Monday, December 31, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

When this book was originally published in May, I was planning to get a copy from my employer and read it relatively quickly. And that shows what happens to plans...

I haven't read any of Chabon's previous novels, but I certainly know about him. (I've had Kavalier & Clay on the to-be-read shelves for several years now, for example.) The interesting thing to me about Chabon's career is that he still sees himself as a literary writer semi-slumming in genre fields (with Kavalier being about comics, Yiddish an alternate history detective novel, the YA fantasy Summerland, the detective novella The Final Solution and the new Michael Moorcock homage The Gentlemen of the Road). I see someone whose last "mainstream" book was a decade ago and who hasn't quite come out to himself yet.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union's flap copy tries to make the book sound larger and encompassing many genres -- it even throws in "love story," in its desperate attempt to keep it from seeming like an identifiably genre book -- but it's really not that complicated. It's a Chandleresque detective story (though shorn of most of Chandler's reflexive sexism) set in an alternate history that Chabon means to be taken seriously. Chabon's Federal District of Sitka is no joke, metafictional or otherwise; it's a living, breathing place and the real home of his characters. He's constructed it carefully, thinking through the implications and possibilities with real skill and verve -- worldbuilding as a true artist can, when he has a world worth building. At the same time, Chabon never stoops to explaining his world to the reader -- he steeps us in it, makes us live there alongside his characters, so we come to know it in bits and pieces, as we know our own world.

The Federal District of Sitka, Alaska exists because Israel failed -- the war of 1948 had a different outcome in this world, and most if not all of the Jews living there at the time were slaughtered. (But there are hints that this was not the changepoint; this world was different from our own from at least 1941.) The US provided a "temporary" refuge for millions of displaced Jews (mostly German, it seems) in Alaska -- with a sixty-year lease. Yiddish Policemen's Union takes place at the end of 2007, mere months before the District goes back into the hands of the local Tlingits. (Who have their own decades-long history of border disputes and flashpoints with the Sitkaniks by this point.)

Meyer Landsman is a cop, a homicide detective told to clear up all of the open cases -- one way or another -- in the next six weeks. But he's just discovered another dead man, a former chess prodigy and current heroin addict living under an assumed name in the same shabby hotel as Landsman. Since this is that kind of book, and Landsman is that kind of cop, he can't help but follow the case. He can't help but shove his nose where he shouldn't, follow threads better left alone, and connect things that those in power would prefer to be unconnected.

The ending doesn't entirely work; it falls halfway between a bleak literary ending and a traditional detective-story's catharsis, as if Chabon either couldn't decide or was trying to have it both ways. But the novel works; it pulls us into Landsman's head and his world, and holds us there from first page to last. Unlike many alternate histories, Landsman's world isn't clearly worse (or better) than our own -- it's muddled, and full of problems, but still a world, still a place to live in and make a life. Some points of the worldbuilding see Chabon making particular contemporary parallels, but he's still enough of a literary writer to keep one eye on the judgement of fifty-years-hence, which keeps him from getting too strident.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is one of the better SF novels of the year; I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the Hugo or Nebula shortlists. (Assuming the Nebulas manage to get a shortlist together at all.) I don't think it's quite as impressive within the larger sphere of novels full stop, but it's still a damn good book. I should probably read me some more Chabon.

1 comment:

Molly Moloney said...

You really, really need to move Kavalier and Clay up to the very top of your to-read pile. Like now!

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