Harper Collins, 2007, 414 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-00-714982-7
This book’s a mystery to me.
Yes, I know it’s a genre mystery: Stories of policemen investigating murders can’t be anything else, even when they take place in an alternate reality where a Jewish state was established in Alaska at the end of the forties. Think of elements of police mysteries, and they’re in the book: the down-on-his-luck investigator, the victim, the mob, the clues, the investigations, the romantic complications… Michael Chabon has written a good solid piece of crime fiction, and that part’s no mystery. And if that’s not enough, there’s bits of fantasy, thriller, science-fiction and romance here and there.
No, what really grabs me as I finish the novel is how little I cared for it even as I can recognize all of the elements that usually compel me. To put it bluntly, it took me weeks to finish the book. I never felt any desire to pick it up, except for the duty to finish it. Even as I noticed clever bits, they never gave me a reason to be involved with the story. I now read other reviews, and they all seem to be talking about a much better book, even when I can vouch for their factual exactitude. (And that’s why you should really look elsewhere if you’re hoping for a meticulous and dispassionate analysis of the novel’s characteristics.)
From afar, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has it all: Murder mysteries? Alternate histories? Geopolitical implications? Bring them on! The idea of an Alaskan Jewish territory is novel enough to be intriguing, and the mechanics of setting a mystery in an exotic settings has worked for other writers from Tony Hillerman on down. Even the Wikipedia summary of the book has me recalling neat moments and telling details.
But the reality of reading the book is different. Part of it is the Yiddish question. It may seem strange to criticize a book for the density of its imagined cultural references when I’m an enthusiastic graduate from the school of SF With Weird Aliens, but the key is that the Yiddish culture of the book isn’t that imagined. Every page of the novel carried along the sound of specific references whooshing over my gentile head. Every. Single. Page.
Worse: a lot of the in-jokes and clever references were not decipherable from the text itself, as is usual from wholly-imagined alien cultures. Lack of knowledge is a terrible and difficult thing to admit, but so I must confess for you to understand why I didn’t get from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union the charge that other readers seems to have enjoyed. As I (weakly) edit this review, the novel (a mainstream bestseller) has won the Sidewise, Nebula, Locus and Hugo Awards: an rare coup that suggests that a lot of people actually loved the novel. (Whether it deserves any of the “best science-fiction novel of the year” accolades is another bloody debate for another time.)
So, hey, I report and you make up your own mind.
This being said, I’ve got the feeling that this is a book that I may enjoy a lot more the second time around, probably shortly after the movie inevitably makes its way to theaters. That’s the great thing about objectively good books that don’t quite click: there’s always another chance to change our minds.