Thursday, August 18, 2011

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007)

First things first:  in the Coen Brothers film of this that's playing in my mind, Adrian Brody plays Landsman and Sarah Silverman plays Bina.  I won't take no for an answer.

Another summer, another cold-weather noir.  Just a coincidence;  as is the fact that the last few books I've read in English have all been crime/mystery/noir/thriller type things.  Michael Chabon, whose career I've been aware of for a while, although this is the first thing of his I've gotten around to reading.  The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007).  I probably would have read it even if I'd never heard of Chabon:  the cover is one of the coolest pieces of graphic design I've seen in years.

It's a masterpiece on more levels than I can do justice to in a blog post.  As an alternate history it's tantalizing, giving a glimpse of a present that could have been but isn't (but at the same time is too, if you know what I mean);  and the achievement here is all the more impressive because it's a noir.  The Sitka, Alaska that Chabon imagines as a Jewish metropolis on the West Coast is required, by the rules of the genre if nothing else, to be a dark and dangerous place, full of festering evil and squalor. And it is:  but somehow Chabon also manages to make you wish the place really existed. 

(Is it just that one really, really wishes for a place, in contemporary America, where you can wear fedoras and listen to jazz-rock klezmer and have it be a mainstream pursuit?  Is it [somewhat less facetiously] that one suspects that a densely packed city of four million in the Pac Northwest would have an interesting effect on the cities we've already got?  What would Seattle, Portland, Vancouver be like with a megalopolitan Sitka up north?  The urbanist in me is intrigued.)

As alternate history it's also, of course, really a secret history of this timeline, our own, and as such it's - well, tantalizing is the word I'll use here, too, because of the way Chabon keeps his critique of contemporary America in view, even in reach, but just out of grasp.  With much of the Jewish immigration of the war and postwar years diverted, seemingly, to Sitka, Chabon's alternate America of 2007 is a much more Gentile place, which seems to have contributed to an even stronger tendency toward Christianist politics than we were already seeing in 2007.  So his take on what the rest of the US is like, outside of Sitka, is pretty clear, and yet hardly fleshed out at all - all we get are glimpses, off-hand remarks.  We're left wanting much more, but this frustration forces us to concentrate that much harder on the details we do have, which in turn drives home Chabon's critique.  This is how you do it.

As a noir...well, I posted that bit about Walter Mosley's writing style partly in preparation for this post.  Mosley's style is awesome, but not particularly original:  he's employing what I think we'd all agree is the standard thriller style.  The hallmark of which is functionality:  first of all, tell us what happens. Keep it simple and vivid, so the reader is never knocked out of the story, is pulled along powerfully to the end.  It doesn't have to be Hemingway-sparse, but embellishments should be kept to a minimum:  terse and wry.  Mosley does this style extremely well, but he didn't invent it;  in fact, perhaps the central pleasure of the Rawlins books is in how he appropriates this style and adapts it to a black narrator so that it takes on whole new meanings.

Chabon doesn't write like that.  His sentences are embellished, adorned, wrought.  There's something to knock you out of the story every few lines, some clever turn of phrase or elegantly complicated formulation of thought.  You have to read his paragraphs twice sometimes to get the gist.  This shouldn't work - it should feel like what it is, a literary writer flirting with a genre that most would consider beneath him, and ignoring (perhaps through ignorance) one of its central conventions.

But in fact he makes it work.  The plot and the subtext are quite absorbing enough to compensate for the prose's unwillingness to let you race through it, and the prose itself is beautiful.  It comes bearing its own gifts.

A randomly-selected sentence from p. 3:
According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy.
We've already, in the first couple of pages, had to get used to Chabon's decision to narrate the book in the present tense, not a bad choice aesthetically by any means but still a deviation from the norm that takes some getting used to.  And we're still trying to process the perfectly evocative but determinedly unexplained details that bring Sitka to such vivid life, such as the fact that Landsman's drink of choice is plum brandy - what is this, and what does it mean?  So the sentence is already carrying a lot of weight - and then he goes and tosses in this image of the man's moods as a set of tubes and crystals - evoking a home-made radio, perhaps?  An unfamiliar image in 2007, to say the least. 

So, yeah, I had to read this one twice.  But what did I get when I did?  The moods-as-primitive-radio comparison is a nice one, and the image of bashing those delicately-assembled parts to bits with a hammer - an improvised one, no less - is a great one for reckless drinking (implying impatience with one's inability to get the radio to work, to pick up the signal one wants, to play soothing music?  his moods are uncooperative, and so he breaks them?).  And the image-quality of the sentence - tubes and crystals (which we can't help but imagine shattering), not just "liquor" but "hundred-proof plum" (nice alliteration) "brandy" (nice rhythm) - is great.  This is intense writing.  Good stuff.

What this book is, is a classic example of a, like I say, literary writer flirting with a lowly genre (or two or three), and flouting its conventions (some of them), and coming up with something that works anyway, pleases anyway, both as genre fiction and serious literature.  This is how you do it.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Oh, man, Chabon! I agree entirely with the last paragraph: Chabon is the king of using genre fiction materials (which he clearly loves) in a "high-literary" way, without being patronizing or tiresome. Nerditate, I entered through the Kavalier and Clay door, but he has yet to disappoint me. Looking forward to more writes-up on his oeuvre.