Jon Courtenay Grimwood. End of the World Blues (2006).
Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000).
I read these two in quick succession (&, yes, I should have caught up with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay long ago). But they go together well, at least in terms of those occasional thoughts, none of which will be new, really, but these two writers help to focus a few things. Grimwood seems to me to be a bit like Chabon, except he arrives at the writerly space they share from the Low literary end (SF&F) while Chabon comes from the High end of that spectrum. What’s clear, however, is that they both delight in & gain a lot of energy from the pop genres they utilize with such finesse.
End of the World Blues is the second Grimwood novel I’ve read, & like the first, 9Tail Fox (2205), it’s a terrific mishmash of genre codes, tone, & upset conventions. There’s much there to grab the SF&F reader. Set apparently in the near future (seems to be 2015-2020), it’s a double narrative: of Kit Nouveau, a loser bar owner in Japan, a deserter once a sniper in the British forces in Iraq, & his journey toward finding himself after a bomb destroys his bar & kills his Japanese ‘wife,’ a famous pottery artist; & of Lady Neko, a teen-age girl who is capable of ninja-like killing, & either is an exile from a powerful family literally living near the end time of the world far in the future, or at least believes that (& her narrative presents that story absolutely straight-faced). So it’s a near-future thriller, a sf fantasia, a story of young love lost, later love destroyed, criminal activity in both Japan & Britain, & psychological self-discovery. It moves fast, as a thriller should, but it also digs deep, if in a sly & subtle understated manner into the feelings & thoughts of not just the two protagonists but of some of those with whom they engage. In other words, it has all the flash of pop lit, but also a lot of the depth we are taught to associate with ‘literature.’ Including a battle between ruling families at the end of time, all filtered through the consciousness of a contemporary teen age Japanese girl. So, although the narrative moves, with slippery ease, through a whole bunch of genre conventions, it also catches the reader up in the inner life of its main characters, & represents the rest with a fluid narrational tone that delineates character in quick dramatic lines. Better than most contemporary thrillers (& with a nod to William Gibson’s most recent trilogy), it shuttles between the UK, Europe, & Japan, granting glimpses of street & business culture in all three. I found End of the World Blues immensely engaging.
And I’m not the first to do the same with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, as the awards listed & encomiums on the paperback demonstrate. As opposed to Grimwood’s taut little (but eventually domestic) thriller, it’s huge, a big trunk bursting with mid-twentieth century American life & ideals. All perceived through the prism represented by the comic book industry, especially the superhero variety, as it grew (& even possibly matured) between 1939 & the mid-50s. Chabon clearly loves the comics (as such later novels as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union & Gentlemen of the Road demonstrate his love of mysteries & SF&F), & he knows their history in his bones. Although he comes to the intermediate literary space his novel & Grimwood’s inhabit from the Literary end of the story-telling spectrum, Chabon, like Grimwood, both loves what genre fiction offers him to utilize & has written a profound novel about constructed characters we come to care for that clearly attains a level of depth that marks it as literature (however we define that term now). The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a big, thick book, an ‘epic’ tale of two cousins & their lives as they set out in mid-century USAmerica to achieve something, in their case in comics. Chabon slyly inserts their tale & the ‘history’ of The Escapist & their other major titles, especially Luna Moth, into the varied story we already know or know something of, about the rise of popular culture from the 30s through the 50s. That it’s also a story about Jewish life in the US, how the world learned of & dealt with The Holocaust, how a young man who escaped from Prague to the US but then had to live with the knowledge that his family succumbed to German hate & destruction, only adds to the complexity of the massive & multi-thread narrative. Chabon’s handling of the main characters, not least Rosa, the woman oddly positioned between Kavalier, her lover, & Clay, her eventual husband, during Kavalier’s long disappearance from their lives, is powerfully evocative. But it’s Chabon’s evocation of New York during this period that really raises this novel above so many others. He’s a master of idioms, as well as of the power of pop culture to enter(tain) our lives. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay becomes not only their story of brotherhood, love, lost & found, & family, but also a socio-cultural history of a generation, as perceived from the special perspective of popular culture, most specifically comics.
Like Grimwood, Chabon is a master of genre tropes (including that usually unnamed genre, the realistic family novel), & he utilizes all of them to traverse the emotional lives of his three main characters. A reader can be delighted by just about everything he does, as he shifts from narrating one of The Escapist’s adventures to a bar mitzvah magic performance by Kavalier to Clay’s failure to really understand who he is until it’s too late, & many other moments in the characters’ lives, both lived & imagined. Again, what raises this novel above many others is the depth & subtlety of characterization, alongside the headlong narrative drive deriving from the pulps (&, oh yes, those Victorian novelists who never seemed to worry about ‘High’ & ‘Low,’ & who just loved the thrust of story).
Chabon was an already well respected ‘literary’ figure when he wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in which he chose to explore the literary possibilities of genre fiction with all the entertainment potential such an exploration carries with it. Because he had already gained a reputation in the literary world, his games with genre, etc., were taken seriously (see those reviews & awards). I’m pretty sure Grimwood doesn’t receive the same kind of attention, at least not the same way. But I would ask, having read & enjoyed works by them both: is his writing not as witty, as sharp, his characterizations as subtle & understated, his games with collaging various genre styles & tropes & often mashing one inside another, equally fine? My sense is that writing this complex & compelling is simply good, whether or not it has received a ‘literary’ critical response. And I suspect Chabon would agree.
One last point about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: at about the time Chabon was bringing the hidden history of comics to life in that novel, offering that hidden history as another way into understanding the twentieth century (‘the American century’ it was called), Warren Ellis began his superlative Planetary series, a comic which offered to do something the same, & Alan Moore had already brought us Watchmen a decade earlier, both works of novel complexity. I would not be at all surprised to learn that Chabon knew the latter.