Review- Chabon, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”

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. ****

Review- Chabon, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”

Review- Rooney, “Normal People”

Sally Rooney, “Normal People” (2018) (narrated by Aoife McMahon) – The title of this work by someone who’s been proclaimed as the great millennial novelist is somewhat misleading- “Depressed Meritocrats” is more like it. But given that much of the action of the novel is motivated by the desire to appear “normal,” it makes sense. It also makes everyone involved miserable.

They also say Sally Rooney is a Marxist, and her works reflect a keen interest in class, especially in her home country of neoliberalism-ravaged Ireland. I’ve even heard reviewers complain that she’s not social realist enough for her declared politics! I didn’t see that to be the case, I think she’s doing her own thing.

In many respects this is a simple story- boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. The boy is Connell, a working-class but popular kid at his high school in rural/suburban Ireland; the girl is Marianne, whose house Connell’s mother cleans. They get together in high school but are plagued by an inability to express emotion, an incapacity made up of the quadruple whammy of neoliberal ennui, traditional working Irish male inexpressiveness, women’s low expectations in the patriarchy, and the fact that they’re teenagers. Connall doesn’t want his friends to know he’s banging Marianne, who’s an outcast for no clear reason beyond being a smart, acerbic girl.

This leads to heartbreak and a role reversal when the two get to Trinity (both are depicted as very smart). Marianne becomes a social favorite of a rich set (their families are repeatedly implicated in Ireland’s financial scandals and crashes), where Connall, a big quiet rural lad, has trouble fitting in. They flit fecklessly around various social circles and in and out of each other’s beds. Through it all, they’re aware of how little waits for them on the other side of college, though I will say, one of them being rich and both of them being successful enough to get into Trinity makes me fear less for their future than I might.

Both suffer from various emotional health issues- depression for both but especially Connell, and masochism and attachment to bad men on Marianne’s part. Both of these are depicted as exacerbated by the social structure they find themselves in, but with a reasonably light touch. Like many millennials, Rooney is plainspoken but avoids ideological didacticism. Marianne’s masochism is depicted as stemming from childhood abuse- is this kind of thing considered “problematic” or “kink-shaming” now? Either way, she has the predicament of wanting to be both understood and loved and treated poorly at the same time. Connall, bring a fairly “normal” guy, has a hard time with this. They wind up together in the end, but tenuously so.

Is this the great millennial novel? Hell if I know. Time will tell, I suppose. It’s pretty good, at least in audiobook, and well-read by actress Aoife McMahon. It feels emotionally “real” throughout, a lot more than I can say of similar middle-class-young-people novels ala Franzen and Eugenides. Something tells me, though, that we have something more, something bigger, to offer the world than tales of flat affect. ****’

Review- Rooney, “Normal People”

Review- Finchelstein, “Transatlantic Fascism”

Federico Finchelstein, “Transatlantic Fascism: Ideology, Violence, and the Sacred in Italy and Argentina, 1919-1945” (2010) – My former professor at the New School, Federico Finchelstein, stakes several interesting claims in this work of transatlantic history. He intervenes in several ongoing debates in fascist studies, among them the question of whether fascism even belongs as a term to anything outside of 1919-1945 Italy, whether there’s such a thing as non-European fascism, and the dreaded “fascist minimum.” His lens on these questions is the relationship between, and comparisons betwixt, Italian fascism and Argentine nacionalismo. The vistas this perspective opens up prove to be interesting ones.

Italy and Argentina had a special relationship in the early twentieth century, as something like forty percent of all Argentines were of Italian descent, product of a massive immigration wave beginning in the last decades of the nineteenth century. When Mussolini took power in Italy, he and other fascists saw Latin America in general and Argentina in particular as potential growth fields. Like a lot of fascist plans, this was more hazy projection than thought out plan, but the Italian foreign service did distribute propaganda in Argentina and try to help its far right along. Here, it was impeded by the parochialism of fascism- convinced of Italian superiority and the superiority of their form of fascism, the Italian fascists failed to make meaningful connections to the far right burgeoning in Argentina in and around the Uriburu dictatorship of 1930-1932. Various pressures kept Argentina out of World War II until it was almost over, but that was the most the country would do to help fascism.

Argentine nacionalismo was influenced by Italian fascism, Finchelstein argues, but didn’t look that much like it, and was sufficiently independent, dedicated to Argentina’s specific mission in the world, to remain an independent force. This is enough to discredit the idea — prevalent with both fascists and, according to Finchelstein, Argentine antifascists — that fascism is a purely imported idea, that Latin American fascism was purely imitative. Argentine nacionalismo had enough of its own features to be its own thing under the sun, though Finchelstein still sees it as part of the fascist spectrum of ideologies and worth being denoted as such. Among other things, nacionalismo, while believing in singular leadership as a principle, didn’t have a singular leader, in part because the first right wing dictator Uriburu died early of natural causes. This led to a cult of the dead leader whose mantle others would pick up. Argentine nacionalismo was also much more Catholic than most other fascisms, though imagined less direct role for the clergy than the Austrian or Spanish regimes.

Finally, Finchelstein argues that while nacionalismo never came to power directly in Argentina, it did definitively shape the Argentine right and the country’s future dictatorships. This includes the peculiar left-right mishmash of Peronism, but more so the military regimes before and after it. In particular, nacionalismo’s emphasis on the enemy as utterly abject, which it has in common with other fascisms like Nazism, found its way into the torture and disappearance regimes for which Argentina became notorious.

In his introduction, Finchelstein places himself as perpendicular to antifascist historiography, and I remember him doing so in the classroom as well. He saw it as distortive in its own right- he opposes fascism, but attempts to understand it in a way antifascists supposedly don’t. I’m not sure what I think of that. I’ve certainly seen some pigheaded intellectual attitudes on the part of antifascists but by and large the ones I’ve worked with have been welcoming of finely grained attempts to understand the enemy. Maybe I just know good ones? Either way, as a practicing antifascist, I recommend this book highly. Contemporary American fascism draws a lot from Latin American models, as their admiration for Pinochet attests, and especially their treatment of enemies as abject beings, so it’s good stuff for people to know about. *****

Review- Finchelstein, “Transatlantic Fascism”