Faith (?): A Novel (?)

The question marks in the post title are there because the word “faith” seems to be a rather lofty word for the name of a novel.  After reading Haigh’s book, I still think the word is a little lofty, but I understand  more about why she may have chosen this title.

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The story revolves around a devoutly Catholic family.  While faith in God (or lack thereof) is an underlying theme throughout the story, I think the faith to which the author refers has more to do with the narrator, Sheila McGann, and her faith (or lack thereof) in her brother, a priest accused of child abuse in Boston in 2002.  Sheila and Art (the priest) also have another brother, Mike.  Sheila and Mike have the same father.  Art has a different father that he never knew.

The book runs 318 pages, but reads more like a short story.  Art’s family, especially his siblings, reacts to the accusations rendered against him.  The story is told by Sheila after the fact.  It reads somewhat like her own investigation into her family’s secrets.  The pieces of the story are based on Sheila’s conversations with the characters involved, including the young mother making the accusations against Art.  Sometimes this format is a little problematic in that there are details that seem rather implausible for Sheila to know even after having these conversations.  This doesn’t necessarily ruin the story, but I couldn’t help thinking “yeah right” a few times while reading.

The final third of the story is the part that made it worth reading.  Sheila’s musings on the lives of both her brothers and her parents and her rejection of her family’s faith are powerful pages.  I’ve debated about writing in this post whether Art is innocent or guilty of the accusations.  I want to try to stay away from having to put “Spoiler Alerts” on my posts.  The reader ultimately finds out.  However, the story that Sheila tells doesn’t seem to need Art to be guilty or innocent.  Most of the family’s dysfunctions and the results in the lives of the three siblings are more deep-rooted than this one incident.  The author gets kudos for her ability to develop the story this way!

If you are looking for a story of someone’s struggle with faith and family and the twists and turns that struggle can take, you might like this book.   Because my reading list contains too many other books I want to read, I probably won’t be reading more of Jennifer Haigh’s novels in the near future.  But you never know, one could pop up sometime.

“a marketplace of ten-cent dreams”

I’ve wanted to read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ever since I first saw it in the downtown Borders (may it rest in peace) in Indianapolis about 10 years ago.  I’d always thought a novel about comic books that could win the Pulitzer (2002, I think) would be a must-read.  I’m not sure why it took me 10 years to read it.  The novel reads, in many ways, like a history book and has cameo appearances by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles.  As the title would lead one to think, the plot revolves around the lives of Kavalier and Clay.

In 1939, Joe Kavalier, a Jewish Czech, makes a dramatic escape from Nazi-controlled Prague to meet up with his cousin, Sam Clay, in Brooklyn, New York to found Empire Comics during the “Golden Age” of comic books.  Joe’s calm, cool confidence and artistic ability leads them to success; however, he is always flagged by his fear and guilt about what is happening to his family in Eastern Europe, particularly his younger brother, Tom.  Sam’s insecurity-induced drive pushes them forward to further commercial success even if it doesn’t quite make up for his father’s lack of acceptance.

Here’s Chabon’s description of the rise of the comic book as entertainment : “Superman was born in the pages of a comic book, where he thrived, and after this miraculous parturition, the form finally began to emerge from its transitional funk, and to articulate a purpose for itself in the marketplace of ten-cent dreams…”.

Joe and Sam both struggle with their chosen art-form.  Can comic books truly be considered an art- form?  Can the course of the world, especially the world of Europe, in the late 1930’s, be changed by comic books?  Most of Sam and Joe’s early work depicts a superhero called “The Escapist” who battles characters of a German, Nazi nature, and from time to time actually takes on Hitler.  Can commercialism be considered art, can art be commercialized?  Sam and Joe end up with a certain amount of monetary success, but at one point Sam refers to it as a “lucrative swindle”.  After seeing “Citizen Kane”, Joe wonders if they could ever do anything on that level, artistically.

Joe’s life takes on comic-book proportions with adventures ranging from Antarctica to the top of the Empire State building.  Sam, on the other hand, follows a (not quite) Father-Knows-Best life during the 1950’s.  Rosa Luxembourg Saks is the artist that becomes entwined in both Joe’s and Sam’s life.  In her character, Chabon portrays a woman at the beginning of the gender-breaking social changes to take place during the next few decades.  Sam and Joe’s mentor, George Deasey, is an incredibly likable cynic.  One of my favorite scenes occurs when Sam and Joe have to grapple with Deasey’s advice that if they are creating comic books for anything other than money, they are doing it for the wrong reasons.

As time goes on, comic books become the focus of concern among certain government officials because of their escapist nature and the potential for negative effects on children.  At one point, Joe asks himself the question when thinking about the atrocities that took place in Europe during the war:  Is it any wonder  people want to escape?

Chabon’s detailed writing style and sharp wit makes this book a great read, but for some reason, it took me longer than usual to get through it.  I continue to ponder the novel’s questions about the role of art and pop culture as a means of social change, a means of making a living and a means of escape.

What do you think of Michael Chabon?  Have you read anything else he has written?  What about comic books?  Art, escapism, commercialism?