[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is (breathe in) an alternate history science fiction noir police procedural that won plaudits from the literary mainstream as well as several top honors from the science fiction community (breathe out).
There’s a great deal going on, but perhaps it’s best to introduce the setting. In this alternate history, America created a temporary settlement for Jews in Sitka, Alaska. Today, the Sitka Jews are facing Reversion, which means that millions of Jewish settlers will have to find a new home.
Reversion should be a problem for Meyer Landsman, a detective who “has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker.” However, he has not even begun to apply for papers that will allow him to settle in a new country. Instead, he has been steadily drinking himself to sleep every night since he and his wife, Bina Gelbfish, split.
Landsman is staying at Sitka’s seediest hotel, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a junkie has just been murdered there. It looks like a hit. Taking it somewhat personally, Landsman has himself assigned as the lead detective on the case. What follows is as bizarre an investigation as any I’ve ever read. That murdered junkie turns out to be a chess prodigy and the son of a mobster. Women explain that he had a sort of natural magnetism and there’s talk that he was able to heal people with his blessing. So why was he killed?
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Landsman will solve this case. Since the precinct is now preparing for Reversion, they can’t afford to take on any new cases. Landsman’s commanding officer, who also happens to be his ex-wife, orders Landsman to forget about the murder.
The reader’s enjoyment of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union will depend upon their tolerance for Chabon’s dedicated homage to Raymond Chandler. Some authors will sacrifice narrative voice in order to keep the plot moving. Here, Chabon always chooses to give precedence to cleverly noir descriptions of Landsman’s investigation rather than the investigation itself. Readers that prefer steady suspense in their plotting should probably read an Arkady Renko novel.
On the other hand, readers that enjoy Chabon’s writing will be in for quite a ride. In fact, Chabon’s wordplay often pays off when least expected. Perhaps one of my favorite moments in the novel came when I consulted Chabon’s glossary of Yiddish terms to discover that Landsman’s “sholem” was a pistol. The glossary explains that this is a bilingual pun that plays on the Yiddish word for peace (“sholem”) and the American slang for gun, a “piece.”
What may be most rewarding is Chabon’s ability to combine a love of genre, a clever, literate voice, and middle-aged characters. When reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, readers will finally understand what makes literary fiction “mundane.”