The Pass: Point-of-View Magic in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is my favorite book of late. It blew me away. It blew a lot of people away when it was published, winning the Pulitzer in 2001. The book does many things well, but its greatest accomplishment is how vividly it renders its characters. “They could walk off the page,” proclaims the Newsweek review, and I fully agree.
As anyone who has written or tried to write fiction knows, characterization is hard. Even when someone like Chabon comes along and creates a believable cast of characters, it’s not always clear what the author is doing to make his characters feel real. In this essay, I’ll highlight one dimension through which Chabon brings his characters to life: point of view. I’ll begin by reviewing the POVs available to a narrator, and I’ll explain why Chabon’s selection of third-person omniscient is the right one for this story. I’ll then call attention to one limitation of this POV — the need for what I’ll call “POV shifts” — and, through several examples, underscore how deftly Chabon performs them. I’ll conclude with an exploration of one other POV trick found in the novel, as well as a discussion of why these tricks matter.
This is an essay about “point of view,” a term that for me hearkens back to middle-school English. At that time I had an oversimplified conception of what POV meant: first-person, “I”; second-person, “you”; third-person, “he.” I have since learned that choosing and executing the right POV is complex and integral to the reader’s experience. It is to creative writing as camera placement is to movie directing, for every story depends on the angle from which it’s told.
Most novels are told in the third-person because that’s the most natural way to tell a story about other people. Third-person places the focus where it belongs: on the characters themselves. To focus of the narrator himself, as in the first-person, or on some anonymous listener, as in the second-person, would detract from the story. There are exceptions, of course. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo is a recent example of first-person storytelling done well, while Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler could not have been written in any POV besides the second-person. The majority of stories, though, demand to be told in the third-person.
There are two common variants of the third-person. Third-person omniscient provides a god-like view of the characters: everyone’s thoughts are accessible. Its opposite is third-person objective, where no character’s thoughts can be known. Third-person omniscient is the more popular of the two because it helps the reader sympathize with the characters.
I’ve selected a few examples to demonstrate how Chabon uses third-person omniscient to vivify his characters, but to discuss them I’ll unfortunately need to spoil the plot. If you haven’t read the novel you should go do that now. I’ll be here when you get back.
In case you’ve ignored my advice and wish to continue reading — turn back now, it’s not too late — here’s a quick summary. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay centers on Joe Kavalier and Sammy Klayman, two teenage cousins living in New York City in the late 1930s. Joe, a trained magician, has just smuggled himself out of a Jewish ghetto in Prague, leaving behind his parents and little brother, Thomas. Upon arriving in New York he makes it his mission to get, in his own words, “some of the very big money” so he can pay for his family to come to America. America, meanwhile, has just begun its obsession with comic books. Sammy, a comic book enthusiast, aspiring writer, and hopeful back-room employee of a toy shop, recognizes Joe’s talent as an artist and hatches a plan: they will get rich by writing comic books.
My first example of inspired third-person omniscient storytelling occurs around the middle of the book, when Sammy and Joe find themselves at a swanky party. In attendance are prominent surrealists including Salvador Dalí and, more importantly, the irresistible young Rosa Saks, at whose home the party is held and with whom Joe is smitten. In a bizarre art stunt, Dalí spends the evening wearing a diving suit in a large aquarium. When the helmet malfunctions and floods with water, no one can unscrew the nut keeping it closed. No one, that is, except for Joe, who pries it loose with the aid of a small pocketknife.
Joe’s heroics make quite an impression on Rosa, who invites him to “see her paintings” in her studio. The next chapter begins with the pair walking hand-in-hand up the stairs. As readers we’re dying to know what Joe’s feeling in this unexpected moment. Fully aware of the tension it has created, the text invites us into his head:
As they made their way up through the increasing gloom, Joe seemed to steer only according to the light shed by the action of her palm against his wrist, by the low steady flow of voltage through the conducting medium of their sweat. He stumbled like a drunken man and laughed as she hurried him along. He was vaguely aware of the ache in his hand, but he ignored it. As they turned the landing to the top floor, a strand of her hair caught in the corner of his mouth, and for an instant he crunched it between his teeth.
