Beyond the tortuous fun and surprises of a mystery or a murder plot, you are taken into the low hells where sin and vice prop up the mid-level decay of society -- where cops make dirty deals because it is the only way to get things done, and where the vers libre poetry of criminals is contrasted against the dim limericks of straights.
The invention of the detective novel probably dates back to Dickens' "Bleak House," and his later experiments with Wilkie Collins. Poe ripped them both off (like he does) and invented the "mystery," but he made it better -- giving us the genius detective of Dupin, as opposed to the tenacious, cynical, port-swilling Inspector Bucket, who can't really hold together a long narrative on his own.
I don't care who came first. As Dickens' main exegete, popularizer, and reviewer in America, Poe ripped him off left and right, taking Dickens' red-cheeked humanism and his low world and making it American, grim, and fucked.
This led to American icons like Marlowe, Spade, and James Ellroy's Hollywood dicks and the long, great tradition of bad race relations and grand bureaucratic conspiracy. In England, they got Mrs. Marple solving their country-house poisonings. MRS. MARPLE.
I like them all, really. And, anyway, the detective story is really just an easy way to spool out a plot in mysterious chunks without having to resort to deus ex machina. It makes a good coathanger for a tawdry setting or an incest shocker (they are all incest shockers. If you really want to know the truth, Sophocles wrote the first mysteries. Surprise! Your mom is hot, and somebody took that line of thinking all the way, and here you are. Or your dad; your dad is a RAPIST, and you look good too, little girl.)
Detectives keep the plot going, because they never give up, and therefore they keep taking us to new places and turning over rocks. They are obsessives, just like us readers. And they go places we can't.
Chabon has written a detective story here, and it has its problems. Mainly, because he has tried to do way too much, and not in an ambitious way. He has tried to do way too much in order to protect himself from narrative problems, and the end result is something strange. It's not altogether unpleasant, but it's unsatisfying on that last page because the blend isn't right, and the fiction doesn't add up.
The book is set in Alaska, and follows the life of a cop named Meyer Landsman over a few days working in the Jewish enclave of Sitka, which is a soveriegn Jewish community that is about to return to American hands. I bet it was a funny idea to Chabon at first, but when he started actually researching Alaska, he realized there isn't much in Alaska to fucking write about and that the handful of things that do make it special aren't really conducive to a murder mystery.
But -- too late! Fuck it if he's giving up. It's set in Alaska. Sometimes you remember this fact while reading this book.
(At one point I was shocked by the fact that it was snowing, for instance. It's snowing? Huh? And then I remembered the book jacket. Oh yeah. Alaska.)
There are three books here. Any of the three of them would have been interesting. But mixed-up and mashed-up, it's hard to care. The weaknesses of each of the three separate "traditions" ought to be shored up by the strengths of them in total -- but instead the strengths are used as cheap and easy solutions to the problems that each of the three traditions classically face:
1) This is a detective novel about a NO RULES, GIVE-EM-HELL cop who has to solve the central, lynchpin murder of his career. He works a beat that only he can understand, and his connections are rock solid. When you write a detective novel, the problem you have to face is crafting an original twist, of creating a knot so tight that unraveling it feels as smooth and satisfying as the right laxative at the right time. Chabon doesn't bother doing this, though. He solves the problem of writing a good detective novel by making it into:
2) A literary fairy tale about the Jewish Messiah. There's some alternate history thing going on about Manchuria, and Zionism, and the political machinations of Chassidic Jews. I guess it is politically-charged and witty, but every time you get into the literary exploration of the Jewish struggle for PLACE, Chabon hits you with more murder plot, and every time you get into the murder plot, Chabon hits you with:
3) A romance. About buddy-cops getting it on. One of the cops is a woman. She is a manly woman. This is not gay.
Here's the thing: everything good about this book is original, and everything bad about this book is stolen (much is stolen). You want Chabon to trust himself, to stay out of the genre game if he obviously doesn't believe in doing something new.
Because this book is pretty half-assed. Every important plot point is a thing you've seen a thousand times before. And we're not supposed to care: we are supposed to think it is clever that Chabon has had the audacity to be mediocre.
This book was like a very talented storyteller telling you the plot to the movie he just saw, except making you and your friends the protagonists. And its not even a good movie that Chabon just saw. It was just some damn piece of TV crap with planes and gunfights.
A word about the Nebula Awards, and this book's victory there:
Never mind if this book is actually science fiction or fantasy, as everyone keeps debating. But consider this: if we ACCEPT Chabon's gambit that it is a fantastical romp through what-could-never-be, this is tantamount to saying that the beliefs of thousands of real people are so comically absurd as to win "Science Fiction and Fantasy" awards, where hundreds of bearded white atheists sit around and guffaw about how Yiddish sounds like stuff from Frank Herbert's "Dune."
Never mind whether it's offensive or not that the Jewish mystical tradition is offered up here as high fantasy. It's certainly lazy, and if I did that about my own Catholicism, no one would call my book "sci fi." Some people, however, would certainly call it "morally objectionable," and the red-headed Irish girls I love so much would continue to ignore me, and I would feel like I had done something silly and pointless.
Now I understand that it is unfair and crappy that most fantasy is born from the conventions of Christian mysticism, and that it must feel like a burden to have to deal with that if you didn't grow up staring at bleeding virgins. But still -- you have to mix shit up a little bit if you want to change the mulch of fantasy. You can't just present a religion whole-cloth and say: "isn't this a GAS?"
Nikos Kazantzakis did not win a Nebula, for instance, and neither was he nominated.
And come on: it's even better if you come up with your own bullshit. Compete a little bit with this God character, why don't you? He likes it. I like it. We like it.
This sounds like a bad review, but I actually enjoyed reading this book, and if I hadn't just finished reading James Ellroy's wildly superior "Black Dahlia," I might have enjoyed it more.
Hell, it's still a good book, even with the unfair comparison. At his worst, Chabon is a better storyteller than most living folks, and he's fun to read sentence to sentence in ways that people who labor and struggle over their prose often aren't. He does the work of that. He does the work of that like a man obsessed.
But then, when you put it all together, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is a soft, silly, humanist mush. It's not hard-boiled; it's not even soft-boiled; it's not even scrambled. It's sunny-side up.
And is that really how you want to eat your eggs? With Inspector Bucket breathing his wine-breath over your shoulder?
Posted by miracle on Mon, 05 May 2008 14:46:05 -0400 -- permanent link