (its omniscient voice, narrative twists, tendency toward symmetry, and symbolism in its plotting), an archival voice sounds throughout Kavalier & Clay, footnoting, glossing, citing sources, offering historical corrections and editorial comments. For instance, it notes the smudges and redactions in a lost letter to Joe from his mother, inserts "[sic]" into memoranda (203), and sources a "secret monograph" on Hardeen Houdini to the private collection of real-life Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman (537). What might seem a stylistic idiosyncrasy in fact expresses the narrative's double allegiance to the purely escapist magic of Houdini and the magical recovery of vanished texts and artifacts, along with the human feelings and memories preserved therein. It is according to "the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia" that we can understand Kavalier & Clay's preoccupation with relics: the forgotten comics, the misplaced letters, the records and minutiae of a "golden age" in New York City (Stewart 151). Such objects, Susan Stewart observes, attest to our desire for "souvenirs of … events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative" (135). Granted, all historical fiction can be said to perform recuperative magic, and such activity need not be regressive. Echoing Sedgwick's notion of reparative reading, Svetlana Boym describes a "reflective nostalgia" that, in imagining "the past the way it could have been," offers a "past perfect that one strives to realize in the future" (351). In contradistinction to "restorative nostalgia" (xviii), which seeks to revivify some lost unity or homeland, it "can present an ethical and creative challenge, not merely a pretext for midnight melancholias." The trouble with Kavalier & Clay is not that it is nostalgic per se, but that it confines itself to revivifying its own past and hence to resolutions only possible through Houdiniesque magic.
This becomes particularly evident in the closing section of the novel, which skips forward a dozen years to follow the characters in early middle age as they long for and ultimately revive the loves and dreams of their youth. As with the reappearance of Thomas Kavalier's Houdini sketch, the novel generates nostalgia for its own earlier pages, revisiting bygone moments recalled from "long, long ago" (555). Resolutions take shape as returns: Joe's return results in the rekindling of his romance with Rosa and his creative partnership with Sammy, for whom he purchases the bankrupt husk of Empire Comics. Even the coffin containing the Golem of Prague (in which Joe escaped the Nazis) inexplicably returns, filling the air "with a stench [End Page 19] of summer rich with remembered tenderness and regret" (610). And so young Tommy, Joe's unacknowledged son, must discover his future by rummaging through old boxes in the family garage, "inventorying the chance survivals of his prehistory" (626). What he uncovers are mementos of Kavalier & Clay's narrative: old comics, news clippings, photos of Sammy's strongman father, Joe's first Golem-Superman drawing, a ticket stub from Citizen Kane, Kavalier & Clay stationery, photobooth shots of young lovers. Through them Tommy understands, in a flash, his own history and what his family's future holds.
If escapistry promises possibility—the freedom, once unshackled, to go anywhere—Kavalier & Clay repeatedly suggests that the only place to go is back. As such, the imaginative possibilities available within the novel are sharply constrained. Visions of the future quickly morph into melancholic returns to the past: when Joe seeks insight into what to do with his life, he visits Houdini's tomb and receives the counsel of a ghost. Sammy's first sexual encounter with another man, perhaps the purest example of individual liberation from social confines, occurs at the defunct fairgrounds of the 1939 World's Fair. Sammy has a button souvenir from the General Motors pavilion that declares, "I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE" (375). However, that future already feels irrevocably past: "It made [Sammy's] heart ache to look around the vast expanse of the fairground that, not very long ago, had swarmed with flags and women's hats and people being whizzed around in jitneys, and see only a vista of mud and tarpaulins and blowing newspaper" (376). The narrator continues:
It made him sad, not because he saw some instructive allegory or harsh sermon on the vanity of all human hopes and utopian imaginings in this translation of a bright summer dream into an immense mud puddle freezing over at the end of a September afternoon … but because he had so loved the Fair, and seeing it this way, he felt in his heart what he had known all along, that, like childhood, the Fair was over, and he would never be able to visit again.(377)
Sammy's profound nostalgia is presented as a better, more human alternative to critical exegesis or ironic commentary on "the vanity of all human hopes and utopian imaginings." It is, in other words, the escapist alternative to irony or critique. By immersing himself in this nostalgia, Sammy realizes the freedom to love—in the "General Motors' Futurama," no less, "quite literally the dernier cri of the art and ancient principles of clockwork machinery in the final ticking moments of the computerless world" (378). But like the art that Houdini embodies, this utopian place of escape offers only private [End Page 20] solace; and like Houdini, it is already consigned to the past. Even so, it dictates Sammy's future: the fantasy of "Democracity" (the model city on which Sammy and Tracy lie) is imperfectly approximated in his purchase of a house ten years later in the planned city of Bloom-town, the "soi-disant Capital of the American Dream" (547). The city of the future, with its flying cars and eternal sunset, becomes a suburb "planted amid the potato fields" (473) of Long Island where Sammy "allow[s] the world to wind him in the final set of chains" (547). Kavalier & Clay's nostalgia, in other words, limits its characters to the attachments they already have and have lost.
