The Ultimate PC Novel

A review of Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Harper Perennial, 2007. 411 pp. $15.95.

There are no pleasant, constructive or even likeable human beings in this gigantic book, written by an American Leftwing atheistic Yiddishist, living, significantly, in Berkeley, California. There is no vigorous and lively State of Israel in Chabon's imaginary world; there is no thriving American Jewry in the most prosperous and tolerant country on earth; the world of Christian Americans and other religions barely appears, and then only as cardboard cutouts. 

Instead, the novel is set in an imagined Pale of Yiddish Settlement, Jozef Stalin's "solution" for the Jews in the early Soviet Union. Instead of Siberia, the Jews are transplanted to the Sitka Peninsula in Alaska, and not permitted to travel at will, as if America were no different from Stalin's Paradise.  The Yiddish speakers of Poland and Russia magically teleport all their old historical persecutions and troubles into Alaska.  "Americans" are sinister foreigners; Christians are evil plotters; Native Alaskans are often enemies, though redeemed by their Indian victimhood; but most significantly, the Yiddish world of Sitka consists of story after story of human despair.

There is no love unspoiled by hate in this book, there is no joy or pleasure, no innocence and playfulness, no music and dancing, there are no High Holidays, there are no happy children in Chabon's imaginative world. The world is a Hell, and Jewishness itself is just another fraud.  This is the Politically Correct detective story with a vengeance; not surprisingly, George W. Bush is the sinister Dr. No behind the greatest criminal conspiracy of the novel, aided by the "Black Hat" sect of the corrupt and murderous Verbover Rebbe.

Well, the noir detective story is a recognized form, and Michael Chabon does a fine job of transplanting his alienated police detective --- named Landsmann, roughly "homeboy" in the Yiddish idiom --- into his imaginary world. He keeps the tension alive through some four hundred pages. Chabon even permits a shaft of redeeming light to fall into the unrelenting Purgatory of his human wrecks and grotesques; although he has his messenger of redemption killed off at the very start of the book.

Popular books like this are interesting on two levels: As themselves, and as reflections of our culture. In itself, this prodigiously talented book is a kind of manic riot of language and metaphor, brilliantly expressed. But each gaudy paragraph, on examination, turns out to be a rant about suffering, pain and ugliness, and specifically about the infuriating imperfections of the human form. This is Hieronymus Bosch's Purgatory as detective novel.

Such literary gloom is all very well, but it is repeated so relentlessly page after page that it becomes merely formulaic. Plotwise the novel is shapeless, as if the writer could not restrain himself and trim the excess. This book badly needs an editor. And in terms of the necessary Good and Bad Guys, there are no truly Good ones (with one doomed exception), and the truly Bad ones are all Politically Incorrect: They are "the Americans," soulless creatures, led by a paranoid caricature of George W. Bush --- reflecting the over-the-top rage of the modern Left. The whole thing is so repetitive that it begins to have an obsessional flavor, as if the author has a burr stuck in his teeth that he keeps trying to remove with his tongue over all the long months it took to finish his work. The effect is dehumanizing, but dehumanization is itself the enemy of the Western novel. Tolstoy and Dostoievsky never allowed themselves to dehumanize characters they despised. Chabon cannot separate his personal rage from his writing.

Brooding over the whole novel is the imminent prospect of Reversion, when the Yiddish colony of Sitka Peninsula will once again be expelled and scattered again to the four winds. We can guess that this End of Times theme corresponds to Chabon's own sense that the world of the Yiddish Left is doomed. After all, even Chabon found it necessary to write this novel in the enemy language of American English.  In another generation the Jewish Left will no longer speak Yiddish, and the richness of its memories will only be found in fading novels like this one. In reality many kinds of Jewish identity are thriving in America, Europe and Israel; but these are all despised by Chabon's characters.

Chabon's brilliant concoction is also curiously un-Jewish (and therefore un-Christian and immoral as well). There is no forgiveness in this book. There is no love, no tolerance, not even respect for one's neighbor. There is no recognition of our common humanity, with all its moral fragility. There is no conception that those who disagree with us politically may have valid, decent and moral positions of their own. There is no human Other. In Jewish law, Christians and Muslims and others are recognized as moral and redemptive beings by adhering to the common laws of decency and humanity. No such humane recognition pervades this book. Morally, Chabon's book pits unrelenting Evil against everyday miserable Evil. It isn't much of a choice.

In the upshot, Chabon's book is an endless rant, a repetitive car crash of the psychological sense. It is filled with richly described and interesting characters, all of them bitter and deeply flawed. Twice in the book one of the detectives comes close to killing his own father. The single redeeming character, it is hinted, may have been murdered by his own father, the Verbover Rebbe. The main characters are hooked on alcohol, on heroin, on despair. It is full of obsessional character studies of human gargoyles. All that is terribly sad, because the author is immensely talented, if he could only escape his own neuroses. Ultimately it seems that Michael Chabon's rage is directed against himself, and his own infuriating lack of innocence.

And yet, this novel has received extraordinary praise in what passes for the literary world today. The trumpeters of contemporary Leftish culture, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the SF Chronicle all madly googled the web for more hyperventilating encomiums to pile on. None of the celebratory noises make any sense at all. You get the impression that nobody actually thought about Chabon's book itself. The critic for the Yiddish Forward, who probably understands it better than the others, manages a very ambivalent comment: This is "a literary original," he writes. Yes, well, that could be said about Mein Kampf as well.

This avalanche of praise from the lit crits is curious because of the constant refrain of Jewish self-hatred --- a loaded but necessary term in this context --- that simply fills this novel. This is the paranoid anti-Semite's perfect book, much like 19th novels in which Jews appeared as freaky caricatures of corruption. The German novel The Jew Suess is its direct literary ancestor --- a book written by a Jewish author who expressed the common contempt for Yiddish-speaking Jews in the cultural centers of Europe at that time.   We know where that led.

To call Michael Chabon's book problematic is putting it very, very mildly. It is best read as an entertainment, leaving its neuroses on the side. And yet, it reflects very poorly on the current state of the Jewish-American novel, which has been one of the wellsprings of creativity on the American literary scene in the 20th century.

Intense cultural criticism pervades many American novels, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to William Faulkner. Every region, every group has come under criticism from its own intellectuals. Today, our literary intellectuals seem more alienated than ever --- in good part because of their own utter failure to see contemporary America with an open mind. They have decided that America is irredeemably Evil, with a capital "E." That is silly and ignorant. With a few notable exceptions like Tom Wolfe and John Updike, our intellectuals feel sadly ignored in their ivory towers. America just doesn't pay attention to professors and leftish preachers, not nearly as much as they think they deserve. In this kind of book we can see why Americans just don't care; our chatterning classes simply don't deserve much attention today, since they seem to have made no human connection to the country in which they prosper. Angry snobbery is not a road to popular approval in  a democracy.

James Lewis blogs at
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