Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union / Michael Chabon -- NY: Harper Collins, 2007.

Michael Chabon’s most recent book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is a rarity—a book that simultaneously succeeds massively on all three main levels that one often wants to read for. It is a novel of ideas, dramatizing serious sociopolitical issues concerning Israel and America’s Jewish community. It is a genre novel, in this case a noirish murder mystery. And it is funny as hell—with new and laugh-out-loud hilarious takes on classic Jewish humor tropes that would make Groucho or Woody extremely jealous. It is impossible not to greatly enjoy reading this book, and I look forward to re-reading it in the future.

Chabon is perhaps America’s best male writer at this point, leaving aside Thomas Pynchon, whose recent Against the Day was a huge disappointment. Few American writers are very intellectually ambitious these days, and Chabon is not quite up to Pynchon’s level in that category, but this is as ambitious a work as we are likely to see in the current literary culture. He is influenced by Pynchon--often not such a good thing, as in David Foster Wallace’s case—but Chabon has his own very focused visions, which rein in potential excesses (especially that of over-writing) while leaving an incredibly inventive and skilled fictional voice to provide literary craftsmanship of a very high order. He uses metaphor and simile in as inventive and creative a way as anyone, and rewards close reading with astonishing regularity.

The main conceit is a courageous one—Chabon re-imagines Israel as having failed to take hold in the Middle East after WWII, with a refuge for Jews instead having been temporarily established in Alaska. Now the US is, under a right-wing administration, kicking the Jews back out of Alaska--to what destinations it is unconcerned, though some hope that they can now try to establish Israel in the Middle East again. The hugely controversial issues of the current Israeli situation are given milder local analogues by Chabon—for example, the role of the Palestinians is now played by the local Native American Tlingit tribes, who have been forced to “make room” for the Jews. The US government is of course not really concerned about Tlingit rights, either—it is cynically playing various right-wing political cards. It is to Chabon’s credit that he (Jewish himself) does not shy away from portraying the complexity of the issues, with Jews here remaining victims but having hugely flawed features to their society, including Jewish terrorists and a Jewish Mafia. Chabon humanizes the issues, avoiding stereotypes, in clever and imaginative ways that every political ideologue of the right should be forced to read. Two wrongs never make a right here—instead they usually lead to recognition that there are a lot more than two to worry about.

The rest of the plot is classic noir: broken down alcoholic detective Meyer Landsman must solve a mysterious death, and has all odds stacked against him, both personal and societal. He is Jewish, as is almost everyone in the refuge who isn’t Tlingit—the latter including Landsman’s half-Jewish, half-Tlingit partner, who provides muscle and (some) sanity to Landsman’s seemingly doomed attempts to pursue justice. The murder victim is a potential new Messiah, estranged son of a Jewish Mafioso, and Messianic solutions to problems are one of the main themes of the book—also doomed, Chabon suggests. There are lots of plot twists, all engaging and informed by the best long-suffering Jewish humor to be had in a long time. No point detailing these things—rest assured you will absolutely enjoy reading them.

Things get a bit implausible along the way, and the ending is fairly canned and pat—but one can’t really consider these minor flaws as very detrimental, for Chabon uses the noir and plot devices (and humor) only as hooks upon which to hang his greater aims—his visions of loneliness, separation, victimhood, and loss, and of how, to remain human, we must try to overcome these in humane ways no matter how insane and inhumane the world around us is becoming. These aims he accomplishes wholly successfully—by creating his own world, fairly similar to our own, but different enough to make us really think about the comparison. That’s what great writers do, and Chabon is finally approaching this status. I am currently reading his earlier, Pulitzer-winning book, Kavalier and Klay, which attempts similar things in a bit less focused and successful fashion. If his next book shows similar improvement, Chabon may be approaching a pinnacle that few American writers before him have scaled.

Against the Day / Thomas Pynchon -- NY: Penguin Press, 2006.

