Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Harper Perennial, 2007)

In 1940 the United States reluctantly creates a Jewish enclave at Sitka in Alaska. In 1946 an atomic bomb is dropped on Germany and two years later the Jews are forced from Palestine. With few places to go, Jews from around the world flock to Sitka. Sixty years later over three million Jews are crammed into the densely populated space and the date of Reversion back to full U.S. sovereignty is fast approaching. No-one is quite sure what will happen then, but the rush to find a new homeland in a world that does not want them is on. Detective Meyer Landsman though has his own problems – separated from his wife, he’s a drink problem, is living in crummy room in a downbeat hotel, has too many open homicide cases, and is haunted by the death of his sister. Then a fellow resident is murdered, shot in the back of the head, whilst playing chess. His new boss, his ex-wife, tells him to blacklist the case, but Meyer is hooked by a nagging feeling that there is more to the death than it first appears. Aided by his homicide partner, Berko Shemets, his first cousin, he starts to investigate. Soon he gunless, badgeless and up to his neck in trouble, but determined to uncover the reason for the chess player’s death.

If I was going to have a go at characterising The Yiddish Policemen’s Union I’d say it was the bastard child of Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. Chabon, like these authors, is a wordsmith, crafting beautiful, lyrical and weighty sentences. He also has their imagination and vision to create entire worlds. Unlike them, he’s created a story that is needlessly long, the narrative bloated by unnecessary back story and superfluous description. This serves to highlight his craft, but it’s at the expense of the story, so that the pacing is uneven, dissipating the tension that should have been present. The result was a reading experience similar to watching an overly long, indulgent movie with great cinematography, but a plodding, uneven storyline. Fans of well crafted prose will undoubtedly love the book, but the bottom line for me is always the story. With at least a twenty five percent cut in length, and prose as concise and sharp as Chandler or Gibson, this could have been a classic (the story is there, it’s just wrapped up and deadened by too much descriptive prose). As it stands, for my mind, the book illustrates what happens when you try to write genre fiction in a literary style without fully appreciating what makes a genre appealing to its readers (or at least this reader). Chabon sure can write, but sometimes less is more.


Bernadette in Australia said...

At least you finished it Rob, I never did. I loved Chabon's earlier book (Adventures of Cavallier and Klay) but this one was just too frustrating for me. I like your 'bastard child' description though

Rob Kitchin said...

I did struggle in places, especially when the pace dropped to a crawl, but I got there in the end. It was disappointing because as I said in the review, Chabon can write well. I'm not really sure why it received so many plaudits and awards, other than people were taken with the prose and ignored the flaws in the storytelling.