Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Recent reads notwithstanding, I don't think of myself as someone who reads murder mysteries or alternate histories. (Plus I can't help thinking of alternate history as a sci-fi mode, even though it manifestly isn't.) I enjoy them when I read them, always have, but you know how it is -- too many books etc. And with my long position as an underdog reader ("Toronto authors don't need my support!"), plus my recently confessed resistance to reading American (which connects to the underdog bit), it wasn't all that likely that I'd be picking up a Michael Chabon novel, especially since I was under the mistaken impression that he was a New York writer (cf Jonathan Franzen, Augusten Burroughs, Dave Eggers, and so on*).

But once I read and delighted in Summerland, it was clear that I'd be reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

The setup can be explained quickly: in 1940, the US acts on Harold Ickes' proposal that Jewish settlement be approved for Sitka, Alaska, and when Israel collapses in 1948, Jewish immigration to the US explodes and concentrates there. Decades later, with the sixty-year lease about to expire, there are more than three million Jews living in Sitka. The book opens with a murder, and with the introduction of a badly rumpled detective, which connects in the end to the fate of the region -- and maybe the world.

It was such fun to read this version of the west coast, thinking all along about the versions of the coast we're discussing in our grad course on the subject. But you know, one of the strongest impacts is that I keep finding myself using the turns of phrases that the novel's characters do! I'm hardly the first person to have this problem with a book in which you immerse yourself, coming out of it showing evidence of having been there, but it feels more odd to me when the evidence is coded in terms of a cultural identity that I don't share. (Confusing for me? Oy, you don't even know from confusing.) The characters sound like the Jewish characters in every movie or TV show you've seen about, so I feel suspiciously like I'm making fun somehow, in ways that just aren't right, but there's nothing bad about. It's just that Chabon has warped the linguistic centre of my brain, for at least the next little while.

Wait, did I just say it's not bad for someone to warp the linguistic centre of my brain? How deep is my commitment to reading, anyway?

* - Yes, I know that these aren't all New York novelists. Part of my ongoing self-evisceration so common to academics.


Anonymous said…
I loved this novel, Richard, for its dense and somehow eerie alternate version of our coast. I came to it after reading Chabon's collection of essays about manhood which I really enjoyed. In discussing the book with my son, he recommended the Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I confess I'd never heard of!

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