Some details, such as Joe steering, stumbling, and laughing his way up the stairs, would be visible to an external observer, so we could be in third-person objective. However, the narrator’s knowledge of the “low steady flow of voltage” and of Joe’s awareness of “the ache in his hand” are only made possible by third-person omniscient.
Up in Rosa’s “studio” — actually her bedroom — she and Joe sit on the bed and hold their first real conversation. The narrative drops into Joe’s psyche whenever it wants us to overhear something meaningful. One such instance occurs after we learn that Joe’s hand aches because he dislocated a finger while prying Dalí’s lug nut loose. Rosa asks for his hand so that she, “‘almost a nurse once,’” can snap it back into place. The text is fond of electrifying — often literally — intimate touches like these. It’s here that we get another glimpse of how Joe feels when Rosa takes his hand:
He gave her his hand, sensing the thin strong rod of obdurate competence that was the armature of her artsy Village style.
With this line the text underscores the heightened sensitivity that Joe has for Rosa. He was only “vaguely aware” of how his hand felt earlier, but when Rosa holds it it becomes a sensor so highly attuned that it picks up the “armature of her artsy Village style.” By the way, I had to look what an “armature” was and it turns out that it’s the coil of wires that produces power in a motor, an apt symbol for the tension and electricity of the moment.
This is how Joe feels when Rosa merely touches his hand. The next section, in which Rosa jerks his finger back into place, is accompanied by more sparks and yields another view into Joe’s nervous system:
She looked at him, steadily, and licked her lips, and he had just noticed that the pale brown irises of her eyes were flecked with green and gold when abruptly she twisted his hand one way and his finger the other, and, crazing his arm to the elbow with instantaneous veins of lightning and fire, set the joint back into place.
We need these innermost thoughts to understand how Joe feels about Rosa. Joe’s only outward reaction when Rosa fixes his finger is to say “wow,” and we glean far more from “instantaneous veins of lightning and fire” than we do from “wow.” This demonstrates why third-person omniscient is an excellent choice for this story and how well the text employs it.
The advantage of third-person omniscient is that it allows the reader to understand what the characters are thinking. Exposing the thoughts of multiple characters at once, though, can be cacophonous. Texts mostly avoid this issue by keeping the POV close to only one character per chapter, which means that the text must decide which character’s perspective is most relevant for a given scene.
One perspective usually suffices, but there may be instances where the reader must appreciate multiple perspectives at once. These moments are rare because they generally only occur at inflection points. At these pivotal junctures, the text does not have the luxury of a chapter break to change the perspective behind the scenes. Instead, it must do so in the foreground, and without distracting from the heat of the moment. This is what I mean by the term “POV shift”: an instance where the text switches from one character’s perspective to another to expose how multiple characters react to an event. Most events, though, don’t need to be viewed from multiple angles, so a text should employ POV shifts sparingly. This is certainly the case with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which, at over 700 pages, contains only a few.
I’d now like to discuss some of these POV switches. With each example I hope to demonstrate three things: first, that the POV switch occurs at a pivotal moment in the text; second, that the switch unlocks a level of character understanding otherwise inaccessible; and third, that the text executes the shift cleanly and without disrupting the story.
Let us begin by revisiting the scene described above. Up until this point there have been no POV shifts; the text has stayed with Joe the whole time. This will soon change. After Rosa fixes Joe’s finger, the couple shares their first kiss until they’re interrupted by Sammy, who has come searching for Joe:
“Listen, Joe, I was uh — I just wondering if you were ready to leave this — excuse me, Miss, I know you live here and all — creepy place.”
Joe could see that something had upset Sammy.
