Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Reading between the lines.
May 8 2007 12:30 PM

God's Frozen People

Michael Chabon carves out a Jewish state in Alaska.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

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."

As such details demonstrate, Chabon has lavished an unfathomable amount of love on his creation, leaving no quirk of Jewish life unexploited for its comedic or absurdist potential. At the risk of deflating what Chabon pulls off, here's just a sample of the many ways he upends Jewish culture. In place of the halutzim, the pioneers who settled Israel, Chabon gives us the Polar Bears, Sitka's first emigrants: "[T]hey were utopians, which meant that they saw imperfection everywhere they looked." The Northern Lights bring visions not of the Virgin Mary, but of the face of a Hasid. The exurbs are dotted with superstores named KosherMart and Big Macher. Streets and squares are named after Max Nordau, Janusz Korczak, and Isaac Leib Peretz. A part of town populated by a reclusive Hasidic sect resembles a "Disney shtetl," a painstaking reproduction of the Ukrainian village where the founder was born, with narrow streets and thatched roofs. Sitka's political history includes Jewish-Tlingit conflict over land ("Jews want livable space") and the notorious Shavuos Massacre at Goldblatt's Dairy Restaurant.

In Chabon's hands, this is all sublimely ridiculous. But it is a humor that can be fully appreciated by a very small audience. How many readers, after all, will get the joke of the Sitka Jews' obsession with Filipino food, including an extended and repeated riff on the "Filipino-style Chinese doughnut"? In the finest Jewish tradition, Chabon has produced a paradox: a mass entertainment largely inaccessible to the masses. What's more, there is a deep sadness at the book's center, but it is a sadness that also may be not fully apparent to non-Jews. You don't have to be Jewish, of course, to appreciate the most obvious tragic element, an involved subplot taking off from the Hasidic belief that the messiah is born anew into every generation: In the novel, this man becomes a junkie who ties off with tefillin, a former black hat who has become estranged from his family and lives anonymously in a flophouse. But the real tragedy of Sitka's Jews is the historical disaster that created their isolation. Talk about a Diaspora—now this is exile, and its effects redound on the lives of all the novel's characters in ways that are psychologically true but also uncannily resonant with the Jewish religious and mystical traditions.

We're spared the details of the war in which Israel was lost, but Chabon offers this nightmarish vision of the country "today": "a wretched place ruled by men united only in their resolve to keep out all but a worn fistful of small-change Jews. For half a century, Arab strongmen and Muslim partisans, Persians and Egyptians, socialists and nationalists and monarchists, pan-Arabists and pan-Islamists, traditionalists and the Party of Ali, have all sunk their teeth into Eretz Yisroel and worried it down to bone and gristle. Jerusalem is a city of blood and slogans painted on the wall, severed heads on telephone poles." A cynic might note that the last line—minus the heads—is not all that inaccurate; and while a literal political reading of the novel is as impossible as it is misguided, there are moments when Chabon takes obvious digs. But one need not be unreservedly pro-Israel politically to ache at the idea of a world with no Jewish homeland—a uniquely Jewish ache. Landsman, Bina, and especially the potential Messiah are truly lost souls, living in a dystopia that can hardly be imagined by American Jews today: a world that is thoroughly "unredeemed," as the Jewish messianic tradition puts it.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, of course, is hardly alone in offering different levels of interpretation to different readerships. Joyce's Ulysses, to take one somewhat grandiose example, probably means more to a reader from Dublin than to one who has never heard of the River Liffey. But there's something almost perverse in the way in which this experiment in genre fiction risks being as isolationist as the world it describes. So far, the glowing reviews of the book—many of them written, it's worth noting, by Jewish writers—have easily outnumbered the pans. Here's hoping the welcome continues, and this haunting hybrid escapes the fate of ending up a curiosity of history. A book as tough-talking, scrappy, and open-hearted as this one deserves to find a home in America.

Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.