I first encountered the work of Michael Chabon through a route different, I imagine, to most. I read his offering to the Jeff Vandermeer edited 'Steampunk' anthology (recommended, by the way), 'The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance' and thought it excellent, a Western sci-fi hybrid with genuine literary talent. This led me to his most well known work, 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay', and looking back it now seems the most logical way to get into Chabon's work i.e. through the hazy and still untrusted world of genre; more specifically, the borderland fiction that mixes and fuses genre and 'literary' fiction with wilful disregard to credibility or the approval of mainstream critics. It is an area of fiction, however, that is becoming increasingly exciting and well-recognised, and the work of Michael Chabon has much to do with this.
This is something Michael Chabon is very vocal about, ignoring literary boundaries and creating something quite special in the process. Which leads me to his 2007 novel, 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union', which along with China Mieville's 'The City and the City' and Vandermeer's 'Finch' is another addition to the wonderful world of neo-noir, or fantastic detective fiction. Whatever you want to call it.
The novel in some ways adheres quite closely to the blueprints laid down by the great crime writers of American fiction-past - short, clipped sentences, tough and masculine. The story begins with the almost mandatory discovery of a dead body, murdered in shady circumstances, and the main male protagonist, a police detective who is ageing, alone, struggling with an alcohol problem, chain smoking, and dealing with painful family history and the collapse of his marriage. This character is Meyer Landsman, a secular Jew living in the northern Jewish homeland of Sitka, Alaska.
Never heard of the place? No worries, it never existed. In a perfect example of the hybrid-genre novel that I have been discussing, 'The Yiddish Policemen's Union' is also an alternate history novel, based on a little known and now largely forgotten fact that a proposal was indeed made during World War Two to give the Jews of Europe a homeland that was on the Alasakan island of Sitka. In this world, the state of Israel does not exist, having being crushed sometime in 1948. And now, sixty years later, the independent northern home of 'the frozen Chosen' is facing Reversion - Sitka will be returned to the USA and the Jews will, once more, become Diaspora, scattered wherever fate may throw them.
Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective for Sitka Central, living in a decrepit hotel full of alcholics and junkies, has a mere two months before the Reversion which wil render his job non-existent; the discovery of a dead herion user in one of the other rooms in the hotel, with a bullet hole in the back of his head complicates things for him - he turns out to be the son of the leader of a powerful Orthodox sect, and incidentally may or may not have been the Messiah. Like all the best noirs and crime stories, the implications of this crime uncoil to expose all manner of neraious deeds, shady plots, shifting allegiances and an awful lot of physical pain for Landsman.
Chabon is a truly gifted writer, and his version of Sitka never once fails to feel like a real, lived in place. It is a fully realised, living, breathing city that one could be forgiven for thinking is/was once a real place. Another major element of this novel is the use of language, with the author creating a hard-boiled language worthy of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett but peppered liberally with Yiddish phrases and sayings, creating a language that perfectly fits the tough realities of this fictional world he has created. There is a certain playfulness at work here, though one that may not be immediately apparent. For example, Landsman refers to his pistol as a 'sholem', which turns out is the Yiddish word for 'peace'. Peace i.e. piece. Get it? It is this kind of dedication to the langauge and setting that makes the novel so special, as well as a gripping plot that most literary authors would probably be ashamed of. It is possible that this is all some elaborate allegory, some comment perhaps on Israeli-Palestinian relations in the depiction of the Sitka Jews and their relationship with the native Tlingit tribes, or the Jewish relationship with the USA. It is much to Chabon's credit that the novel can be seen as all these things, as well being a wonderful story and piece of fictional world-making. Never once does it sink to the level of dreary allegory.