This line — “Joe could see that something had upset Sammy” —creates tension and leaves the reader wondering what has happened to him. The text uses this opportunity to transfer the POV from Joe to Sammy and then describe firsthand why Sammy is upset:
In Joe’s absence, he had undergone a strange experience.… he had come upon the unlikely sight of two men, each wearing, with the overdetermination of a dream, a necktie and a mustache, embracing, their mustaches interlocked in a way that reminded Sammy, for some reason, of the way his mother used to fit his comb into the bristles of the brush on top of his dresser when he was a kid.… He knew about homosexuality, of course, as an idea, without ever having really connected it to human emotion; certainly never to any emotion of his own.
These private thoughts help us understand Sammy’s current mood and, later, the path to his sexual awakening. That he might be gay is obvious to everyone but Sammy himself, but the text doesn’t announce anything outright. This is one reason why the POV shift works so well here. The text could have addressed the experience in several ways: in a conversation between Sammy and Joe, for example, or in a standalone chapter. But the indirect approach taken is far better. It exposes the “disordered and strange” thoughts that fill Sammy’s head and raises a crescendo of questions:
What had so rattled Sammy about the scene he had witnessed? What was he afraid of? Why was he running away?… Was such a kiss really possible?
Then, after posing these questions, the text abandons the topic. In doing so it accomplishes two things. First, it evokes the uncertainty that at this point defines Sammy’s sexuality. Second, it amplifies the tension already inherent in the scene. This is still Joe and Rosa’s chapter, after all, and Sammy has cut them off mid-kiss. Having asked the big questions about Sammy, the text switches back to Joe and Rosa.
Fittingly, the first thing we hear when we return to Rosa’s room is a question that she asks Joe: “‘Is he a fairy?’” We’re back in Joe’s head now — we have to be so we can understand how he reacts to her question:
Joe was at first shocked by this suggestion, and then suddenly not.
The text goes no further in answering her. Likewise, Rosa and Joe go no further; when he kisses her a second time she pushes him away. The chapter concludes with Sammy and Joe’s love lives in suspense, and the POV shifts are the reason we can empathize with both of them.
The chapter above leaves Joe, Rosa, and Sammy romantically uncertain. As the story progresses, Joe and Rosa begin dating and Sammy falls in love with an actor named Tracy Bacon, who has been hired to voice one of Sammy’s comic book characters on the radio. Both relationships are on the precipice of becoming more serious when, in a single day, everything falls apart. Sammy and Tracy board a train together to begin a new life in Los Angeles, but Sammy gets cold feet and abandons him right before the doors close. Meanwhile, Joe has just signed an apartment lease for his brother and himself when he receives terrible news: the boat carrying his brother to America has been sunk by a German U-Boat. My next example of a POV shift comes from the scene that follows, in which Rosa and Sammy absorb the fallout of recent events and make plans of their own.
Rosa awakens to find herself alone and learns that Joe has gone to enlist in the Navy. The doorbell rings and she is “certain that it is going to be Joe,” but it’s Sammy instead. The POV stays on Rosa, whose confusion and panic are best viewed up-close:
She… stepped out into the courtyard. It was good to get out into the cold air. She felt some order being restored to her thoughts.
When Rosa asks Sammy what happened with Tracy, the POV shifts to replay their break-up. In this moment we need to be inside Sammy’s head to understand what happened and why. We learn that last night he was at a party that got broken up by the police and a couple of FBI agents. One of the agents raped him, leaving him with a “feeling of doom in his heart, a sense that he had turned some irrevocable corner and would shortly come face-to-face with a dark and certain fate.” On the train, a similar feeling would compel him to abandon Tracy:
Sammy felt, that morning, with his ribs bruised and a wan flavor of chlorine at the back of his mouth, that he would rather not love at all than be punished for loving.
This POV shift is necessary because it reveals the thought process behind Sammy’s decision, which would otherwise be opaque to the reader. Like the POV shift described earlier, it sets up a flashback that renders Sammy’s thoughts accessible.
I want to call attention to another POV shift that occurs in this chapter, one that’s much subtler. After the flashback concludes, Rosa tells Sammy that she’s pregnant. “‘I think I need to get an abortion,’” she tells him. In one of the book’s most telling series of dialogue, Rosa and Sammy come to understand each other perfectly:
“But Rosa, you know, he’s joining the navy,” he said.