The most recent Thomas Pynchon novel, Against the Day (AD), is his longest and least focused. This is saying a lot, as he has several works that are as labyrinthine and extended as any in literature. Indeed, his masterpiece of the 70’s, Gravity’s Rainbow (GR), which everyone should read, set the post-modern standard for such works, much as Ulysses did for modernist works in the early 20th century. GR is a masterpiece because its tightly integrated themes and allusions are illustrated by characters who, however sprawling the canvas on which they play out their stories, “come alive” for readers in the focused way that we expect all great novelistic creations (and their internal novelistic relationships) to hold our sympathy and/or interest.

But since GR, Pynchon’s works have been increasingly less successful. Like Faulkner, Pynchon works in only one style—instantly recognizable as his own, though influencing many others, often to their detriment. This style has two main parts: one is mannered, artificial, and often pastiche-oriented, in which dry, sardonic, black comedy, rich with minutely documented social incident, dominates. (Unfortunately, his humor has grown increasingly arch—often witty, but not very funny.) Mixed and/or alternating with this is a quasi-mystical, portentous and ominous magical-realism, often verging on a vague sort of science fiction, in which his interest in larger questions of the “meaning” of life can play out. This latter part allows Pynchon to gain the force of “religious” import for his otherwise very secular imaginative world, and is largely responsible for the eerily original “voice” with which Pynchon swept the literary world in the 60’s and 70’s.

Unfortunately, both techniques have begun to wear—particularly the magical realism. Though Pynchon remains endlessly inventive, in order to be successful while no longer “original”, his style must be put to work in the service of an actual story and characters that dramatically illustrate and draw the reader into the author’s take on his larger socio-political themes. And this is what Pynchon has been increasingly unable to accomplish, to the point in AD where, frankly, the book simply became (for me) an irritating and almost endless exercise in “virtuoso” verbiage. And though Pynchon can still on occasion produce writing of tremendous skill and beauty, the verbiage is increasingly slack as well—the novel would have been better at two-thirds its size, as sentences and paragraphs have far too much useless internal “filler”.

There are literally hundreds of characters in Against the Day. We see any one (or subset) of them only at widely spaced intervals, many make only token appearances, and even the main ones wander the globe so haphazardly as to vitiate any sustained interest in them. Virtually no internal psychology is presented for them by the author, and the external incident that could possibly define them more clearly is so multifarious and bewilderingly scattershot that it, too, fails to create any lasting impressions. Segment after segment starts promisingly with characters and incidents that might develop into something—then soon disappears, as a different segment begins.

This is a shame, as Pynchon remains one of the few American novelists, especially now that William Gaddis is dead, who has a serious critique of capitalism and its role in the ongoing crumbling of American society and culture. To its credit, AD is close to unique in presenting a sympathetic take on the factors that cause terrorism—by focusing (in part) on the American–born dynamiters of the early 20th century, as mine workers fought bosses in murderous class war. Our current mainstream political/media take on terrorists has no room for such notions, and suppresses our own labor history to avoid engaging the subject. Pynchon courageously (at first) lays out conditions that might make a normal worker turn to terrorism, when the owners’ power is so repressive as to be “terrifying” in its own right.

But this promising set of themes is soon lost in a thicket of others that are unrelated; connections and implications are imposed but rarely dramatized or fleshed out; and the emotional force and weight of any critique dissipates as characterizations are thin or non-existent. Pynchon’s “erudition” remains, as always, but is itself less impressive in these days of Google and Wikepedia. He vividly portrays aspects of the world of the early 20th century, particularly swirling around technology and World War I, that readers with his socio-political take will recognize as analogously evil to our own current world. But he fails to focus sufficiently on any particular human part of that world, giving readers no reason to care about reading his own book about it. AD should be the last Pynchon book anyone reads. (Though it won’t be the last one I read, as he has another (much shorter) one coming out soon, and hope springs eternal…)