Tag Archives: Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

<em class="BookTitle">The Yiddish Policemen’s Union</em>, Michael Chabon

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.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

Random House, 2000, 639 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 0-312-28299-0

Now that is one amazing book.

Deftly mixing such disparate elements as World War II, New York City, Antarctica, homosexuality, the Empire State Building, the Holocaust, movies, Picasso and -above all- comic books, it’s a novel unlike any other, straddling history, alternate reality and a little bit of traditional fantasy. More than simply a snapshot of America between 1939 and 1954, more than a rags-to-riches story of successful artists, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay also stands as one of the few works compelling to both genre and mainstream audiences.

It was inevitable, I suppose; after years of increasing literary sophistication in the comic book field, it was about time that someone on the other side of the fence took an interest in the world comic books. Michael Chabon isn’t merely just any mainstream author, though; without even looking at his biography, his love of comics shines through the book like a lighthouse. But as he sets out to tell the astounding story of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, it’s also obvious that he’s doing a lot more than pay homage to the wonderful Golden Age of Comics.

1939: After many misadventures (soon described in the book’s first section), Josef Kavalier arrives in New York, seeking sanctuary as the situation in his hometown of Prague gets worse and worse for all Jews. Scarcely a few days after arrival, Joe and his cousin Samuel Klayman are able, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, to create a brand-new comic book for an ambitious publisher looking for another Superman. Soon enough, “The Escapist” is born and a new age in comic books is underway. Meanwhile, all the way over there in Europe, a war begins.

As Chabon describes the war through the viewpoint of two comic book artists working in New York, sublimating their anger through art and doing their best to get ahead in the comics industry, it quickly becomes obvious that this is a big, big, big novel. Romantic entanglements, family tragedies, period detail and comic book scenarios all intermingle to form a single narrative. It attains a climax of sort on December 7th, 1941, but the story is far from being over; indeed, the next section titled “Radioman” may just be the best part of the book. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an epic story about two guys and the whole world. The depth of detail that Chabon gives to the story is just astonishing; even for casual fans of the era, he manages to seamlessly insert Kavalier, Clay and their Escapist in 1940s New York, all the way to the (hiss!) Wertram era.

But scope and verisimilitude aren’t the only virtues of this novel; more than anything, this is a book that succeeds on great characterizations and superb writing. Chabon is a playful stylist, and so the narrative is told from a modern perspective that recalls the work of an enthusiastic biographer, albeit one with the omniscience required to peek at unread letters and buried feelings. Comic book scripts are dramatized and inserted in the narrative. Some historical cameos will make comic book fans coo with glee. A touch of matter-of-fact fantasy is inserted in the best magical realism tradition. Flashbacks, flash-forwards and dastardly twists are strewn through the whole book. Packed with delicious prose from the first to the last page, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is hard to stop reading after even the first chapter.

But as the title of the novel suggests, it’s Kavalier and Clay themselves, along with the rest of the supporting characters, who make the book such a unique reading experience. The partnership and contrast between tall, quiet, tortured Kavalier and stocky, hustling, equally-tortured Clay is credible even as outlandish events unfold in their lives. Great stuff, enhanced by sympathetic portraits of them both.

All in all, a heck of a book. It has deservedly won a Pulizer prize, but more important, it’s a hugely enjoyable novel with wide appeal in and out the mainstream literary crowd. It’s the sort of thing to make genre fans fall in love with the straight-up fiction category and general audiences pay attention to comic books. Everyone gets ahead!

[May 2004: As I finish my review, I see that a derivative comic book called “The Escapist” is out there, giving tangible form to the comics described in the novel. Neat!]