Friday, October 17, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I recall that once my favorite English teacher from high school noticed that I was reading Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, a book he admitted to having read but didn't seem to care for. "Well," he said, "I'll say this--the man knows how to spin a good yarn." It wasn't really a compliment, but I think that his sarcasm betrayed a certain notion that plot is somehow subordinate to Big Ideas. Is that notion misguided or justified? I'm not certain--but surely to dismiss Wolfe's plot-making ability as little more than quality weaving is to slight a literary skill too rare in modern literature.

Such is the recorded opinion of Michael Chabon, who admits to missing the "ripping yarns" of the genre fiction of yore. It's in that vein that he delivers The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a hulking Frankenstein's monster cobbled from bits of alternative history, Philip Marlowe novels, and Rothian postmodernism. Though YPU provides enough material philosophical and spiritual for the reader to ruminate upon, it is first and foremost a novel of things happening, meant to be marveled at. Though it may be a fruitless task, I will attempt to synopsize:

The divergence point of Chabon's alt-history is the 1948 death by car crash of Anthony Dimond, representative of the territory of Alaska to Washington. Apparently in our world it was Dimond who squashed Harold Ickes' proposal to create a protected Federal district for the temporary residence of Jews in Sitka, Alaska. In Chabon's world, the proposal passes with Dimond out of the way, and soon millions of Jews are seeking refuge in the Sitka District: The "Frozen Chosen."

Fast forward to 2008, the 60-year anniversary of the settlement, and the expiration date of the agreement, which means that "Reversion" is imminent for the Jewish district and soon most of Alaska's three million Jews will be refugees once again. If that wasn't story enough for you, Chabon layers on top of this the story of Meyer Landsman, a detective investigating a gunshot homicide perpetrated in his own building that seems to have ties to the Verbovers, a powerful and mafia-like Orthodox sect of Jews that live on a nearby island.

If that isn't enough for you, wait! I haven't even mentioned that Landsman's partner is also his cousin and half Tlingit Indian, or that his father was a chess prodigy and his uncle a former police chief disgraced by accusations of embezzlement, or that Landsman left his ex-wife because he couldn't bear dealing with the pain of having convinced her to have an abortion, or that the homicide victim is reputed to have been the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the once-in-a-generation would-be Messiah, or that the victim's death is somehow related to Landsman's sister's death in a plane crash, or that all of this seems to be tied into a shadowy conspiracy cooked up between Alaskan Hasidim and the evangelical United States president to return Israel to Jewish control. Whew. Breathe.

Clearly, The Big Sleep, this is not--Raymond Chandler's tight and careful plotting produced books under 200 pages; Chabon doubles that but stuffs in enough that it would have felt more comfortable at twice that again. But while Chabon hasn't quite got the noir genre's laconicness down pat, he does a good job with Landsman, into whom he funnels as much of Philip Marlowe's personality as is possible. The genius of this lies in the dialogue--I had never made the connection between the kind of rapid-fire quips that characterize noir and the brusque recursiveness of Jewish humor, but there it is. I am reminded of Mastrionotti and Deutsch* from the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink; it is no surprise that it is the Coens who are slated to begin filming YPU early next year.

But back to the book. Reading it feels like traveling through the legendary and labyrinthine Warsaw tunnels which run beneath Sitka, but when you emerge on the other side, what are you left with? For one, you are left with a mess. It's hard not to feel that YPU has a few ideas too many, and some of them could have been left on the cutting-room floor. For another, you are left with the unfortunate conclusion that while you weep for the fate of the Jews, for whom the Disapora comes with a countdown this time around, it is much more difficult to feel pity for the individual characters of this novel, who are drawn a little too broadly and rely a little too heavily on their archetypes.

Thirdly, you may be left with the opinion of Richard Johnson of the New York Post, who titles his Page Six piece "Novelist's Ugly Views of Jews." This is, of course, the Post, which could sensationalize a ham sandwich, but I wish to briefly unpack the criticism here: Mainly Johnson takes issue with the fact that YPU "depicts Jews as constantly in conflict with one another, and its villains are a ruthless, ultra-Orthodox sect that resembles the Lubavitchers." What exactly is Johnson's understanding of Judaism today, that its various sects are friendly in a way that the splinter denominations of Islam and Christianity have failed to be since their inception? In fact, I think that Chabon's depiction of internecine conflict among the Sitka Jews is one of the novel's great successes; in a population of three million Jews with no Palestinians to brush against (though the native Indians serve this position to some extent), isn't it natural that such issues would arise along sectarian and secular lines? Johnson's criticism is pure silliness, and I have not seen it repeated by any respectable source.

And yet, let me bring up something that Johnson does not: One of the most poisonous and absurd claims made about Jews today is that they have extensive control over world institutions like the media and the United States Government. This idea is particularly pervasive in Islamic communities and the controversial specter of it taints even serious academic work, like Mearsheimer and Walt's claims about the undue influence of the Israel Lobby. By presenting a "ripping yarn" in which a cabal of Orthodox Jews plot to undermine the stability of world events, isn't Chabon playing into the hands of such absurdity? And even if the Post is too dim to pick up on it, doesn't that in a way back up their claims that YPU reinforces an ugly stereotype?

That question is more rhetorical than it sounds; I bring up the issue only to bring it up and would probably argue against it in the end. But I do think that it contributes to one aspect that did leave a bad taste in my mouth: YPU, for all its concern with religious issues, seems at times to have a rather uncomplex attitude toward religion in general. Though we might argue about the significance of it, the villains of the novel are conspiratorial Jews--and its heroes are humorous, self-effacing, Woody Allen-like ones--and what's more, they're aided by an amoral and evangelical president who wants to bring on the End Times. Though I understand this is the perception many have of our sitting president, it seems to me to evidence a certain lack of nuance on Chabon's part. There is no worth, I believe, in fiction that does not subvert our expectations, and while Chabon distracts us with the aurora borealis of conceit and plot, the cast lacks the capability to surprise us.

Don't think that I'm not recommending the book, I am--sometimes a good story is good enough. Let us not forget that one of the most powerful people in Jewish Sitka is Itzak Zimbalist, the boundary maven. It is against Jewish law to carry anything across boundaries on the Sabbath, a law circumvented by creating makeshift boundaries with rope, cable or wire around entire communities, and it is the boundary maven who is in charge of keeping this border, the eruv, intact. So do not doubt the power of string, the effectiveness of a "good yarn."


Christopher said...

*Interesting sidenote: In Barton Fink, Mastrionotti and Deutsch symbolize Italy and Germany, respectively, as the movie itself allegorizes the rise to power of Nazism and Fascism in the 1930's. Just interesting to see that the Coens use the noir detective schtick to characterize two very anti-Semitic figures, while Chabon does, of course, the opposite.

Nihil Novum said...

This book sounds very complex.

Nathan said...

I think Chabon's "Maps and Legends" is his response to criticism that his books weren't symbolic enough, and his argument that there's value in a great story for the sake of storytelling. It's got a real pretty cover.