Friday, August 22, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

There's something daunting about reviewing a major award-winning book, especially a recent one. A question that the reader faces is one of cause—what about this book makes it worthy of an award. And that's a shame, since good books (which award-winners are supposed to be) usually have enough content for the reader to contemplate without worrying about that kind of overhead.

Michael Chabon's latest book is a multiple-award winner, and a damned fine detective novel to boot. Set in an alternate history where, among other differences, the nation of Israel has not been established and the Jews live in a diaspora, with a reserved place for them in Sitka, Alaska. And as the novel starts out, we find that that status is about to be removed, and the Jews will come under American supervision. There are a few other differences in history slipped in almost casually—"Marilyn Monroe Kennedy" for example, and the US apparently dropped an atomic bomb on Berlin to end World War II—but overall, these differences aren't what drives the book. Instead, we meet Meyer Landsman, a typical down-on-his-luck police detective who has divorced the woman he loves and is plodding out the days left before the reversion to America when a corpse is found in the fleabag hotel he lives in. And off we go on a noir detective story, as Landsman decides he must solve the case despite the corruption around him, and those forces of corruption, with a curious Jewish accent, are determined to make him fail.

It's astonishing that a Jewish noir detective has not happened before (or if it has, didn't achieve much prominence) because the stereotype of the Jew perfectly fits the expectation of the noir detective: when he is down on his luck, the world is clearly out to get him and he wants little to do with it. And nobody loathes themselves in the way that Jews in fiction seem to. And so with this detective and his half-Indian cousin/partner, we set off through the Jewish underworld. As the story moves along, we are introduced to Landsman's family, friends, and co-workers, including his sources of information. And we discover that Landsman's life really was tragic and ultimately intimately wrapped up with the solution to the murder.

And like good noir novels, the city becomes a character in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, taking life from Chabon's descriptions and sometimes acting apparently on its own. It's clear that Landsman loves his city, almost to the exclusion of everything else in his life, and if he could find a way to stay there forever, surrounded by those he loves only a little bit less, his days would be glorious. But like the noir detective stereotype, he has pushed all of his loved ones away and now mostly acts completely alone, despite the grudging aid those pushed away from him sometimes offer. And lest you begin to think that Chabon is simply following the formula of the noir story, he inserts Yiddish language and slang to remind us that this isn't a run-of-the-mill story. Nonetheless, it feels quintessential, ticking off the stereotypes and clich├ęs as the story goes on. And coupled with Chabon's obvious joy with the English language, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a word fancier's delight. Passages show a great deal of craft and could act as a primer for how to write with a personal sense of style.

(and here is where I jeopardize my future authorial and critical career) But about those awards….

The Yiddish Policemen's Union has won the most recent Hugo and Nebula awards as the best science-fiction or fantasy novel of the past year. And no doubt it is good writing, and I would enjoy reading it under any circumstances. But I have a hard time accepting the premise of its reception of those awards, because I have some strong doubts about its nomination as a science-fiction or fantasy novel. Obviously this is a novel set in an alternative history, where somewhere along the American chronology things happened differently, causing the US to drop an atomic bomb on Berlin for example. The book doesn't care about describing the diversion point in the history of the novel: it only provides a setting where Chabon can tell his story. It doesn't concentrate on the repercussions of those changes beyond its effects on the story of the life of Meyer Landsman. I suppose a reader could view it as very sophisticated and subtle science fiction, but that line of reasoning devolves into an argument about genre classification—which I am more than willing to do, but not necessarily in a review of a book. It also requires the reader to believe that alternate history is a genre of science fiction, an assumption I'm not willing to make. It plays around the edges in such a way that a really thoughtful reader would ask the questions of the genre that I have hinted at here. Fortunately, I know from interviews that one of Chabon's goals is to play with genre definitions, trying in some ways to obliterate them so that works often ignored by critics because they fit in a genre can get some credit for just being good books.

Take for example, Chabon's remarkable, and Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Before the book hit the market, who would have thought that a loving homage to comics in general and the creators of Superman specifically—with a quasi-fantasy setting no less—would get accepted by mainstream readers, let alone win the awards it did? And by writing "mainstream" fiction with elements of snubbed genres, the wider world of those genres are opened up. This means that, for instance, Chabon isn't using the genres while looking down his nose at them; he loves them. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is apparently a stunning example of post-apocalyptic fiction, but no one outside the critics of genre have pointed out the long history such writing has had in the field of science-fiction. And McCarthy hasn't been going about championing his book as an example of the power and majesty of science-fiction. And Chabon actually has.

So maybe it's a good thing that a mainstream book has won science-fiction's most prestigious award. But at the same time, I feel for the excellent writers who didn't win, completely lost in the shadows of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Maybe it makes a good gateway drug to the types of writing that I love, but if anyone were to approach me about a good alternate history novel, this one would not be at the top of my list. But it is near the top of my list for its use of the detective genre, one I would like to see more of anyway.

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