Thursday, August 16, 2007

Caught up in Michael Chabon's counterfactual Sitka

Always a heavy reader, I haven't had the attention span left over to read many books since joining the Blogger and Flickr cults some months ago. But Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union pulled me away from the keyboard and knocked me over. I loved everything about this book -- the deftly executed noir elements , the evocation of a parallel universe in which a Jewish homeland was established in Sitka, Alaska in 1948, and the bruised and battered love story between the protagonist and his ex-wife, who also happens to be his boss. Two things especially stood out in my mind:

It's a masterful counterfactual novel. This is more easily said than done, because it involves much more than the willing suspension of disbelief. For example, I left my disbelief at the door and was more than willing to meet Philip Roth halfway in The Plot Against America, but my gut rebelled. I just couldn't feel the reality of a world in which Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR in 1940. I sympathized with what Roth was trying to do, but I couldn't get caught up in it. In contrast, Chabon caught me up and swept me away to a world that should have been absurd but wasn't at all. Mostly, it's because Chabon firmly embeds the imaginary in masterfully evoked everyday details: scraps of Yiddish, a present-day setting that's just slightly off-kilter, even the familiar and reassuring conventions of genre fiction. By the end of the book I felt I had known Jewish Sitka forever and was deeply involved and concerned about the uncertain fate of the sometimes brave but always deeply flawed residents I had come to know -- including members of its Hassidic organized crime gang.

Chabon's imagination clearly flourishes in the arctic. Though he writes in sunny California these days, something about arctic (and antarctic) landscapes seems to fuel the imagination of Michael Chabon, who grew up in Pittsburgh. When I was a kid, I read a mesmerizing account by Admiral Byrd of wintering alone in the Antarctic and nearly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, trapped, alone, nowhere to turn. Chabon must have read the same thing, because in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay he mutated this into a de force interlude of magic realism and a fable of escape and survival. In the new novel, he goes this one better by turning the founding myth of Israel -- carving a homeland out of an inhospitable desert -- on its head and reimagines it in the arctic tundra. Part of the what makes the novel so credible is its wintry sense of place -- you feel the snow in your face, the snap of the winter cold, the bleak, attenuated winter light. You huddle with the characters against the encroaching darkness. Haunting.

Cross-posted at the new book review blog, The Book Book. Check it out.

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