What I’ve Been Reading – February 2008

I feel really bad saying this, but I read a Michael Chabon book last month and I’m quite disappointed.

Books Acquired:

The Little Blue Book of Advertising – Jeff Woll and Steve Lance

The Areas of My Expertise – John Hodgman

Books Read:

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon

Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marisha Pessl (still reading)

Maybe it was because I read the book so quickly, hoping to get two books in this month. Maybe it was because I was actually more excited to start reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Maybe it was because I was worried about working extra, or because other things were on my mind. Who knows. Something about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union left a bad taste in my mouth.

I feel unfulfilled. I feel like I missed something important.

Let’s get this out of the way. Michael Chabon is one of my favorite living authors, and I was seriously looking forward to this book. Even if it was another Jewish detective novel. Even if I was afraid he was driving himself into a rut.

The Yiddish Policemen's UnionRecently, you can count on one of three things in a Michael Chabon book – detectives, comics or Jewish culture. It started with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (comics and Jewish culture), continued with a short story in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13 (comics), The Final Solution (detectives and Jewish culture), The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (detectives and Jewish culture) and is still going strong in his newest book, Gentlemen of the Road, which reportedly was originally titled Jews With Swords.

I’m not saying it’s horrible – or even that uncommon. Hell, I dare you to show me a John Steinbeck book that goes Salina-less or a Dave Eggers novel without a handful of supposedly clever pop culture references. But the guy that won a Pulitzer – a Pulitzer! – for writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, you’d think, would branch out a little. You know, see what else is out there.

I’ll stop. I promised myself I wouldn’t go on a negative tangent. The truth is I really liked The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It’s a great plot; an alternate history similar to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, except this time instead of paranoid persecution, the Jewish community was simply given their own state: Alaska. Well, for a while, anyway – the state is scheduled to be reverted back to the United States, putting millions of Jews back into the country – and back into the bad graces of a nation that’s barely stood their existence in the first place.

The novel subtly deals with anti-Semitism and nationalism, and rewrites some famous events to help support the idea of a Jewish Free State – World War II continues past 1946, Berlin is nuked, Cuba attacks the U.S. in the 60s and various other hidden gems of revisionist history. But moreover, it deals with a lonely man with little place in life dealing with the possibility that he’ll be without place in a larger sense of the word in just a few months.

At its core, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a detective novel, a detective novel that just so happens to deal with the death of the man who might have been Messiah. Other than that, it’s pretty straight forward – aside from the Yiddish, the Jewish traditions that went over my head and the chess references.

So I’ll admit. It was good. I found myself enthralled by the story, caught up in the twists and convinced that it would end well.

It didn’t. At least for me, it didn’t.

The book was critically acclaimed. It’s on the short list for two major book awards. Everyone seemed to love it. But to me, there was something a little wrong about the ending, like Chabon was close to deadline and didn’t finish his thought before my copy of the book was published. Something was missing. The ending was about as unfulfilling as a side order of Chinese food, lacking substance and leaving me hungry just minutes after finishing it.

I felt cheated. Not mad, just confused and cheated.

I wondered if I had skimmed some important part of the book, if there was some small two sentence revelation that I had glossed over in a time of Yiddish repulsion. Maybe there really was weight in the ending of the book, some incredible twist that I had missed, dropping the ball completely and ruining the novel.

The thing is, I hadn’t. The ending makes sense. In fact, in looking over it again, it’s probably one of the only ways the story could end logically.

The problem was that I had no emotional tie to the characters. They always seemed unreal, disjointed, like the words I read were obviously written, instead of the words coming out of the character’s mouth. Something wasn’t believable from the beginning – the way they talked, the coincidences, whatever; it just didn’t feel real to me.

I didn’t care about the characters like I have in books past, like I cared about Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, like I cared about the silent German boy from The Final Solution, like I cared about Art Bechstein from The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

And that’s why I’m disappointed. I love Michael Chabon’s writing. I know this won’t deter me from reading more of his work. But to know that I completely missed the boat – that despite all of the great reviews, I was unable to be drawn in – leaves me disappointed. Both in myself and in the book.

It’s a lot of pressure, I know. But I’m sure Chabon will be able to make it through.

This was lovingly handwritten on March 8th, 2008