The Yiddish Policemen’s Union–Michael Chabon

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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.

5 thoughts on “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union–Michael Chabon”

  1. oh dude. Ok, this is one instance where I can really say that you should have read this book. Yes, the story is kind of goofy, but the writing is just phenomenal. I’m a big fan of those Raymond Chandler-esque sentences or the way Joan Didion can just put together a paragraph that kills, and this book has those. I’m all for books on tape and I think they’re really great for driving, but some books you just have to read. Well, except for that new Lethem book. Man, that was bad.

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  2. let’s hope this turns out much better….

    “Sony Pictures has acquired screen rights to the bestselling Michael Chabon novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” with the Joel and Ethan Coen writing, directing and producing with Scott Rudin says Variety.

    Chabon sets up a contemporary scenario where Jewish settlers are about to be displaced by U.S. government’s plans to turn the frozen locale of Sitka, Alaska, over to Alaskan natives.

    Against this backdrop is a noir-style murder mystery in which a rogue cop investigates the killing of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy who might be the messiah.

    The Coens, coming off their success with “No Country for Old Men”, will turn their attention to the book after they shoot “A Serious Man” for Working Title and Focus. “

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  3. I read this book “manually” first then listened to the audiobook – I felt the book was flat, and thought perhaps listening to it would give it more something. It did not.

    On the other hand I manually read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, loved it, then listened to the audiobook and loved it still.

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    1. I couldn’t get into Kavalier & Clay. I put the book down four or five times, and then just listened to the audiobook which I thought was fine, but not great. I dunno why. It seemed like I *should* have liked it–I just didn’t. That’s not a fair or studied criticism, of course. Jeez, I haven’t looked at this review since I wrote it. It’s pretty harsh! I like Chabon’s essays/nonfiction, but I just don’t seem tuned to his fiction.

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