Yesterday afternoon, I finished listening to the audiobook version of Michael Chabon’s much heralded 2007 novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, read quite competently by Peter Riegert.
I like audiobooks. They give me a chance to catch up with a lot of stuff that I otherwise wouldn’t have the time to read. Some people have a problem with audiobooks; apparently no one ever read a story to them. Or they’re just uptight. But that’s not what this is about. See, before I start picking at TYPU, I just want to preempt any Chabon fans saying: “Well, if you actually read the book, you would’ve liked it better.” No. I’m really good at listening to books on CD. Like, I can even make mental annotations. And I’ve enjoyed plenty of audiobooks in the past. This one, however? Nah.
I’m sure that many of you out there are staunch defenders of Chabon, and I won’t deny that he’s a “literary” writer, and one who, like one of my faves Jonathan Lethem, uses genre tropes and styles to great rhetorical effect. That said: this “detective story” is a completely overwritten, self-conscious barrage of hyperboles that rarely engaged me; worst of all, the book leads nowhere. In Chabon’s alternate reality, the Jewish diaspora continues into the Alaskan frontier. On the eve of the Yiddish settlement of Sitka’s Reversion–and the attendant displacement of the Jews–Detective Landsman investigates the murder of a young man, the son of an Orthodox gangster, who may or may not have been the messiah. There are all sorts of other problems, too, of course. Lots of problems=good writing, right?
In short, Chabon takes a cool premise–(what he believes to be) a Chandleresque detective story set in an alternate universe (à la PK Dicks’ The Man in the High Tower)–and crams in far too many tertiary plots, red herrings, and awkward symbols. Although Chabon’s prose is often funny and sometimes moving, in TYPU, his love for his own exaggerated metaphors and overstuffed similes distracts from the pacing and rhythm in what should be a gripping murder-mystery full of intrigue and suspense. Instead, I found TYPU to be clunky, and at times down right dull, but I kept listening: this book had gotten rave reviews, right? It was at the end of the book, when Chabon suddenly shifts perspective and lazily dumps an entire plot-essential back story on the reader, that I began to realize that this book was not the detective story it was claiming to be. No, the detective story was, like, a ruse, a trope, a form for Chabon to utilize in telling a story of Jewish identity, loss (infanticide lurks at the heart of this novel), and the metaphysical significance of chess. Chabon doesn’t really care about telling a good detective story (compare to Lethem’s lovelier and leaner Motherless Brooklyn, a detective novel that succeeds in telling a good mystery story and being all deep and shit). Instead, Chabon is happy to deadpan pseudophilosophy and use dippy conspiracy theories to help resolve his dangling plot threads. Not recommended.