Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Seems like I've been on a roll lately with my reading selections. It's been one great book after another for the past year or so, probably stemming from the fact that I made it a point to read as many Hugo- and Nebula-nominated works as possible. And in the case of this latest work, I hit the jackpot by picking a book that won both! Furthermore, it's already been optioned by Hollywood and is currently in pre-production, with the Coen Brothers set to adapt and direct the material. Whoa! I can't think of anyone more suited to make the film version of this than those guys. I love their movies!

Before now, I've only heard of Michael Chabon in passing. Many great things have been said about his Pulitzer Prize-winning title, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I tried to ignore it all. However, I couldn't ignore the veritable cacophony of buzz that surrounded this latest book, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. The glowing praise from Locus Magazine, in particular, is what got me curious to read the novel.

Before I say anything more, however, I'd like to first state something profound: Michael Chabon has changed the way I'll write from now on. Now maybe that's too bold of a statement to be made this soon after reading the book, but I truly cannot fathom how I will ever go back to making the same pedestrian mistakes I've been making thus far in my fiction. Because that's what this book was for me, among other things: a primer on how to friggin write great, effective prose!

But more on that later.

TYPU is an interesting dilemma of a novel for me as a reader. See, I categorically deny the existence of the alternate-history genre. Don't know why, but it's one of those tropes in fiction--particularly genre fiction--that really annoys me. I never see the point in dealing with "what-ifs" when it comes to the past, since by the very nature of the concept, history is immutable. Whatever's been done is done. That's why it's called the "past." Yet, because of the enormous push behind it from literary and genre circles alike, I thought I'd give TYPU a try anyway. I also had to contend with the fact that I'm heavily into hard sci-fi at the moment, and this book is decidedly not that at all. I was kind of surprised it was even nominated for the Nebula, let alone won. And yet, having read the book, I can see why. It may not be about science (imaginary or theorized), but TYPU is definitely steeped in all things speculative. I'm certainly a true believer.

At it's heart, TYPU is a hard-boiled detective story. Yes, much in the tradition of Hammett or Chandler--not to mention Elmore Leonard--but with a purple twist I suspect to be all Chabon's own. The main "what-if" conceit that propels this particular alternate-history version of North America is thus: What if the infamous Slattery Report had gone through in the late 30s and, as a result, thousands of refugee Jews fleeing persecution in Europe during WWII had been allowed to settle in the Alaska Territories? Turns out this is a pretty big "what if," one that has far reaching implications. Just a small slice of this is inferred in the actual book, of course, since the plot takes place in modern times and deals with a more grisly and mundane problem. Suffice it to say that in this alternate history, Hitler defeats Russia (who is, in turn, defeated by the U.S. with the dropping of the A-bomb on Berlin), the Jews never establish Israel, and Japan still controls part of China. These "facts" never intrude on the narrative itself, but the political makeup of this alternate world is in the background nonetheless. Particularly the failure of Zionists to establish a free Jewish state in Palestine.

But back to the hard-boiled detective angle. Like most stories of this ilk, TYPU starts off on the first page with a tidy murder and an off-center detective trying to make sense of it all. In this case, the body belongs to one Emmanuel Lasker (an assumed alias) and the detective is one Meyer Landsman. The setting is Sitka, a district in Alaska populated almost solely by displaced European Jews who speak Yiddish in lieu of Hebrew as the official language. More specifically, the setting is the run-down hotel Zamenhof, where two-bit junkies and down-on-their-luck cops like Landsman rent out a lonely existence. Landsman, appropriately for the genre, is a drunk trying to escape something terrible in his past. But of course he is still a damn good cop, enough to take umbrage at somebody having the gall to off a neighbor of his under his very nose. Sure, he never really knew the sickly heroin addict calling himself Lasker, except that the kid had a penchant for playing chess. But Landsman, smelling something foul at work here, decides to investigate further into the tell-tale clues left behind at the scene of the crime. Chief among them: an unfinished chess game with pieces in a pattern Landsman knows he's seen before.

Eventually the story widens out to incorporate the aforementioned attempt to wrest back the holy city from the Arabs, a plot which has more to do with Lasker's death than Landsman or his colleagues initially realize. How a dead drug addict and chess Wunderkind could be central to the plot of establishing a Jewish state in and around Jerusalem is the core "gotcha" conceit of the entire novel, but I can say that the conclusion was definitely not something I saw coming. Like the incredulous and disbelieving protagonist, Chabon managed to even convince me that maybe there is something like true wonder in the world. I mean, wow!

To say I love this book is an understatement. The writing is simply a thing of beauty. It might not be everyone's cup of tea (you have to be patient with the healthy dose of real Yiddish words and phrases peppering the dialogue, for one), but as someone receptive to the whole writerly process, it was an eye-opener for me. I think Chabon's use of language is simply brilliant, no two ways about it here. Due to the nature of the genre, the prose is clipped yet active. It's atypically written in the 3rd-person, but I think it's a choice that works extremely well here. Kudos to Chabon for making me a believer that excessive purple descriptors like "a thief wind" and "pregnant clouds" has a place and purpose in SF stories of this ilk. Some people are against this type of colorful writing, but I'm not one of them. I just never thought it could be used so effectively like this. Although, to be honest, there really is no better place for this style than with a good, old fashioned detective story.

Like I said, this book has changed the way I look at writing. I'm excited to try some of Chabon's boldness, for lack of a better word, in my own stories to come. None of them will be about self-destructive "Yids" dreaming of the proverbial land of milk and honey promised to them, but I'm sure a Landsman- or Berko-like (his reluctant partner and "cousin") character will be showing up in one of my future works. :-) The energy of this book is simply too palpable not to rub off!

For those of you looking for a fast, colorful, and wildly hilarious (at times) SF entry to add to your busy reading schedule, this is perhaps the one and only book you should be reading right now. If it seems as if I'm heaping untoward amounts of giddy praise on something that can't possibly be ALL THAT, then go out and read it for yourself. Afterwards, come back and call me a liar. I double dare you!

It really is that good.

Rating: A++


cindy said...

did not read entire post for fear of spoilers--but love that you gave it such high marks. i'm looking forward to the read--too many books and not reading during revisions for debut. =) david, wait till you see my book cover. i think you'll love it.

David J. Batista said...

Don't worry, didn't have any spoilers except for discussing the worldbuilding that's in the background of the story. But, if you want to go into it blind, like I did, then I think you will be pleased.

Oh, and you have no idea how badly I want to see the cover for Silver Phoenix! I really think the girl that was settled on was the best out of all the models you showed.

Did you see the Mummy 3? I thought the Chinese girl in that was pretty good, too. It's funny, but I immediately thought of your book when I saw her! :-)

cindy said...

david, i didn't see the mummy 3. i couldn't get a sitter. i should have gone by myself without m. but it got panned by the critics? i love jet li, tho. love!

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