The Yiddish Policemen's Union: 08/06/09
Meyer Landsman is a detective going through a messy divorce and stuck living in a fleabag motel. He just want to drink himself to death and forget about the stresses of his job and his life. Unfortunately for him there's a murder in his hotel and his exwife is now his boss. That's the set up to the murder mystery part of The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.
The mystery takes place in a very different (an alternate) Sitka Alaska. It is in the last few months of a sixty year lease as a temporary refuge for Jews fleeing Europe in WWII. The alternate history part of the novel has earned The Yiddish Policemen's Union a number of science fiction awards but it certainly doesn't read like science fiction; alternate histories rarely do.
Michael Chabon's novel is smack in middle for me of two other altnerate histories I've read: Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (which I loved) and Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (which I didn't finish). Chabon's alternate version of things is interesting and easy to follow. The murder mystery isn't especially clever but would have made a nice cosy 250 page novel.
Together though, the alternate history and mystery compete too much for attention. Chabon focuses so much on pointing out just how well he has thought things through that he doesn't give Meyer Landsman time to investigate or the other characters to live their lives.
Finally there is the culture aspect of the novel. Although different sects are mentioned the characterization is rather flat. In trying to prove the legitimacy of this alternate Sitka Chabon's characters end up trying to out-Jew each other. I get that in this version of things Yiddish is a thriving language and in closed communities people tend to let everything hang out a little more but there is no true sense of sixty years having passed.
These descendants of the original refugees are stereotypes of old world Jews. There's very little influence of Alaska or native Alaskan culture on any of these people. There's no sense of the local geography, geology or weather. Sitka is not Austria, Poland, Germany, Russia or any of the places these refugees would have been coming from. The land and the other people nearby must have had an influence on their culture and traditions after sixty years. This fictional Jewish metropolis might as well have been set on the moon; there is almost nothing Alaskan in the book save for the delightful cover art on the edition I read.
Comment #1: Friday, August, 7, 2009 at 13:16:45
This sounds really interesting. I've never really read any alternate histories, that I can think of. It's a sub-genre I haven't really explored. I think I might enjoy it, though!
Comment #2: Monday, August 10, 2009 at 23:15:54
Alternate histories get pegged as science fiction but they often aren't otherwise science fiction stories. Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Jasper Fforde and Philip K. Dick are all authors I've read who have written alternate histories. Happy reading!
Comment #3: Saturday, August, 8, 2009 at 09:14:04
I raced through this; found it very easy and entertaining to read. it's been a while, so I forget details, but it read to me like an extended love letter to Chabon's wife, who is clearly the inspiration for Landsman's ex-wife. I also liked that it was Yiddish noir--an entertaining twist on a genre.
My review was here.
Comment #4: Monday, August 10, 2009 at 23:23:51
Interesting bit of info. I really don't know anything about Chabon or his wife. In reading the book I felt that the alternate history drowned out the more interesting murder mystery and the relationship between Landsmen and his ex.
Comment #5: Saturday, August, 8, 2009 at 23:52:19
Great review. I had mixed feelings about this book and I think maybe now I know why. It wasn't until the end of the book that I even started liking Meyer a bit. I haven't decided whether to try another of Chabon's books or not.
Comment #6: Monday, August 10, 2009 at 23:28:42
I had similar feeling about Meyer but I think that comes back to the fact that his characterization takes back burner to the world building. I will try another Chabon book.