Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

Sometimes the books we read let us down, and sometimes, more rarely, we let down the books we read. I feel like I didn't do a very good job of reading this novel. I'm not going to kill myself over it - it happens sometimes. I kept having to break off to do speed-reads of books in French, and it got to the point where I would begin reading where I had left off two or three nights earlier and would have absolutely no clue what was going on.

As I said, this is mostly my fault, rather than the book's, I think, but it has to be said that this is a peculiarly demanding novel. I don't mean that in a bad way. I consider myself a Michael Chabon fan, having loved the previous two novels I read by him - Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - and even in spite of my erratic reading habits during this one, I still enjoyed it, still regard it as an original and beautifully written detective story with a speculative twist (what if the state of Israel had collapsed in 1948 and the world's Jews had moved to Alaska?). But I have a feeling I didn't get as much pleasure and satisfaction out of it as I should have. Tellingly, when I got to the end, I turned the page, expecting another chapter, and felt an odd mixture of disappointment and relief at realizing the book's remaining pages contained only interviews and biographical material.

So, what made it so demanding? Partly the style, which is similar to Chabon's other works (dense, poetic, witty, a startling blend of slang and lyricism) but with more compressed sentences and a fairly thick sprinkling of Yiddish (and made-up Yiddish) words. Partly the plot, which is extremely complex and (unless I'm just misunderstanding it) pretty improbable.

I also have to admit that the title was a bit of a turn-off. Maybe it's just me, but I can't help thinking that 'Yiddish', 'Policemen' and 'Union' are three of the least sexy words in the English language. (I have no problem with 'The', though. In fact, I'm a big fan of 'The'. Old-fashioned it might be, but a good 'The' at the beginning of a book title always makes me think I'm in for a real story, rather than just a clever collection of observations.)

Anyway, I'm not going to describe the plot, because it's too complicated and absurd, but I would just like to say that the bookjacket comparisons to Chandler and Hammett are way off the mark. This is much more literary than a simple noir thriller. Maybe there's a hint of homage to it in places, but it's a long way short of a pastiche. The characters are real, the emotions are real. It just happens to have a detective and a mystery (involving a murder).

I'll probably read it again one day (one day when my life is less busy), just to see if the problem really was me rather than the book.

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