The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—so far

Maud Newton liked it and so did the New York Times. The Elegant Variation heard Chabon in L.A. for what sounds like a fascinating discussion.

Judging from the links above, everyone compares it to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, although I haven’t read any in-depth analysis comparing the two. Superficially they have much in common: Jews, alternate history surrounding World War II and the Holocaust, writers normally associated with capital-L Literary fiction. I’m haunted by the suspicion that Chabon’s first detective fiction may not be his best; like early Leonard, it has too much explanation and not quite enough flow. As much as I like the idea of the Literary Writer expanding their horizon, I’m not sure he’ll pull it off, although I’m becoming more engrossed as the story develops.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union still qualifies for being Literary, at least if you’re willing to accept science fiction and Raymond Chandler. One obvious stylistic quirk stands out in Chabon’s book compared to Chandler and Elmore Leonard in that the first few chapters—all I’ve read so far—have a surprising amount of exposition interspersed between and maybe even interrupting the dialog. This is atypical of science fiction, which usually lets the reader pick up the “rules,” and it’s not at all like Leonard, who he conveys so much through dialog and little through direct speech. I find the running backstory in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union distracting, but perhaps without it I would be confused.

Two big metaphors dominate the book so far: chess, a game Landsman, the protagonist, hates because of his complicated relationship with it as a child, and the perpetual uncertainty stemming from the status of the Jews. The political situation of Sitka, a semi-autonomous state in Alaska looms large, and the angst of its status reflects much of the angst Israel has felt over all the years of its existence. The point is direct: all states are changing and no state permanent; while the Jews feel that issue more acutely than many, they are not alone in their anxiety or the larger push and pull of the world’s forces.

I’m looking forward to Chabon’s talk in Seattle on May 16 and will be there for it.

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