Michael Chabon, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (2007) – Are we still doing the thing where we damn literary fiction and criticism and oppose them to the glories of genre fiction for populist reasons? Or have we caught up to the fact that the literary world is now largely in agreement with said indictment? Sure, there’ll always be highbrows to trot out and lampoon. You can say that contemporary literary figures are genre cherry-pickers, and that’s true enough- genre paeans from literary figures seldom reach past standard-bearer figures like Chandler, Dick, Tolkien, and Octavia Butler. You can say it’s all fake, professorial pseudo-populism, and there’s probably some truth to that, too… but if that’s the case, it’s faked its way into making the careers of Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead, Margaret Atwood, and the topic of today’s discussion, Michael Chabon.
Chabon splashes into not just one but two genres in this one- hardboiled crime fiction, and alternate history science fiction (for which he won the Hugo). The premise is that instead of going to Palestine, Jews post-WWII fled for a special city-state the federal government allotted them in Sitka, Alaska. For assorted reasons, Sitka becomes linguistically and culturally Yiddish rather than choosing the Hebrew language and the sort of Zionist culture Israel developed. This allows Chabon to revel in Yiddish constructs and terminology as he constructs the hardboiled element of his story, the story of a murder in a cheap hotel room of someone who might or might not have been Messiah. Detective Meyer Landsman is on the case, sometimes followed by his half-Tlingit Indian partner Berko and harried by his supervisor and ex-wife Bina.
“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is science fiction, crime fiction, and literary fiction all at the same time, and mostly avoids tripping over its own multiplicity of feet. Beyond the alt-history set-up, it’s not too science-fictional, taking place in the present day, as Sitka’s sixty-year lease to the Jewish refugees is coming up and who knows what sort of new regime looms. As for crime fiction, Chabon takes in and out of various criminal milieux from recently-imported Russian gangsters to small-time chess hustlers (the Sitka settlers are really, really into chess) to assorted Hasidim families-cum-crime families. Ultimately, the latter, their late messiah, and a scheme to find a new chosen land (in rather a hackneyed location) take center stage. Landsman gets beat up, goes on wild goose-chases, doesn’t really meet any knock-out dames except his ex-wife, but otherwise hits the genre beats.
As for literary fiction… part of me is tempted to go Walter Benn Michaels on Chabon. Michaels is a literary critic who insists (even as it gets him in hot water) that much of contemporary literary fiction is “Thatcherite,” that is, denies the existence of society beyond individuals and families. He takes his thesis a large leap forward when he argues that ethnicity, as understood in America nowadays by the literature-reading (read bourgeois) classes, is essentially “family writ large,” as he calls it, so stories about ethnicity are also Thatcherite, neoliberal constructions. Taken to its extreme, this argument (unless Michaels has qualified it elsewhere) could easily be used to dismiss virtually all black American literature, to say nothing of the rest of the collateral damage it could pile up. Michaels is, in some respects, the class-reductionist we’ve al been warned (and warned, and warned) about. But I think his work is a useful corrective to our tendency to get nice and cozy with literary historical fiction, memoirs, and other genres that place the emphasis on either historical wrongs overcome or individuals overcoming individually.
That said, I won’t go Michaels on Chabon. Partially, it would be redundant- Michaels has already done so. But also because while “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” ticks some of Michaels’s boxes about nostalgia and a sort of clannish individualism, it does seem to me to have something to say about the present: that homelands aren’t about a given special piece of territory and millenarian expectations aren’t about a special piece of time, and that those who see them that way are dangerous. For a while, I thought this would turn out to be a Zionist novel- what a disaster it is that Israel didn’t get founded, something terrible is going to happen to them as a consequence. This can be bolstered by the way Chabon presents Palestine in his alternate history as still a basket case, and it’s never resolved in the end what will happen to the Jews of Sitka at large. But I don’t think that’s the point in the end, whatever Chabon’s specific politics on Israel/Palestine happen to be- if it was, presumably, he would have been much more explicit and had different villains. As a literary figure, I think Chabon is both more and less than what he is made out to be. His points aren’t the most slashing, profound points in the world. But they usually manage to be something other than trite, and he has a talent for expositing them in a way that makes you want to read along. That’s good enough for me. ****