28 July 2007

Locus Magazine reviews Michael Chabon

by Gary K. Wolfe

from Locus Magazine, July 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon (HarperCollins 978-0-00-714928, $26.95, 414pp, hc) May 2007.

A map is not a territory, and neither is a genre. The last year or two has seen a great deal of attention paid to high-profile mainstream writers turning to SF tropes — postapocalypse in the case of Jim Crace, Cormac McCarthy, and Matthew Sharpe, alternate history in the case of Philip Roth and others — and in most cases these books have been received by SF readers with all the good nature of Mr. Wilson finding Dennis the Menace in his flower garden. The usual complaints have to do with incomplete homework assignments and reinvented wheels, or even with improper credentials — you have to be this tall to get on this ride — but what it mostly comes down to is a kind of misplaced territoriality, reflected a bit even in the subtitle of this very magazine — the "magazine of the science fiction & fantasy field," as though there were borders and ditches out there somewhere, and maybe a scarecrow or two. Well of course there is a science fiction and fantasy field, but it has more to do with community than with literature, and I suspect the same is true of other genres as well. From a literary point of view, genres don't function very well as fences, and when a Roth or a McCarthy or a Crace decides to borrow familiar-looking material, the question ought not to be whether they've crashed the party wearing last year's clothes (I know, the metaphor shifted), but whether these familiar-looking materials effectively support the vision they're trying to offer us. Or put another way, with yet another metaphor, if we're all so concerned about being consigned to the gutter, why do we keep digging it deeper and worrying about who comes to visit?

All of this, of course, is occasioned by another novel, in this case Michael Chabon's excellent The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which in some senses is a veritable stew of genre materials that nevertheless ends up reading as something that doesn't belong in any genre at all. Chabon's setting is drawn from alternate-history SF, his plot from police procedurals, his dialogue and many of his characters from Chandleresque hard-boiled fiction, and much of his humor from the Jewish-American novel, and he even offers up bits of international conspiracy thrillers and endtime narratives. Chabon has long been a public advocate of genre as nearly the last bastion of the plotted short story — mostly notably in his two McSweeney's anthologies a few years back — but the relationship of the novel to genre is a little more complicated than the relationship of the short story to genre, and what he offers in The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an implied argument a little different from his manifesto-like introductions to those anthologies. What he's arguing, it seems to me, is that a novelist has a perfect right to grab anything off the shelf, if he needs it to complete his engine, and if he handles it with some degree of attentiveness. This may not be news to many novelists, but it might seem challenging to some readers.

Chabon's novel is, in a sense, a late-arriving millennial fiction, set in a world in which the incipient state of Israel collapsed in 1948 and in which Jews fleeing the Holocaust were resettled in federally appropriated land in Sitka, Alaska (apparently an actual proposal forwarded by FDR's interior secretary Harold Ickes). By now Sitka has grown into a sprawling, largely Yiddish-speaking metropolis of more than three million, an unlikely homeland for a community that's taken to calling itself "the frozen Chosen," but there's a catch: at the end of 60 years — now only months away — the land reverts to Alaska, and the tensions that have grown up between the Jews, the native Alaskans, and the Tlingit tribes who want the territory have made the fate of these survivors into an unanswered question — a kind of zugzwang, to borrow a term from the chess game than runs as a continuing metaphor throughout the narrative, meaning a situation in which any possible move will lead to defeat, but in which a move must be made. As the narrative progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that Chabon has indeed been attentive to filling in his alternate world — we learn that an atomic bomb was dropped on Berlin in 1946, for example, and that riots are still a common occurrence in the Middle East, and Chabon works out a clever localized tough-guy patois in which police officers are "latkes," cell phones are "Shoyfers," and guns are "sholems" (imagine Sam Spade in the Yiddish theater). Sitka itself is richly textured with pie shops, seedy hotels, and black-hatted Hasidic gangsters who call themselves the Verboven, although it never quite achieves the scale of a metropolis of three million, and it seems a bit odd that diaspora Jews — or anyone for that matter — when given a chance to grow such a city in the latter half of the 20th century, should choose to end up with a version of San Francisco in the 1940s.

The plot is pure noir: Meyer Landsman (the name itself is a Yiddish term familiar to Eastern European Jews) is a dissolute, alcoholic, recently divorced cop (his ex-wife is now his boss), simply marking time in the weeks left before the Reversion, when he'll likely be out of a job. When he discovers a murder victim in the rundown hotel where he's been staying, he insists on investigating despite the fact that his wife/boss has declared the case closed, as part of an order to clean up unsolved cases before the Reversion occurs. With his colorful partner Berko Shemets, a giant half-Tlingit, half-Jew, he learns that the victim, who has lived under the name of a once-famous chess master, is in fact the son of the Verboven's secret master and may himself have been groomed as the messianic Tdzadik Ha-Dor as part of an elaborate scheme involving the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, a secret rehabilitation "hospital" on a remote Alaskan island, and a conspiracy to commit a major act of international terrorism. In good hard-boiled fashion, the murder leads to ever-widening spirals of revelation and eventually gets solved in a satisfactorily surprising way, but the detective tale is only one aspect of this densely entertaining novel, which in the end depends as much on its alternate-history setting and on its complex characters as on its mystery. Most impressively, Chabon draws these disparate elements together without losing his own palpable sense of fun in being able to do it. Occasionally the fun becomes a bit self-indulgent — there may be a few more Northern Exposure-style eccentrics than are entirely needed, and one chapter begins with three successive paragraphs that end in cutesy Chandleresque similes (a group of highrises huddled "like prisoners rounded up with a powerful hose"; a failed casino development "that lingers in the neighborhood like a strand of tinsel on the branch of a bare tree"; kids in a small apartment "stashed away on the balcony like disused skis") — but maybe all this simply underlines the manic chutzpah that underlies just about every aspect of this remarkable novel. Far from reinventing the wheel, he shows how alternate history can be incorporated into an entirely new kind of vehicle. Besides, whoever said that wheels couldn't use an occasional reinventing?

Read more! This is one of twenty reviews from the July 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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At Thursday, August 02, 2007 3:26:00 PM, Stu Shiffman, Seattle said...

Great review, Gary! I really loved this book, a final follow-up up to the quality of expectations raised by The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

I loved the Yiddish slang. "Shoyfer," of course, for the ram's horn used at Yom Kippur and "sholem" because this word for peace and greeting is appropriate for a "peacemaker."



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