Jewish Journal

Chabon novel spins dizzying tale of alternative history, and Alaska

by Rabbi David Wolpe

Posted on May. 17, 2007 at 8:00 pm

In 1913, Dr. Emanuel Lasker wrote a 500-page book advancing his idea of a macheide. A macheide, meaning "son of battle," is a being whose senses are so sharpened by evolution, by struggle, that he always chooses the best and most efficient method of perpetuating himself.

On the chessboard, for example, the macheide would always make the best move, which would result (as a chessmaster once remarked) in the sad result that after the first game between two macheides, chess would cease to exist.

Lasker was a remarkable man: the longest-reigning chess champion, friend of Albert Einstein (who wrote the forward to a biography of Lasker). Lasker pestered Einstein with plausible but mistaken objections to his theory of relativity. After some neglect, Lasker is making a kind of comeback.

Not the real Lasker, perhaps, but the anti-Lasker. For the crime victim who goes under the name "Lasker" in Michael Chabon's new book is the opposite of a macheide. He always makes the wrong choice and so do the many eccentric, eloquent, farcical and fascinating characters who try to unravel his fate. In fact, this Lasker turns out to be tied in to uprooted rabbinic dynasties and the ultimate redemption of the world. Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" is an easy book to love but a hard one to describe.

Shysters chase ambulances; critics chase influences. How to characterize this Chandler-Babel stew? Let's try the Hollywood idiom. "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" is Woody Allen meets Cornel Woolrich. No, better, deeper: S.J. Perelman meets Y.L. Peretz meets Harry Turtledove. Martin Amis meets Stanley Elkin who is chatting with Sholom Aleichem about Jorge Luis Borges.

Enough. What we have here, ladies and gentlemen of the Jewry, is a virtuoso of language speaking what Cynthia Ozick called for years ago -- a "new Yiddish." In other words, English inflected to the platzing point.

Chabon's sentences cry out for anthologizing: the night "has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat"; the coffee machine "hawks and spits like a decrepit Jewish policeman after ten flights of steps." One man is described as "sober as a carp in a bathtub."

Chabon is not only writing about Yiddish, his metaphors have picked up a Yiddish flavor. He can still let fly with a more conventionally stinging description -- a group of girls is as "vehement and clannish as schools of philosophy" -- but he has basted his language in another world, and it comes out, well, geshmeckt.

Much has been made of Chabon's mixing of genres. There is a noir mystery, a counterhistory narrative (in which Israel is no more and the Jews have set up an unstable colony in Alaska), a tall tale, a rapid-fire vaudevillian exchange of quips. Many of the tropes are familiar from detective stories. The lead detective is thrown off the case; he has an ex-wife whom he still loves; his partner tries to coax him from various beckoning forms of self-destruction, but the genre mix is a showcase.

The core of the enterprise is to convey the expressive tang of Yiddish in a modern, self-conscious novel. When Saul Bellow was advised by his English teacher to give up literature, because it was not "native" to him, he resolved to show he could run monarchical rings around the king's English by mixing it with the demotic and savvy sound that was his birthright.

The generations have reversed their position. Bellow was the immigrant determined to show up the native. Chabon in this book is the native novelist proving that he can recreate the angled prose and wistful alienation of the immigrant. "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" is an elegant act of reclamation.

A plot summary is almost beside the point, although the plot itself is not beside the point.

The detective, Meyer Landsman (like Meyer Lansky, but one of us), is a self-destructive, disenchanted Jewish nebbish with a hint of power. Crossing his path are other transplanted Jews, the native Alaskan tribe and a mystery that begins small and grows. Like all the best mysteries -- and this gives the book its essential noir flavor -- what we see is only a part of the whole. We have to intuit more, feel more; this is Alaska, after all, the land of icebergs.

Counterhistorical narratives are popular these days.

Some eminent historians, like Niall Ferguson, have published volumes of what might have happened but did not. They fall into two categories -- what we escaped and what we lost. Chabon's book is both: What we escaped was the destruction of the new state in its cradle, a second blow from which the Jewish world might never have recovered. What we lost was the chance to set up elsewhere a relatively pressure-free existence, where the remnant of Yiddish life would have assumed new and improbable forms.

Obviously, the loss would have been far greater than the gain, but that is part of what makes the exercise so fascinating. This is a peculiarly nostalgic book, nostalgic for what never was.

There is a sweet sadness at its heart. No one should open it with the expectation of reverence, however. Reverent novels exist, they have dun-colored dust jackets and gather reverent dust. Those who open books in the hope of wild imaginings, vertiginous, spiraling, motor-powered language, a driving plot with characters whose struggles are in equal parts funny and absurd, will find it here in spades. Sam Spades. Sam Spadowitz.

Oh, never mind. Read the book.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books will appear monthly in The Journal.

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