In this essay, I have made three interrelated claims: first, that in staging a defense of escapist entertainment Kavalier & Clay turns to a conception of artistry that I term Houdiniesque, which entails a rejection of political critique for private enjoyment; second, that this mode of artistry dovetails with a neoliberal conception of the readerly subject that renders literature as a marketized tool for individual betterment, an alignment that the novel implicitly recognizes in its depiction of commodified creativity; and third, that Kavalier & Clay's evasion of political engagement and economic constraint leads it toward nostalgia for an irrecoverable (artistic) past. The novel animates, like Houdini, the longing for art that can escape its economic determinants and imaginatively alter reality, but it conceives of this only in terms of recovering lost or outmoded art forms. So even as the novel is a paean to the power of imaginative fictions, specifically as delivered by mass-cultural entertainment, it is also a melancholic testament to their limitations. Repeatedly, it suggests that their magic lies not in any reconfiguration of the existing world but in private experience, idealized in the relics of an earlier, more innocent era of entertainment production and consumption. Nostalgia for Houdini is thus symptomatic of the diminished cultural function accorded to fiction today.
It is unsurprising that nostalgia would color Chabon's attempt to rehabilitate bygone escapist art forms as part of a defense of literature against the relentless incursions of the market. Yet how tenuous is the line dividing Kavalier & Clay's conservationism from the very condition that Jameson reads Ragtime as depicting: the reduction of history to a storehouse of pop images and styles for individual consumption, from which it is impossible to reason toward an alternative to the diminishing possibilities of the present. This is the liability with casting the value of art primarily in terms of affective experience; the horizons of literary activity and possible change are likewise limited to private feeling. While Boym posits nostalgia as "an intermediary [End Page 21] between collective and individual memory" (54), the evasion of political and economic realities leaves consumption as the primary source of such memory: that show we saw, that thing we bought. Contemporary nostalgia has ceased to be "both generational and individual" but focuses instead on "what we watched, played, listened to, downloaded, and identified with as junior consumers" (Wolcott 66). This consumerist nostalgia has metastasized in recent years to encompass the very recent past (for instance, the 1990s nostalgia boom in social media) and even attempts at periodization, as in the push to categorize some millennials as the "Oregon Trail Generation" (Garvey). If Chabon's treatment of escapist entertainment is a literary harbinger of this trend, Kavalier & Clay's particular insight lies in indexing such nostalgia to the turn from critique.
In his most recent novel, Telegraph Avenue, Chabon doubles down on this approach to the past, with diminishing returns. Although set in 2004, its aesthetic lifeblood is 1970s culture (jazz, Blaxploitation, kung fu films), particularly as encapsulated by an independent record store imperiled by "the great wave of late-modern capitalism" (133). Again, characters function as collectors and connoisseurs of an outmoded object of consumption (vinyl records), which again stands for an alternative to the contemporary market even as it is subjected to it: in Telegraph Avenue, in the threat of a new media megastore that will contain an extensive vinyl section. There is even a character called Mr. Nostalgia, who sells memorabilia in which "value was indexed only to the sense of personal completeness," and that promises that "what small piece of everything you had ever lost … they would restore to you" (20). This vision of personal restoration through collectibles is an enduring element of Chabon's fiction, but in Telegraph Avenue it leads only to eBay, as the protagonists anticipate a brave new future of internet commerce for vinyl lovers around the world. Ultimately, we must understand such a conclusion not as a conceptual flaw but rather as the logical end point of literature understood as therapeutic entertainment rooted not in what a text says but in how it felt. Shorn of its political and non-commercial elements, it is left with no escape.
