Wonder Boys became a movie; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay took the Pulitzer Prize. Michael Chabon has followed these with an alternate-history mystery set in the noir world of the Alaskan shetls.
A few critics have expressed surprise that their darling would write a book that could be considered both SF and mystery, but the rest of us understand that Real WritersTM can and do write genre. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has been nominated for and Edgar Award and the 2008 Hugo. A film by the Coen Brothers is in pre-production.
Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Original Publication Date: 2007
A drug addict whom many once believed would be the Messiah dies in a cheap hotel of an Alaskan Jewish homeland. Detective Meyer Landsman, also a resident of the hotel, begins an investigation that will lead him further into the dark politics of a world with a history that diverged from ours due to a road accident in 1940.1
Chabon’s plot and setting entangle perfectly. The story needs the world he’s created, and yet the events never seem forced, nor the setting, implausible.
The novel also plays nicely with its sense of reality. We’re in a gritty and cold street-level setting, and yet we receive hints that a divine presence could be at work. We hear absurd rumors of a messianic image which may be smiling or “merely suffering from a mild attack of gas” and a prophetic chicken which, however, “neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured”(13). We encounter the machinations of those who want to force the Messiah to come. We see entirely realistic, opportunistic realpolitik. And yet we also encounter tempting hints that Emanuel Lasker may indeed be in touch with something greater than us.
The story grows somewhat unwieldy towards the end—a flaw found in that other writer of literary noir, James Ellroy. Some readers may be disappointed with the the final pages, though I think they work reasonably well. If this is a flaw, it’s a minor one, given how much Chabon accomplishes.
Originality: 4/6. Chabon has concocted a believable and developed alternate history and made it integral to an engrossing detective tale. He’s composed it from parts of existing literary tropes and conventions, which he both uses and parodies.
Story: 5/6. Readers will find a fascinating and highly readable novel which reflects on real-world politics without growing dull.
Characterization: 5/6. I found Landsman and his partner, the Tlingit/Jewish Berko Shemets, the most intriguing of the characters. Landsman may be a deliberate cliché– the world-weary, hardboiled detective with a drinking problem—- but Chabon has developed and used him well. The narrative takes his perspective on religious matters, not so much that of an atheist but more of someone irked by the mysterious workings of God. I wish we had seen more of Lasker.
Imagery: 6/6. I believed in the alternate reality of this world and its history, and yet at no point does Chabon bury us with infodump. His most casual descriptions, from the expected broken hotels filled with broken lives to the Verbovers’ “Disney shtetl, bright and clean as a freshly forged birth certificate”(106) to a beating that leaves Landsman feeling like someone fed “his right ear to the propeller blades of a Cessna 206″(264), all help realize his world.
Emotional Response: 5/6.
Overall Score: 6/6.
Many reasons exist to explain why so many critics devalue and disparage genre fiction—and therefore refuse to classify a book such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union as either SF or mystery, when it is (among other things) clearly both. For many, it stems from simple snobbery and the belief that nobody worthwhile would bother to write a mystery or an SF novel. The generic label itself can do some harm here. Whereas a bad realistic book, say, is merely a bad book and not connected with numerous good books, a bad SF novel is taken as a representative of (or, at the very least, a blight on) an entire genre.
But at least some of the fault lies with some formulaic genre writers, certain avaricious publishers, and some of the less discriminating readers. Not everyone can write as well as Chabon, nor can everyone invest their story with this depth. However, more could make the effort. Writing shouldn’t always be about getting this year’s book out. It should be about getting a book together that will continue to be worth reading.
Chabon proves a writer can take elements of a familiar, commercially-successful formula and a speculative concept and produce something both readable and literary. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Kavalier and Clay, but I recommend it almost as highly.
In total, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union receives 37/42
1. FDR had proposed that Jewish refugees from Europe (many of whom were simply turned away in the 30s and 40s) be given a temporary homeland in Alaska. Representative Anthony Diamond led the opposition that defeated this proposal. In Chabon’s version of history, Diamond dies in an accident, the bill passes, and millions are saved from the Holocaust. However, a less-populated Israel, under attack, collapses in 1948 and, in the early twenty-first century, the complex culture that has developed in Chabon’s Alaska face eviction with the end of their lease, and dark geopolitical forces play their part in the death of man once thought to be the Messiah.
2. A sample:
“Landsman has put a lot of work into the avoidance of having to understand concepts like that of the eruv, but he knows that it’s the typical Jewish ritual dodge, a scam run on God, that controlling motherfucker. It has something to do with pretending the telephone poles are doorposts, and that the wires are lintels. You can tie off an area using poles and strings and call it an eruv, then pretend on the Sabbath that this eruv you’ve drawn—-in the case of Zimbalist and his crew, it’s pretty much the whole District—-is your house. That way you can get around the Sabbath ban on carrying in a public place, and walk to shul with a couple of Alka-Seltzers in your pocket, and it isn’t a sin”(110).