“He’s just going to go off and enlist in the navy without knowing that you are pregnant with his baby.”
“Even though you’ve known about this for …”
“Say a week.”
“Why didn’t you tell him? Really, I mean.”
“I was afraid,” said Rosa. “Really.”
“Afraid that what? No, I know,” he said. He sounded almost bitter about it. “That he would just tell you to get the thing. And not want to marry you.”
“There you have it.”
“And now you — ”
“Just couldn’t possibly ever, in a million years, tell him.”
“Because he would certainly tell you — ”
“Right. He wants to go kill them, Sam. I don’t think anything I tell him could stop him now.”
“So you have to — ”
“As I was trying to explain.”
Sammy turned to look at her, his eyes bright, wild with an idea that Rosa grasped at once, in all its depths and particulars, in all the fear and hopelessness on which it fed.
“I get you,” he said.
This is how the fourth part of the book ends: with a shared idea understood only by Rosa and Sammy. Their exchange builds up to a POV maneuver that I still can’t quite put my finger on. There’s something elusive about the sentence that begins, “Sammy turned to look at her.” We expect the POV to be close to Rosa because that’s where it was before the flashback. In this sentence, though, it’s not clear where the POV is focused. Rosa “grasp[s]” Sammy’s idea, a private action, so we must be in her head. But there are details in the sentence that indicate that we’re close to Sammy, too. The phrase “Sammy turned to look at her” could signal intent, or it could not. The “depths and particulars” and “fear and hopelessness” could be known only by Sammy, or they could be Rosa’s projection of what she thinks she sees in Sammy’s eyes. The murkiness of the POV shift — or non-shift — is, I think, the point. Sammy and Rosa have stumbled into a new level of mutual understanding. We don’t need to see things distinctly from either’s perspective because their perspectives are now the same.
By now it should be clear what I mean by “POV shift” and why I think Chabon has a talent for writing them. Hopefully I’ve also demonstrated why they matter on a narrative level: they unlock a deeper level of compassion for the characters in pivotal moments. I’d like to pause on this idea and give one more example of a POV shift, one that I think is particularly illuminating.
The novel’s fifth part is its darkest. Joe joins the Navy and gets stationed in Antarctica as a radio operator. A gas leak kills all but two of his platoon — him and a pilot named John — and all but one of their dogs. The pair tries, with mixed success, to preserve their sanity until they can be rescued by staying active. John rebuilds their plane with spare parts and the hides of the dead dogs — like I said, mixed success — while Joe listens to the radio for signs of Germans on the ice shelf. When Joe finally learns the location of a nearby German station, he and John take the plane on a suicide mission to go kill the only surviving member of their camp, a geologist named Klaus Mecklenburg.
The chapter where Joe reaches the German station is told from a POV close to Klaus. Joe is by himself at this point — John is dead of a burst appendix — and he crash-lands near the base. Klaus sees Joe walking toward him and empties his pistol in Joe’s direction, hitting him once in the shoulder. Joe continues walking and addresses Klaus in German: “‘I am very glad to be here,’” he says with a smile. He pulls out his own gun and Klaus, misinterpreting Joe’s intention, grabs at it and accidentally shoots himself. Only then does he realize that Joe had meant to toss the gun away, in the “relief… of someone who had survived an ordeal and was simply… glad to be alive.” Klaus’ remorse is immediate:
Mecklenburg felt a sudden sharp regret for his behavior, for he was a peaceful and scholarly man who had always deplored violence, and one furthermore who liked and admired Americans, having known, in the course of his scientific career, a fair number of them.… Mecklenburg had shot at him — emptied his clip — in this place where the only hope for survival, as he had so long argued, was friendly cooperation among the nations.… The American caught him in his arms, looking startled and friendless and sad. The Geologist opened his mouth and felt the bubble of his saliva freeze against his lips. What a hypocrite I have been! he thought.
