God's Frozen People
Michael Chabon carves out a Jewish state in Alaska.
Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it. In the rallying cry that served as an introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, he professed his boredom with the literary, epiphanic "New Yorker short story," longing for the days when masters such as Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Wharton, and Henry James wrote "ripping yarns" packed with "plot and color." In the "lost genres"—horror, romance, detective, adventure—Chabon saw a tradition of "great writers writing great short stories." Genre fiction, he argued, is simply fun to read, but it also enables a democratic reading experience, a necessity to the public that most contemporary writers have despaired of attaining. What Chabon seemed to long for most was a culture in which fiction, in whatever form, could permeate the national conversation and be essential to people's daily lives.
Despite his nostalgia for an America in which people lined up at newsstands to buy the latest installment of whatever serial they were following, Chabon's own recent literary experiments haven't been much of an advertisement for a pulp revival among serious fiction writers. His 2004 novella The Final Solution was a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery with a decidedly un-Holmesian setup: a Jewish refugee boy (and his parrot) fleeing from Germany to England during World War II. Sensitively written, it solved the crime immediately at hand but gestured helplessly at the greater evil lurking in the background. Less successfully, in the New York TimesMagazine, Chabon recently unfurled a wince-worthy serial novel set in the Caucasus Mountains at the end of the first millennium, a "historical swashbuckling romance" inspired by the likes of Alexander Dumas and featuring some stunningly bad writing. (From the May 6 installment, a description of an army: "[T]hey were now in possession of a kingly treasure, with the promise of an elephant and a chance of bloodshed, and looking fresher and gayer by the instant.")
With The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should: Rather than forcing his own extraordinarily capacious imagination into its stuffy confines, he makes the genre—more precisely, genres—expand to take him in. This novel bursts with so many forms and styles, it's hard to know where to start: It's a noir thriller, a Jewish family saga, a counterhistorical fantasy that manages at once to be utopian and dystopian. Mostly, though, it is a "what if?" story for adults. What if the Jews had lost the Arab-Israeli war, and with it the state of Israel, in 1948, and instead had to settle on a (literally) Godforsaken collection of islands the U.S. government had set aside for them in the Alaskan Panhandle? What would that state look like, sound like, feel like? And what if, 60 years after its settlement, the Jews had to give it back?
Chabon clearly had an enormous amount of fun answering these questions. For his depiction of the Federal District of Sitka, he has not only created a new landscape (what southeastern Alaska might look like now had it suffered the pollution of a Tel Aviv on the tundra, complete with a skyline, a ghetto, and a population of 3.2 million). He has also created a new language, a crazy amalgam of noir slang crossed with Yiddish—or what Yiddish would be had it been kept alive in Alaska for 60 years. This dialect, as alienating to the reader as the demotic Russian of A Clockwork Orange or the pseudo-pidgin English of Cloud Atlas, serves as a continual reminder of the novel's otherworldliness: It reads as if translated from a language that does not exist. There are clever puns that those with even a smattering of Yiddish will get—a cell phone is a shoyfer—and plenty that I couldn't figure out. (Why are rookie cops called latkes?)
This is the language of Meyer Landsman, Sitka's version of the noir detective. He's an alcoholic (his preferred poison is slivovitz) who pines for the love of a good woman (his wife has left him after an abortion wrecked their relationship). Landsman has "the brains of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker," but he's stumped by his latest case: an unidentified man found shot in his room at the Hotel Zamenhof, where Landsman also lives. (The place is bedecked with signs in Esperanto, as befits a hotel named after the language's founder—another disillusioned Jewish utopian.) He's joined by his partner and half-cousin, Berko Shemets, the result of his uncle's romance with a Tlingit woman during the settlement's early days, and Landsman's ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, who is now, somewhat opportunistically, presiding over Sitka's "Reversion" to the United States: "In her last life," one character says, "she was a weathervane."
Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.