The Top Ten Books of the Year
8. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon
by Jeff Goldberg
You may buy Michael Chabon’s novel here.
My problem with Chabon is that I keep liking his books… except. For example, I like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay… except for the two hundred pages that take place in the North Pole for no reason. I like The Final Solution… except the solution to the mystery is the same as the one on the back of a Highlights magazine. I like Wonder Boys… except I only saw the movie. I like Spider Man 2… except he didn’t actually write the screenplay, only the screen story.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, however, manages to take Chabon’s reverse-condescending insistence that we all read genre fiction and merge it with some actual literary fiction. Plus, it uses the term “yid” more than any other book but the hipster Torah. Plus, it’s about Jews in Alaska, which reminds me of my favorite television show of all time: Northern Exposure. Plus the main character is named Landsman, and, in case you didn’t know, that’s m.o.t. slang for Jew.
Chabon avoids the gaping problems of The Final Solution by not making the book revolve around the mystery. Sure, there’s this whole revisionist history thing and an unsolved murder, etc., but, instead, like any good novel, it’s about characters. This being a detective novel, the characters are fairly stock: the washed-up alcoholic detective determined to solve one more case, the pissed-off chief who forbids said detective from following up said case, the leggy blonde ex-wife with an ax to grind, the gruff partner with a mysterious past, the miracle-working heroine-addicted Hasid… Okay, maybe they’re not all stock characters. But I kid, because regardless of whether you’ve seen them before, you care about them and want to see them through their troubles. It’s what Chabon’s been trying (and not necessarily successfully) to prove since he guest-edited McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales: a story can fit squarely in a genre, follow a formula, and be good literature. And so, Chabon makes our list of best-books-of-the-year-so-far.
In an effort to prove his loyalty to detective noir, Chabon has stuffed this book so full of inane metaphors that it reads like a Super Monster Burrito from Free Birds. (That was my attempt at a non sequitur metaphor, but–trust me–I have nothing on Chabon.) To demonstrate, I am going to open pages at random and quote the first metaphors I see.
1. Page 122: “[He] felt every whisper and rumor the way a spider hears in its feet the thrashings of a fly.” (Note the slightly Yiddish construction of this one.)
2. Page 318: “It’s as if he’s packing a statue for shipment.” (I’m not sure what this metaphor is trying to say, but, to be clear, no one is packing anything for shipment.)
3. Page 48: “He plays goalkeeper as a squad of unprofitable regrets mounts a steady attack on his ability to get through a day without feeling anything.”
4. Page 362: “When Landsman dares to give out a question of his own, an extinguishing silence rains down like a thousand gallons of water dropped from a plane.” (There was some mention of planes earlier in the chapter, so this is almost relevant.)
5. Page 263: “And they are all friends and brothers together, and the mountains skip like rams, and the hills like little lambs.”
Okay, that last one doesn’t count, because it’s actually from the Bible, Psalm 114, not to mention my favorite quote from the Passover Haggadah.
I could probably come up with some even better ones, but I took these at random. Really, at random. If you removed the metaphors from this book it would be four hundred and seven pages shorter. But after reading hundreds of them they stop sticking out and start to become a background chant. It’s an intensely directed worship at the temple of genre fiction, repeating over and over and over again, putting us in a trance as we slip into the world of detectives, Alaskans, and Jews.
Jeff Goldberg is a writer living in New York. His work has been most recently featured in The Apocalypse Reader, available here.