That this chapter is told from a POV close to Klaus is one the most significant narrative decisions in the book. Klaus is the only German in the whole novel whose thoughts are made available to us. When we hear him express sincere regret not for shooting himself but for shooting “a boy [who] had fallen out of the sky,” our bias that all Germans are evil — which we inherit from Joe — gets upended. Klaus’ thoughts underscore two themes developed during Joe’s time in Antarctica: that war is pointless and that it does bad things to good people.
It’s at this point that the POV shift occurs. The final paragraph of part five is told from a POV close to Joe. He painstakingly drags Klaus toward the research station, for “he was determined to save the life of the man who, just five days before, he had set out across eight hundred miles of useless ice to kill.” The concluding sentences of this chapter are among the most powerful in the book:
The shock and fragrance of life, steaming red life, given off by the trail of the German’s blood in the snow was a reproach to Joe, the reproach of something beautiful and inestimable, like innocence, which he had been lured by the Ice into betraying. In seeking revenge, he had allied himself with the Ice, with the interminable white topography, with the sawteeth and crevasses of death. Nothing that had ever happened to him, not the shooting of Oyster, or the piteous muttering expiration of John Wesley Shannenhouse, or the death of his father, or the internment of his mother and grandfather, not even the drowning of his beloved brother, had ever broken his heart quite as terribly as the realization, when he was halfway to the rimed zinc hatch of the German station, that he was hauling a corpse behind him.
This paragraph accomplishes several things across different levels. Plot-wise, it signals Mecklenburg’s death by silencing his thoughts. Thematically, it establishes capital-I “Ice” as a metaphor for war, which Joe recognizes as the “useless” enemy of beauty and innocence. From a characterization perspective, it gives Joe a reason to abandon his goal of killing Germans, which has sustained him since the death of his brother, and, in doing so, recasts our hero as someone worth loving and paves the way for his return home.
Beyond POV shifts, there is one other type of narrative trick that I’d like to discuss, and that is Chabon’s tendency to omit quotation marks. It’s something that he does only a few times in the novel, but each instance lands like a gut punch. I’ll give three examples.
My first example occurs when Joe is showing Rosa the apartment he intends to live in with Thomas. Joe realizes that he will, for all intents, be raising his little brother as if he were his son, which Rosa acknowledges:
“You are going to be like a father to him, you know,” she said. And I could be like a mother. Just ask me, Joe, and I’ll do it. It was on the tip of her tongue to say this, but she held back.
A more conventional narrator would delimit Rosa’s thoughts with quotation marks: “‘And I could be like a mother,’ she thought.” It would be clearer that way but the impact would be lessened. As it’s written, the omission of quotation marks imparts Rosa’s sense of urgency. The words tumble out uncontrolled like a revelation.
A second example can be found toward the novel’s end, after Joe has returned to New York. Twelve years after he left for Antarctica, Joe has reappeared in Rosa and Sammy’s life — and in his son Tommy’s life as well, although Tommy thinks that Joe is his cousin. They are only briefly reunited before Joe goes missing again. The morning of his departure, a mysterious package is delivered to Rosa and Sammy’s home. Tommy, who shares his father’s love of magic, believes the package to be a prop for a trick:
“What is that?” Rosa said.
“I never saw that at Joe’s,” Tommy said. “Wow, it must be part of his equipment! It looks like a — oh my gosh — it’s a packing crate escape! Oh, my gosh. Do you think he’s going to teach me how to do it?”
I don’t even know if he’s ever coming back. “I don’t know what he’s going to do, honey,” she said.
As before, there are no quotation marks around Rosa’s thought. The contrast between what she thinks and what she says is stark. In the first example, the narrator contextualizes Rosa’s thought by saying that “it was on the tip of her tongue,” but here the narrator doesn’t do anything to soften the blow. The stoic narrative tone matches Rosa’s internal turmoil. The love of her life and the father of her son has reappeared only to vanish once more. She cannot help but panic at the idea that she has let him slip away again, this time for good.
