Sunlit Water

January 13, 2012

Every Generation Loses The Messiah It Has Failed To Deserve

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 9:02 pm

My mom read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon a few years ago and liked it a lot. When I moved to Alaska she bought me a copy of it, and I finally got around to reading it a couple weeks ago. I can definitely see why she liked it; she once told me that one of the things that she found really amazing about going to Israel was that everyone was Jewish, even the bus drivers and stuff, which I think was a big contrast from her experience of growing up Jewish in a big, diverse American city where there were a lot of Jews but they filled a handful of specific societal niches. The idea of a totally Jewish society seems to have a strong pull on her imagination, and YPU presents just such a society in the incongruous setting of Alaska. The fact that it adhered quite closely to the canons of the gritty detective novel probably just heightens the sense of intriguing incongruity when viewed from that perspective.

I was not really as entranced with the book as my mom was, although I did enjoy it overall and I’m glad I read it. Partly this is because I found the political subtext to the thing, while subtle and nuanced, sufficiently clear and different from my own perspective to grate. Obviously this is alternate history, and it’s well done as such, so it’s not like there’s a direct relationship to real-world politics, but the underlying idea Chabon seems to have about the Jewish presence in Sitka is that this is in some sense a grim picture of a world without Israel, and I’m pretty resistant to the idea that such a world would necessarily be so grim. On the one hand, of course, the grittiness is just part of the noir genre conventions, but on the other hand Chabon ties that feeling very effectively to the sense of gloom haunting Sitka on the eve of “Reversion” of the District of Sitka to the State of Alaska, which is portrayed as involving most or all of the Jews being kicked out with nowhere to go. In this worldview, it’s always 1948, and everywhere in the world that Jews are present tolerates them only grudgingly and is quite happy to kick them out whenever given a chance. That’s certainly a plausible picture of what would have happened in Chabon’s alternate timeline, but I’m not willing to go along with it as the inevitable outcome of having given the Jews Sitka instead of Palestine. I don’t feel like I’m under any threat of being kicked out of the US, and I doubt Chabon feels that way either. I’m unwilling to chalk the huge changes in worldwide attitudes toward Jews over the past sixty years exclusively to the existence of the State of Israel.

That gets me to another of the issues I have with the book, which is that it’s really a book about Israel rather than a book about Alaska. By this I don’t mean the way there is a Zionist movement of a sort in the world of the book, which ends up playing a somewhat important role in the plot, but that the shadow of Israel hangs over everything about Chabon’s Sitka. In this timeline, the Zionists lost the war in 1948 and the survivors were relocated to Sitka, which (maybe for this reason but maybe not) has developed into a big city that is suspiciously like real-world contemporary Israel in a number of ways, with the Tlingit filling in for the Palestinians. Chabon gets his few references to the real history and geography of Alaska right as far as I can tell, but this is very much not a book about Alaska. It’s a book about Jews, and especially about how no one loves them and whatever shall they do?

It’s not that Chabon’s Sitka is implausible; instead, it’s that it is in fact depressingly plausible given his background assumptions. I had some trouble getting through the book on account of this, although part of that was probably that I’m just not that into hard-boiled detective stories. Still, everything about the picture of Sitka Chabon paints here is pretty grim. I haven’t yet been to the real Sitka, but from what I understand it’s actually nothing like this totally fictional city Chabon puts in its place.

Less plausible than the setting is the plot, and here again I think my problems are with the genre conventions rather than with Chabon’s use of them. It just gets pretty hard to suspend my disbelief when he has his detective protagonist doing all kinds of crazy stuff that real policemen don’t actually do.  Chabon’s a skilled writer, so it’s an entertaining read, especially once the plot really kicks into high gear, but I found it best not to dwell too much on the plausibility of any of the plot.

I read the book partly because my mom kept bugging me about it, but also because as a Jew living in Alaska I figured it was important for me to read the only major literary work touching on the subject of Jews in Alaska probably ever, and certainly in my lifetime. I’m glad I did, even though I found it a pretty frustrating read at some points. I’m not a big fan of novels, and this might actually be the first one I’ve read since Tristram Shandy (which I liked a lot more). For people who are, and who like gritty detective stories in particular, and who are not inclined to overanalyze the political undertones of everything they read, this book would probably be pretty fun.


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