Sashimi with a Side of Fries

Adam Thirlwell

  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
    Fourth Estate, 414 pp, £17.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 00 715039 7

This is a miniature dictionary of the invented English in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon’s charming, flawed and exhausting new novel:

bik (Yiddish: bull) – doorman
latke (Yiddish: potato cake) – 1. police cap 2. policeman
noz (Yiddish: nose) – policeman
shammes (Yiddish: assistant to rabbi, beadle) – policeman
sholem (Yiddish: peace) – gun
shoyfer (Yiddish: horn) – cell phone
shtarker (Yiddish: strong man, strong arm) – gangster; hard man

Yiddish, it turns out, has not said its last word: it is still involved in the business of coinages and slippages. Live Yiddish is the happy invention of this novel. And it is an invention that necessitates, and is caused by, an outlandish back story: an atom bomb fell on Berlin in 1946; the battle for Israel in 1948 was won by the Arabs; three million Jews were got out of Europe in time to escape the Nazis and are now living in the Federal District of Sitka, in Alaska, which granted them temporary asylum. Now, in 2007, the district is about to revert to the State of Alaska again. Strange times to be a Jew, runs the book’s refrain; strange times, too, to be Meyer Landsman, a detective, and the book’s central character.

Chabon’s writing has always preyed and played on traditionally disparaged forms, the pulp of fiction, with an unfashionable and unmodernist pleasure in plot: in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) it was the superhero comic; in his novella The Final Solution (2004) it was the Sherlock Holmes detective story. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his fourth adult novel, he plays with two genres: the counterfactual, derived from Philip K. Dick; and the noir thriller, derived from Chandler and Hammett. The counterfactual is all in the background. The thriller is all in the foreground. The thematic link between the two is the endlessly precarious nature of Jewishness.

Two years ago, then, Landsman left his wife, Bina. He had forced her to have an abortion because there was a possibility that the baby, nicknamed Django, might be abnormal. And then he left her: ‘It was not that he couldn’t live with the guilt. He just couldn’t live with it and Bina, too.’ Then, last spring, his sister Naomi crashed her plane into a mountain and died. Finally, at the moment when the story starts, in a room in the Hotel Zamenhof, where Landsman is living, a man who called himself Emanuel Lasker is found murdered. Lasker was a heroin addict, using tefillin as tourniquets. It turns out that he is Mendel Shpilman, the son of the Verbover rabbi – the Verbovers being an invented sect of Orthodox Chassids, and also the most powerful mob family in Sitka. Shpilman, however, was also rumoured to have been the Tzaddik Ha-Dor: the righteous man, born to each generation, who has the potential to become the Messiah.

What has happened is this: a group of maniacal Orthodox Jews have hatched a plot, in league with the neocon US government, to rebuild the Jewish Temple – having first blown up the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. They will then announce Mendel Shpilman as the new Messiah. At a remote rehab centre in non-Jewish Alaska, they have tried to get Shpilman off dope. But he escaped, aided by Naomi. In revenge, they killed Naomi, and went after Shpilman. But Shpilman’s killer turns out to be someone else entirely.

This plot is not without its precursors. On 19 February 1936, the Daily Northwestern announced the result of its short story competition. Third prize went to Solomon Bellows, who was using a revised name for the first time. Saul Bellow’s story was called ‘The Hell It Can’t’. It was a response to Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, which had come out the year before, describing the Fascist regime of President Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, and the struggle against him of a newspaperman called Doremus Jessup. Bellow’s story was a straight imitation of The Trial. Although not explicitly about Jews, it described an American Jewish nightmare. A man called Henry Howland is arrested, on unacknowledged charges:

Four entered; he could see more in the hall.

‘You Howland?’

‘Yes,’ said Henry.

‘Get dressed,’ said the man in the lead.

‘What for?’ But he need not have asked; he understood why.

He understood why, presumably, because he had read Kafka: he knew what to expect in this kind of story. He was taken away, and beaten up.

