Finished Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I am struck once again by the irresistible truth that an interesting text, even if not entirely successful, is infinitely better than an uninteresting one, even if completely successful.
Spoilers under the cut
It was maybe premature of me to criticize Chabon’s supposed “disinterest” in the rest of the world, considering the direction the plot winds up going. Still, I don’t feel like I necessarily have egg on my face. I believe that there would be a faction of Sitka Jews who want to reclaim Jerusalem through violence. I even believe that there might be a subset of American Evangelicals who might want to support them… but by failing to frontload the novel with the existence of these Zionist Evangelicals, and by hanging the lampshade on the fact that the Sitka Zionists wouldn’t be able to do it without US aid, I think Chabon oversteers into conspiracy. The secret dominance of Evangelical ideology in American politics is something I am both interested in and skeptical of. Renegade Cut’s doc on Left Behind and the rise of Evangelical politics is fascinating and unnerving, but not entirely convincing. It may be the Marxist in me talking, but I don’t believe (or am not ready to believe) that the underpinning for this country’s most powerful conservative politicians is Evangelical Christianity–I believe, rather, that it’s greed and inertia. Sitka works as an alternate world because it operates on the same basic logic that drives our world: aggressive, violent Zionism as it is represented in the novel feels compelling because we can see our own form of Zionism every single day in the news. Chabon further hangs the lampshade–and again I think fails to compel me as a credulous reader–by waving away the notion that the US might want to install a Zionist government in Israel for political or economic reasons. Nope! It’s all millenarianism, all the time.
Which reads as kind of weak to me because I think it falls apart under the eye of the novel’s most compelling theme: ambition vs practicality, ethically and politically. Jews in Sitka are politically hungry; they’re politically starved. That’s how the left tendencies were turned on each other by uncle Hertz and COINTELPRO, and why the Verbovers were able to grow to such a size, and why there’s seemingly-universal cheering in the streets of Sitka when the Dome of the Rock is bombed (nuked? that’s a weak spot in the plot that felt too-quickly glossed over). It feels like the world is ending–especially if you’re Jewish–so naturally ideology has never been more appealing.
But for Zionist Evangelicals–for white Americans–there’s nothing to indicate that the world is ending. Maybe I’m a cynic, but does anyone here really think that China was pret to receive Hong Kong 1997 from the UK with sincere visions of a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat? Then why does such a large contingent of the US government–of the army, the state department, the CIA, and so on–in this novel seem to believe so bluntly and so whole-heartedly in the near Revelation, and the necessity of the Jewish people being in Jerusalem?
I still think that the book takes a flabby, decidedly white take on the issues of Indigenous sovereignty. Tlingit government is portrayed as just as craven and land-hungry as any other, and only a cop (which is a whole 'nother can of worms) can cut through the bullshit, man! No, naturally, YPU is more interested in questions of Jewishness–but given that the folly that underpins the climax is all about blood shed and little people killed in the service of lofty goals, it feels like a huge opportunity was missed to say, well, anything about Indigenous erasure and genocide.
Having Bina and Meyer come back together in the end feels trite. Having her do the whole western-tsundere “I still care about you dammit” thing misses an opportunity for what could have been a really interesting sub-narrative about how people fall out of love with each other. Not enough stories show us that it’s okay for a relationship to end–or rather to change into something less romantic, but potentially more emotionally and psychologically intimate.
Considering Chabon’s reputation for writing queer Jews in his other fiction, I was a little let down by the don’t-ask-don’t-tell handling of Mendel’s apparent gayness. There was a brief scene where I found myself asking–wait, is the Messiah trans? And I got really excited before I realized, no, this is just a kind of particularly British bit. Mendel’s queerness seems to be more in service of his general feeling that he’s unfit to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, rather than a root cause of it, which itself is never really explored.
I don’t know–I did find myself slightly let down by his handling of what is an admittedly exceptional premise for a detective novel: the Messiah is killed in a locked-room murder on the eve of a modern Diaspora.
Also–I had sort of hoped-against-hope that his whole James Elroy hard boiled schtick would peter out a little bit. Nope! God damn if Chabon’s not a good writer, though, regardless.