Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Michael Chabon
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

The reason this book is considered science fiction – and one of the reasons it probably got so much attention – is because it is set in a provocative alternate history. Aside from that, it is really a murder mystery, and not a very riveting one. And it has one major problem, which I will get into in a minute.

The main character, Meyer Landsman, is a homicide detective. He lives in the Alaskan panhandle, in the district of Sitka, which was granted to Jewish refugees on a 60-year lease following the collapse of the state of Israel shortly after World War II. Ever since they began moving in, there has been a tension between the Jewish settlers and the already-resident Alaskans, both native and white.

When the book opens, it is 2007 and the 60-year settlement lease is due to expire in two months. This means that every Jewish person living in the region will need to either get Alaskan permission to stay or will have to move elsewhere. This weighs over everyone throughout the story, especially Detective Landsman, who has done zero preparation for it.

The mystery begins when a man is found murdered in the same fleabag hotel where Landsman is living. Landsman and his partner spend the book solving the case, along the way coping with sinister and corrupt religious fanatics, asocial chess club members, and a police hierarchy that wants to sweep all outstanding homicides under the rug so they can hand over a clean slate to the incoming Alaskan regime.

Sounds good, right?

The major problem, the downfall from which there is no escape, is the writing. Chabon gets a lot of kudos from reviewers for his “smart,” “inventive,” “funny,” and “sharp” style. But I have to say I found it obnoxious.

I have broken my stylistic complaints into three categories.

Complaint One: Tense

This book is told in the present tense. I always find that hard to get used to. Why do authors do that? Is it supposed to create a special mood or sense of heightened drama?

It doesn’t help that this book is full of flashbacks which are told in the past tense. I found it jarring to be coasting along in a nice past-tense flashback and then slamming back into the disconcertingly present-tense main story line.

Complaint Two: Terms

Chabon uses a lot of slang terms for Jewish people or culture. To use a relatively tame example, the Jewish characters all use the word “yid” a lot when referring to themselves or others. I’m sure that Chabon is trying to reclaim the term, the way other minority groups have reclaimed and co-opted derogatory names for themselves. But I don’t have quite the comfort level I need to have with it to read it without cringing a bit.

Complaint Three: Painfully Forced Cleverness

The writing is amazingly, annoyingly, self-consciously clever. He particularly likes to use deliberately quirky metaphors and similes, which are everywhere.

Occasionally it sort of works…
“Scraps of newsprint, leaves, and dust get up impromptu games of dreydl in the archways of the houses.”

“His thoughts are a tattoo needle inking the spade on an ace. They are a tornado going back and forth over the same damn pancaked trailer.”

The village is “a row of steel roofs along an inlet, houses jumbled like the last ten cans of beans on a grocery shelf before the hurricane hits.”
But most of the time… not so much. If I may give you just a tiny sample.
“His teeth are like the pipes of an organ made of bones. His laugh sounds like a handful of rusty forks and nail heads clattering on the ground.”

“The knot of his gold-and-green rep necktie presses its thumb against his larynx like a scruple pressing against a guilty conscience.”

“An invisible gas clouds his thoughts, exhaust from a bus left parked with its engine running in the middle of his brain.”

“The Sitka Saturday afternoon lies dead as a failed messiah in its winding rag of snow.”

A woman’s snoring “has a double-reeded hum, the bumblebee continuo of Mongolian throat-singing. It has the slow grandeur of a whale’s respiration.”

A motorcycle sounds like “The hacking cough of an old man. A heavy wrench clanging against a cold cement floor. The flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp.”
These are often piled one after the other after the other.

The worst part is that every time I encountered one of these gems, it was so distracting that it completely stopped the flow of my reading. In addition to just marveling at its audacity, I’d often have to interpret what the heck it meant. This made it very, very hard to remember what was going on, which in turn made it almost impossible to maintain interest in the story.

If I may use my own simile, it was like riding in a car where the driver keeps randomly applying the brake and then the gas, brake and gas, brake and gas, until you want to scream.

One recurring pattern was for smells to be described in ultra-witty sets of three:
The saunas smell like “chlorine and armpit and a ripe salt vapor that might on second thought have been the pickle factory on the ground floor.”

A sofa gives off “a strong Sitka odor of mildew, cigarettes, a complicated saltiness that is part stormy sea, part sweat on the lining of a wool fedora.”

Standing on the top of his apartment building, “Landsman can smell fish offal from the canneries, grease from the fry pits at the Pearl of Manila, the spew of taxis, an intoxicating bouquet of fresh hat from Grinspoon’s Felting two blocks away.”
Whoops, that last one had four witty smells.

About 100 pages in, it started to become a game: what self-consciously odd combination is he going to come up with this time?

One thing I will give this book is that the cover of the hardcover edition is awesome. It takes key elements of the story – a Verbover’s beard and ringlets, a menorah, a gun, a chess piece – and incorporates them into a Tlingit-style design appropriate to the region.

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