Bellow’s subsequent career – through Dangling Man and The Victim to The Adventures of Augie March – can be seen as a gradual breaking with this mythology of the Jew as martyr or victim. With Augie, Bellow invented a Jewish character who was simply normal: a scammer, an intellectual, a thief, a shkotz. The ‘very ignobility’ of such characters ‘is a bid for respectability’, Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker. ‘Bellow doesn’t feel that he has to protect them. And by that route he made the lives of Jews a normal subject for American literature.’ And Chabon is returning to this tradition. His zany implausible unhistorical plot allows him to write about Jewishness without writing about martyrs. Even Alaska is an impermanent refuge. Everywhere will always be precarious, and therefore there is no need to luxuriate in mourning.

In Le Juif imaginaire, published in 1980, Alain Finkielkraut writes that ‘what transformed at one stroke Jewish life into folklore was a precise, punctual and very recent event: genocide.’ We should not underestimate the Nazis’ success: ‘They wiped from the earth a unique culture, that of Yiddishkeit.’ The Holocaust, Finkielkraut argues, transformed Jewishness into schmaltz. In Chabon’s novel, however, Yiddishkeit has not quite been destroyed. And so Chabon can imagine a North American Jewish history that is marked by the Holocaust but not defined by it. Chabon’s novel represents a refusal to memorialise or treat the Jews as victims. That is why its English involves mutated Yiddish words: Yiddish is a living language, still in flux.

The delight of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is in the detail, especially in the descriptions of the invented district:

The lamps of the Jews stretch from the slope of Mount Edgecumbe in the west, over the 72 infilled islands of the Sound, across the Shvartsn-Yam, Halibut Point, South Sitka and the Nachtasyl, across Harkavy and the Untershtat, before they are snuffed in the east by the Baranof range. On Oysshtelung Island, the beacon at the tip of the Safety Pin – sole remnant of the World’s Fair – blinks out its warning to airplanes or yids. Landsman can smell fish offal from the canneries, grease from the fry pits at Pearl of Manila, the spew of taxis, an intoxicating bouquet of fresh hat from Grinspoon’s Felting two blocks away.

But there are other moments of more universal precision. Berko Shemets, Landsman’s partner, ‘salts an egg and bites it. His teeth leave castellations in the boiled white.’ Or this description of a cafeteria: ‘Mrs Nemintziner gentles three tight blintzes onto a white plate with a blue stripe on the rim. To ornament the evening meals of the lonely souls of Sitka, she has prepared several dozen slices of pickled crab apple on lettuce leaves. She tricks out Landsman’s dinner with one of these corsages.’

And then there are the metaphors. The Verbover rabbi’s breasts are ‘full and pendulous, each tipped with a pink lentil of a nipple’. A teabag is dunked in a glass: ‘A vein of rust twists in the water like the ribbon in a glass marble.’ The comparisons are either recklessly domestic – ‘Night is an orange smear over Sitka, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapour streetlamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat’ – or recklessly Jewish: ‘The daily sight of her is going to be torment, like God torturing Moses with a glimpse of Zion from the top of Mount Pisgah every single day of his life.’ Eventually, they advertise their own headlong improvisation:

The sound sharpens and rises to a steady chopping, a sheet of paper caught in the blades of a fan. The sound grows louder and more layered. The hacking cough of an old man. A heavy wrench clanging against a cold cement floor. The flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living-room and knocking over a lamp.

These metaphors add up to a counter-narrative, a thematic network running through the plot.

Bellow is the main loved ancestor in this book: his sidekick is Raymond Chandler, who in Farewell, My Lovely could describe Moose Malloy as ‘about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food’, or in The Big Sleep could have the General saving his strength ‘as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings’. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union constantly pauses in exaggerated pictures: ‘Her right arm is raised, index finger extended toward the trash bins, like a painting of the angel Michael casting Adam and Eve from the Garden.’ Chabon’s prose is in love with the hyper-reality of Chandler’s style: ‘His face is mostly jowl and his ridged forehead looks like one of those domed beehives you see representing Industry in medieval woodcuts’; ‘the grooves on his brow like a grid left in raw pie crust by the tines of a fork’. Following Chandler’s form, Chabon’s narrative proceeds frame by frame, with static conversations linked by ritzy backdrop sentences. There’s a problem here, though. This method encourages redundancy: the book has a strange rhythm, as pure plot is followed by pure padding – sashimi with a side of fries.

