One of the major plot points of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel that’s just been anointed this year’s One Book, One Chicago, involves the Golem of Prague, a giant created from clay sometime in the 16th century and brought to life by Rabbi Judah Loew by some obscure and ancient magic in order to protect the Jews of the city.
I was in grad school when I first read Kavalier & Clay. At the time I was also trying to scrape together various life experiences and the bits of wisdom I had gleaned from them—although I had very little of either—and turn them into a novel. My classmates were writing novels too. At the bar after workshop, we discussed our characters as though they were real. (I still remember some of those characters.) What we really wanted to do was make other people believe they were real too.
Kavalier & Clay dazzled me. It wasn’t just its technical perfection, although Chabon had mastered all of the tricks we talked about in workshop—physical description, character development, perspective, time shifts, dialogue, metaphor—and deployed them gracefully, without apparent effort, with inflections of 1940s New York and the language of comic books.
But a golem is more than a technically perfect sculpture. Reading the book, I felt like Sammy Clay, whose legs were weakened by childhood polio, watching his cousin and creative partner Joe Kavalier stand in a beam of sunlight after scaling the front of a five-story building without even dropping his cigarette.
“As he watched Joe stand, blazing, on the fire escape, Sammy felt an ache in his chest that turned out to be, as so often occurs when memory and desire conjoin with a transient effect of the weather, the pang of creation. The desire he felt . . . was, in part, a longing—common enough among the inventors of heroes—to be someone else.”
And then, a few chapters later, there it is: Sammy and Joe’s memories and yearnings coalescing into the origin story of the Escapist, their first and best creation.
I didn’t want to be Chabon exactly, but I wanted to do what he’d shown me, to use my own memories and yearnings to create another world, far superior to my own existence of grad seminars and freshman comp papers, into which I could escape. And to do it with such obvious joy!
Then, a few months after that first reading of Kavalier & Clay, miraculously, it happened. My characters were suddenly more real to me than anyone I knew. Writing felt like taking dictation. I don’t know what changed. My novel was not great—there’s a reason you’ve never read it—but it felt like magic to me. I wept when it was over.
I wish I knew how to make it happen again. But not even Chabon has that magic at his command. (His last novel, Telegraph Avenue, disappointed me so bitterly I threw it across the room. It felt manufactured to me, not alive, like bad stage magic.) No one ever could agree on the exact words to animate a golem, so why should art be any different? I’ve read Kavalier & Clay a dozen times now, though, and I still feel that ache in my chest, waiting for the magic to turn into someone else.