New York, nonetheless, is the centre of the magic. The comic book superhero has just been born, and is already enjoying a golden age. Young men with limited prospects but big imaginations are suddenly finding that anything is possible.
Sam and Joe are two such men. As they spring from the page they are instantly human, believable, likeable, courageous, and fragile. Through a combination of talent, initiative, bravado, and fortuitous timing, they turn themselves from hard-luck nobodies into rising young stars. Success comes easily – but proves to be sadly insubstantial. This is after all 1940, and while it’s wonderful to make lots of money by creating top-selling comic books, it does nothing to stave off the impending doom enveloping Europe, and particularly Joe’s home town of Prague.
Escape and transformation are the novel’s central themes – and the obsessive drivers of Joe and Sam’s respective dreams and ambitions.
Joe is plagued by guilt and a sense of impotence – he has been saved and his family has not, and with every day that passes his chances of securing their escape are diminished. As he battles against faceless bureaucracy, and a mounting sense of despair, he is driven to increasingly desperate acts. Escapistry has always been a core component of his life. His erstwhile mentor, Kornblum, feared that his “final feat of auto-liberation was all too foreseeable.” Now, wrenched from his home and driven by grief, rage, and desperation, Joe tangles with catastrophe at several points in the novel. He more than once places himself in snatching distance of death, but life hangs on to him, whether he wishes it or not. For a brief while, it seems that Rosa’s love might save him from his despair and offer him hope and safety. But tragedy intervenes, and Joe escapes the temptation of happiness, choosing exile and isolation instead.
Sammy cherishes his own dreams of escape. His “caterpillar schemes” are directed at making enough money to transform his life, and the lives of those he cares about, into something much grander and more impressive. His attempts to liberate himself – from poverty, conventionality, and mediocrity – meet with mixed fortune. He achieves wealth and fame, and all the outward trappings of success, at least for a short while. But he is remains firmly tied by the bonds of prejudice. Apart from his first and only brief, bright love affair, he refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality. He chooses instead a half-life, in which he and Rosa unite in their mutual loss of Joe. It’s a devastating choice, and the magnitude of his loss becomes slowly apparent to him over time. Only right at the end of the novel, following Joe’s unexpected and dramatic reappearance, and a vitriolic and very public attack on his morals at a Senate Sub-Committee hearing, does Sam finally find the courage to explore who he really is.
Chabon provides the reader with small clues and premonitions throughout the story. From the first page of the novel, we know that Joe and Sam are going to take the comic world by storm and make a name for themselves. But just when Joe and Rosa’s happiness seems to be secured, we are told, with devastating clarity, that it’s all about to fall apart – and we read with a sense of culminating horror as it does exactly that. By jumping forward a little in time before going back to the critical moments of the story, Chabon builds our sense of suspense and dread.
Thankfully, Chabon is ultimately kind, to his characters who have been through so much, and to the reader who so desperately wants them to re-discover happiness and set their past sorrows to rights. He acknowledges that life is complicated and messy and never turns out quite as planned, but nonetheless grants Joe, Sam and Rosa the chance to make the best of it.