Chabon’s determination to keep the scene as a formal unit means that he is often forced into awkward flashbacks. Quickly, the back story is offloaded onto the characters. The story of Mendel Shpilman’s abandoned marriage is told to Landsman by Shpilman’s mother. Towards the end of the book, the messianic plot is explained by its mastermind, Alter Litvak, in a flashback containing another flashback. But Litvak lost the use of his voice following a car accident and so this entire chapter is, we’re told, written down by him on a legal pad. In 15 minutes, at most.

The book is glitzy with imagination: and yet it is not quite imagined enough. It is too quick with scenes and emotions that require more exposition. The novel’s real plot is the sentimental re-education of Meyer Landsman: his reconciliation with and to Bina. But this plot is never allowed the time it deserves and is dealt with in rushed moments of nostalgia and schmaltz: even at the sight of an old ashtray, ‘the squeeze box of Landsman’s heart gives a nostalgic wheeze.’ Chabon’s prose combines the sentimental and the depressed: ‘Simply having a place to put his car that is 24 storeys down from a standing invitation to breakfast should never pass, in a man’s heart, for a homecoming.’ This is a portrait of self-pity that believes it is a portrait of self-laceration. But it isn’t: it’s just a portrait of self-pity.

The night Mendel Shpilman was murdered, he had been playing chess: ‘It looks like he had a game going, a messy-looking middle game with Black’s king under attack at the centre of the board and White having the advantage of a couple of pieces.’ But Shpilman does not have a game going: he has been setting a chess problem for the man who will soon murder him. It is the problem Nabokov includes in Speak, Memory, in which he describes ‘one particular problem I had been trying to compose for months . . . It was meant for the delectation of the very expert solver.’ When Chabon’s murderer is unmasked, he says that Shpilman intended the problem as a way of understanding how he felt: trapped in a zugzwang, when the player has to move, but there are no good moves left. According to Nabokov, however, the problem has two further meanings. And these encode the meaning of Chabon’s novel. The answer to the chess problem, Nabokov writes, is obvious: Bc2. But the sophisticated person will not notice this immediately, and will instead go through an ‘inferno’ of avant-garde moves before finally seeing the simple, homely move that is the problem’s solution, ‘as somebody on a wild goose chase might go from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores.’ For Nabokov, therefore, the problem is first of all emblematic of the roundabout pleasure of art, the pleasure of plot. But it is also an emblem of exile: ‘The season was May – mid-May, 1940,’ Nabokov writes. ‘The day before, after months of soliciting and cursing, the emetic of a bribe had been administered to the right rat at the right office and had resulted finally in a visa de sortie which, in its turn, conditioned the permission to cross the Atlantic.’ Nabokov’s chess problem is a homage to the detour, in art and in exile.

This is why Chabon has put the problem at the heart of his murder mystery: it is meant as an emblem of exiled hope. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has an epigraph from ‘The Jumblies’ (‘And they went to sea in a Sieve’), Edward Lear’s nonsense poem about the insanity of hope:

And each of them said, ‘How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!’

But it is also a poem about the fulfilment of an insane hope. The Jumblies finally cross the Western Sea in their Sieve and arrive at a land covered with trees, where they buy an Owl, and a useful Cart, and many other things, including a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws, and forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree, and no end of Stilton Cheese. The land covered with trees is utopia, or the promised land.

Like so much of Chabon’s work, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an investigation of the pleasures of waiting. It is also a contraption for trying to understand the meaning of the noir genre. According to this machine, a theory of Judaism might coincide with a theory of noir. Noir fiction describes a society in which happiness and goodness are always nostalgic. They are what might have been. Just as, according to the theory of the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, ‘every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve.’ Or, as Kafka is reported to have said to Max Brod: ‘There is hope, infinite hope. But not for us.’