This sprawling, Pulitzer-winning historical novel is a C4 Great Read.

Author: Michael Chabon

2000, Random House

Filed Under: Literary, Historical

“The Great American Novel” is a phrase that gets tossed about a lot and has, like “The American Dream,” diluted into a platitudinous insincerity suggesting a prize hiding behind a life of toil–if it was ever even more than that. It’s a romanticism: pour your heart and soul into the everyday grind of life, and eventually you’ll reach some sort of transcendence.  We all had one kid in our high school classes that was going to write the next Great American Novel, indeed maybe we were that classmate. There aren’t, of course, roughly 24,000 Great American Novels published yearly.

Indeed, there are very few books befitting of the title. There have been many great books by Americans, sure, but how many define a generation, or at least a time and place; how many raised their authors so some higher level or even immortality. Not many. You’ve got Huck Finn and Moby Dick. Then there was a proliferation of candidates that came out of the Lost Generation, but since the 1920s the case is harder and harder to make definitively.

Not many would argue against Catcher in the Rye or On the Road (indeed, I bet if you ask 10 people to name The Great American Novel at least 6 pick Kerouac’s wandering story), but it gets tougher from there. Check out this list from Wikipedia. You could make a pretty good case against most of them–Kerouac’s not on there (I agree), but Ken Kesey is (I disagree). I think Lolita is the best book of the 20th century, but Great American Novel it is not. And I bet Franzen just loves being included on this list, and while I loved Freedom, I’m not sure I could prove it is demonstrably more qualified than The Corrections.

In most all respects, Chabon’s Pulitzer effort is the very definition of what a novel should be. It is not the Great American Novel, but it is all about the elusive quest for that ideal.

This is a generational story, opening in 1939. Jewish Joe Kavalier flees Prague and moves in with his aunt and 17 year-old cousin, Sam Clayman, in Brooklyn. Joe is an artist and Sam writes copy for a novelties company, though not in as glamorous a manner as Joe had been led to believe. They team up to make comics, a fledgling and largely dismissed medium.

The soon find much success in the budding world of comics, but are held back by the contracts–and at times politics–they agreed to in naivete. At first, very little is made off the cultural impact of their comics outside of Chabon’s footnotes, but their commercial success is evident. But Joe is searching for something in his art.

At first it’s his family trapped across the Atlantic, and eventually it’s something deeper and more personal. He falls in love with a young artist, Rosa Saks, and he soon aspires to uncover, through costumed heroes and magic moth-women, some great truth–reach some pinnacle–he can’t even define. He eventually becomes so lost in the pursuit he goes into reclusion. Angry about the loss of a family member he worked to rescue, Joe joins the war and stop responding to letters.

In the meantime, Sam has been having his own struggles. Sam is gay, in a period when that was, at best, deviant and illegal. His personal happiness forever at odds with his social comfortability,  Sam marries Rosa and raises Joe’s son as his own. He tries to write the book he began as a young man, but finds little literary success, and so continues to make and sell comics.

But his soul is out of it. Sam is a complex and interesting character, whose motivations are harder to discern than Joe’s. His confusion about his sexuality plays a big part, but he too has a nagging desire to find something from within art–and a profound sadness in what looks like a fruitless search.

While neither of these men are outwardly trying to write the Great American Novel, they both are chasing that exact ideal and have pinned their hopes, dreams, and identities on the search for that very idea. When their duo is split and the artistic spark fades, they both become lost. Joe keeps drawing comics, but hides them and himself from the world; Sam can’t find a way to extricate art from commercialism.

Hiding behind social costumes (Joe a recluse, Sam a farce marriage) they’ve made for themselves, they stop chasing whatever it was they thought they were searching for.  Only years later do they finally find some perspective. That pursuit was the very thing they were after, and when abandoned, life had less purpose. Their works would go on to become legendary, defining their generation on the (paneled) page, etching their names into history as the tops in their fields. What Kavalier and Clay created was analog to the Great American Novel.

Kavalier & Clay doesn’t define a generation, but in their world, its characters did.  If you ask me that’s the premise of a great novel.

Similar Reads: Middlesex (Eugenides), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Eco), Martin Dressler (Millhauser).