As it happens, Joe returns later that day, which brings me to my third example. In a chapter told from a POV close to Tommy, Joe’s old boxes of comic books are unloaded into Sammy and Rosa’s garage. Tommy searches through them and finds one box unlike the others. Picking through its contents, he finds an old strip of photographs of his mother with Joe, whom he still believes to be his cousin:
In the pictures, they looked absurdly skinny and young and so stereotypically in love that it was obvious even to Tommy, an eleven-year-old boy who had never before in his life looked at any two people and had the conscious thought: Those two people are in love. As if by magic, he heard their voices, their laughter, and then the knob turning, and the creaking hinges of the door. Quickly, he began replacing the things he had taken from the box.
He could hear their lips meeting and parting with a sticky sound; the clicking of their teeth or the buttons on their clothes.…
Those two people are in love.
The italicized refrain of Those two people are in love is too raw and immediate for quotation marks. It is, as the narrator explains, less a thought and more a feeling that comes over Tommy when he sees pictures of Joe and his mother or hears them together. It is a climactic realization in this, the penultimate chapter of the novel, for it soon leads to another. While hiding unnoticed among the boxes of comics, Tommy overhears a telling conversation between Rosa and Joe:
“Have you talked to Tommy yet?” she said.
“I haven’t found the right moment.”
“Joe. You have to tell him.”
The folder filled with memorabilia of the Mighty Molecule’s career slipped from Tommy’s hand.
“The Mighty Molecule” was the stage name of Sammy’s father, who’d been a circus performer. The slipping of his memorabilia from Tommy’s hand is a wonderful metaphor for the slipping of Tommy’s paternal lineage. He does not, after all, descend from the Mighty Molecule because Joe is his father, a revelation unlocked by an earlier one: Those two people are in love.
I’ve spent a lot of time discussing POV tricks, a fascinating topic but one that I fear might give the impression of Chabon as a trickster. Chabon is occasionally a trickster but he’s mostly an excellent storyteller. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is notable foremost for its prose and its characters. Far outnumbering the few so-called tricks are the plethora of sentences that evoke emotion without any clever narrative maneuvers — like, for example, when Rosa expects Joe to propose but he instead gives her a key to his new apartment:
She was disappointed in the same measure that she had been expecting a ring, and thrilled to the degree that she was horrified by her desire for one.
Or when Sammy’s mom realizes that she should have done more to comfort Joe when his brother died:
[Rosa] threw her arms around him, and Joe held on to her for so long that Ethel found herself regretting, with an intensity that surprised her, that she had neglected to take her nephew into her arms. It seemed just then to be the worst mistake she had ever made in her life. She watched Joe and Rosa get into the taxi and drive away. Then she sat down in a chair, with its festive pattern of pineapples and bananas, and covered her face with her hands.
It’s sentences like these that make this novel a triumph. Throughout, the characters are made real by their emotions, providing for a deeply moving and engaging story. The role of the POV maneuvers discussed in this essay is to accentuate the defining moments of the story, like Sammy’s revealing encounter at Rosa’s house, Joe’s heartbreaking run-in with the German researcher, and Tommy’s visceral realization that Joe is his father. These moments echo even after the story has ended, and they owe their impact to POV maneuvers.
A central theme I’ve barely touched on is the role of magic in the story. It’s Joe’s magic teacher Bernard Kornblum who helps him escape to America by stowing him away in an oversized crate, the same box that Tommy would later recognize as the prop for a magic trick. Joe learns of his brother’s death while performing in a magic show at a Bar Mitzvah, and it’s in a magic shop that he and Tommy first see each other. Whenever something meaningful happens, magic is close by.
Magic and POV maneuvers are similar in this way: they accompany the novel’s most significant moments. I don’t think the similarity ends here. Chabon is no magician, but with his POV tricks he comes close.
In discussing Chabon’s POV maneuvers and how brilliantly he performs them, I am reminded of the first conversation between Joe and his son. Eager to learn about Tommy’s interest in magic, Joe asks him if he knows how to perform a pass, “the invisible transposition of two or more portions of the deck.” Tommy is embarrassed to admit that he cannot, but Joe consoles him:
“Passes are hard,” Joe said. “Well, easy to do. But not easy to do well.”