1. Much of the criticism on Chabon considers the serious intentions of his genre fiction. As Bigelow writes, Chabon's work consistently "asks us to take pulp seriously" (317). So, for instance, Richardson discusses how Chabon uses genre to tackle vexed issues like fictional representations of [End Page 22] the Holocaust, while Craps and Buelens see Chabon's Sherlock Holmes pastiche in The Final Solution as a vehicle for connecting the Holocaust to earlier forms of European imperialism. Scanlan reads Chabon's recourse to noirish counterfactuals in The Yiddish Policemen's Union as a device for comprehending the contemporary moment, whereas Behlman argues that Chabon's flight from traumatic history is meant to offer a salutary deflection (rather than a reflection) of it.
2. In "The Return of Imagination," Brittan offers a useful survey of the rehabilitation of imagination in recent criticism, citing theorists of globalization such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Arjun Appadurai as well as a number of critics who link literary imagination with empathy. Palumbo-Liu provides a more nuanced articulation of the work of literary empathy in The Deliverance of Others, which explores ways in which literature can perform a crucial ethical function in delivering to our consciousness those radically unlike ourselves.
3. In this essay, "escapism" denotes (the desire for) a flight from reality, while "escapistry" signifies aesthetic productions aimed at the same.
4. "Neoliberalism" often threatens to become shorthand for contemporary capitalism in general, or at least for its more invidious features. In this essay I follow Foucault in understanding neoliberalism as "making a particular form of the market—relations of competition as expressed in the enterprise form—the 'formative principle' of the social and undertaking interventions to create the conditions for competition throughout life" (Anderson 740).
5. Castiglia's The Practices of Hope was recently published by New York UP; the quotes here are transcribed from a talk he gave at the Dartmouth Futures of American Studies Institute on 17 June 2013.
6. While critics have largely glossed over Houdini's centrality to the narrative, Chute writes of this scene that Houdini, "instead of instigating an escape from history, in fact conjures history for Joe, demanding a reengagement with painful memories" (282).
7. In the opening essay of Maps and Legends, Chabon argues for a proposition that ran throughout Houdini's career: that the sincerity or affective content of entertainment can overcome the falseness of its commodification. He maintains that entertainment, a capacious concept that can encompass "anything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature" (Maps 14), is primarily a "two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection" between individuals (17).
8. In a New Yorker essay entitled "Secret Skin," Chabon trots out a series of possible historicist and theoretical approaches to interpreting superhero costumes (the history of American costuming and design, fashion and [End Page 23] aesthetic movements, cultural fantasies, etc.). All of these can be discarded, he argues, because "in fact the point of origin is not a date or a theory or a conjunction of cultural trends but a story, the intersection of a wish and the tip of a pencil."
9. In addition to Death Defying Acts and the musical Houdini!, there are several recent dramatizations of the epistemological battle between Houdini and the spiritualists. Both the 1997 film Fairy Tale: A True Story and the short-lived 2016 television series Houdini and Doyle focus on Houdini's relationship with Arthur Conan Doyle, a friendship that came under strain as the men vehemently and publicly disagreed about the existence of fairies. Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight (2014) tells a similar story of a magician attempting to expose a medium as fraudulent. For an excellent history of Houdini's particular rivalry with Margery, a Boston medium of astonishing prowess, see Jaher's The Witch of Lime Street.
10. Chute maintains that both Ragtime and Kavalier & Clay explore the generative potential of mixed-media mass cultural forms. She suggests that "we are given perhaps the most emotional access to Houdini, and he comes closest to resembling the book's conscience" (281); I would argue, however, that the novel more prominently attends to his limitations.
11. See Palumbo-Liu, "Preemption," for a discussion of the weaponization of empathy in the contemporary state, which is captured strikingly in Robert McNamara's declaration that "[e]mpathy must be deployed urgently and massively" in the War on Terror (163).
12. Punday presents comic book novels as "fascinated by the ultimately metaphysical problem of personal identity in the marketplace: How do you understand yourself if your identity or the creative products through which you define it can be owned by someone else?" (298).
13. McGurl argues for literature as a system of preservation "contra the forces of disaster capitalism" (341). Its "reflexive modernity," while oriented "primarily towards the past … allows us to reconfigure both our conception of the future and our relationship to that future, to move away from a position of automatic critique to a position as interested in the conservation and value of institutions as in their limitations" (343–44).
14. In a similar vein, Boym distinguishes between the nostalgia of the "freed man" (who knows what he escapes but not where he is going) and the "free man," whose nostalgia is oriented not toward lost homelands or scapegoats "but to that sense of anarchic responsibility toward others as well as to the rendezvous with oneself" (342). [End Page 24]