Plot Junkie: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (Part 1, The Escape Artist)

I read way too fast. That sounds like a humblebrag (hashtag humblebrag), but isn’t meant that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading fast. I read for plot, pure and simple. It’s not the most cultured approach to literature–while I’m occasionally gob-smacked by the beauty of a sentence or the perfection of an expressed emotion, really, it’s about the plot. Just tell me happens next.

I’m a plot junkie, pure and simple.

And I don’t really have a problem with this. The first time I read The Crimson Petal and the White, I finished it in an 18 hour marathon. At the end, I was exhausted and exhilarated, and would have had trouble relating any but the broadest strokes of the plot. (Except for the tumor lurking behind Agnes’s eye. Jesus, that stuck with me.) However, I still had fun, and that’s the point of reading, no? And the second and third times I read it, I got more. Still at a break-neck pace, but more.

I’ve combated this whole speed-reader problem in the past with restrictions on my reading. In 2012, there was my whole 12 in 12 plan. I decided that I was only reading one book per month, and so I picked twelve tomes of literature that I’d been avoiding–Les MiserablesAnna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo  and each week reviewed the portion of the book that I’d finished. And I’m great at making plans, but not so good at the follow through: I ended up just starting each month with the chosen book, tearing through that at my usual pace, and then adding everything else I wanted to read after. I  made it all the way to the third week of January before I cracked, and tore through The Crimson Petal and the White in a day and a half.

ANYWAY. Sidetracked, sorry. So I read too fast. It’s great, it’s fun, but I miss a lot. So (here’s my train of thought again) when I find a book that is truly excellent, I try to make a conscious effort to slow down and enjoy. You know, chew your food, don’t just inhale.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay promises to be just such a worth-savoring book. I’m hardly the first to recognize this, I realize. The book won the Pulitzer, for god’s sake. But books that receive such acclaim kind of hover in the periphery for me–I imagine (or have seen, who knows at this point), tables of publishers’ remainders at deeply discounted prices, stocked with the highly-lauded: Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers. And I assume they will be excellent, but life is short and books are long, and if I read everything popular, well, I’ll have no time for all of those impossibly obscure gems from the late nineteenth century. But in the past few weeks of graduation celebration, several people whose opinion I respect raved about this book. And so my boyfriend (who is solely responsible for the recent influx of books: my graduation gift basically cleared out my Amazon book wishlist) (yay!) ordered it.

And I’m seriously loving this book.

Part 1, The Escape Artist

Part 1 begins with the meeting of Samuel Louis Klayman and Josef Kavalier in 1939 in Sammy’s Brooklyn bedroom.

Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews: Samuel Louis Klayman was all three. He was seventeen when the adventures began: bigmouthed, perhaps not quite as quick on his feet as he liked to imagine, and tending to be, like many optimists, a little excitable. He was not, in  any conventional way, handsome. His face was an inverted triangle, brow large, chin pointed, with pouting lips and a blunt, quarrelsome nose. He slouched, and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money.

Josef Kavalier was thrust through the door of Sammy’s bedroom late one October night by Sammy’s mother, who introduced the apparently expected guest as one of their Czech cousins, just arrived in New York from San Francisco. Kavalier is the escape artist of the title–in Czechoslovakia in 1939 it is increasingly dangerous to be Jewish, and incredibly difficult to leave. His escape to America involves centuries of rabbinical tradition, magic tricks, diversion, dunking,  and the theft of a giant’s suit. Really and truly excellent.

Plot Junkie: The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber

So, you know when I said I was only going to read one book a month? And when I specifically named THIS BOOK as one of the reasons that I made that resolution? That whole “I speed through books and then don’t know what I read” thing?

Yeah, never mind. So I finished Les Miserables while waiting on a friend on Friday afternoon (yes, I might be just a tad behind on the reviews.) And being stranded without anything else to do, I skimmed through the books I had downloaded to my iPhone… and out of all the beautiful options (complete Dickens, complete Austen, complete Bronte) I ended up with this one.

And I finished it Sunday morning, having accomplished very little absolutely nothing else in the intervening 48 hours. And you know what? I’m ok with that. New Year’s Resolutions be damned.

This book is freaking fantabulous.

And wow, is it more graphic than I remembered. The main character, Sugar, is a Victorian prostitute—there is quite a bit of information about rudimentary birth control practices, and about, er, the activities in which she engaged that required said birth control practices. If you know what I mean. And of course you do. But it definitely doesn’t romanticize any of those, er, activities. At all.


While the story is completely intriguing, my favorite part is the narrator’s voice. The narrator speaks directly to the reader, telling you to follow as he (she?) introduces you to the lowest of the low, and directs your attention to follow increasingly important individuals as you gain entre to more and more lofty layers of society.

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you are actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognizing nothing….

And much, much later in the novel…

In Agnes’s head, inside her skull, an inch or two behind her left eye, nestles a tumour the size of a quail’s egg. She has no inkling it’s there. It nestles innocently; her hospitable head makes room for it without demur, as if such a diminutive guest could not possibly cause any trouble. It sleeps, soft and perfectly oval. No one will ever find it. Roentgen photography is twenty years in the future, and Doctor Curlew, whatever parts of Agnes Rackham he may examine, is not about to go digging in her eye-socket with an scalpel. Only you and I know of this tumour’s existence. It is our little secret.

If you haven’t read this, you should. Immediately.