Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Yiddish Policeman's Union

I have a hard time with things that win awards--music, movies, people, and, of course, books. I don't want to like something because someone tells me I should. I'm a music elitist. As soon as a song is played on the radio, our musical love affair is over. I rarely watch movies that win those pesky little gold statues. Nope.
My resentment for rewarding (alleged) achievement comes from this idea that I have about people really only being motivated by the prospect of receiving a reward or recognition.

[Nerd Moment:

A child paints a picture and chooses to show it to an adult.
Adult's Incorrect Response: Oh, what a pretty picture.
Now, the child's artistic motivation comes solely from the desire to illicit the same response from the adult the next time. The child is robbed of a certain level of creativity and only creates to please others.
Adult's Correct Response: Oh, you painted that just the way that you wanted to.
Adult's Correct Response: I see you used a lot of [insert color]. Tell me about your picture.
In this scenario, the child is not being pushed in any one direction in search of artistic validation. Instead, the child retains the original spark of creativity and creates art to reflect his or her own desires. As we all know, art is not always pretty or beautiful. Sometimes, art's ugliness is what makes art meaningful.
As one can observe, an adult giving the incorrect response to the child can alter the way in which the child behaves. While praise is an important part of raising a healthy, well-adjusted child, it can be detrimental to the child's creative development, not to mention cognitive development.]


What brought on this bought of nerdiness?
Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, of course.

If Wikipedia is right (and why wouldn't it be?) Chabon has not been jaded by his experience as a successful author. (He got this silly little award, the Pulitzer Prize, for a previous book. Ever hear of a Pulitzer? Me neither.) That prize alone is enough for me to be irritated with him.
He turned down being listed as one of People's "50 Most Beautiful People." (I should know that pretty people get to choose if they want their face plastered onto this list, right? Still, I'm disturbed that the people agree to be on it. Apparently, being pretty and famous equates shit modesty. Who knew?) (Also, what kind of ego do you need to think "Yeah. I'll agree to be on that list. I'm better looking than 99.99999983% of the American population, not to mention the world population"?) Chabon also turned down an offer to be in a Gap ad. (Smart move. Not only is the boy modest, but he's unwilling to pose for corporations that demand free overtime from their sweatshop workers. I have no reason to know if this was his motivation. In my mind, it is.)

The Book:

A police detective and his cousin/partner try to solve the murder of a herion addict/former Messiah of the Jewish population/chess master/bestower of blessings. This leads them to all these crazy places as the murder turns out to be part of a terrorist-ish uprising and apparently involves about 95% of the city's population of four million.
  • I hate detective novels. (Except for my girl, Nancy. She was, and remains, the shit.) This book contains so many of the detective-y novel stereotypes. The hats. The divorce and regular and uncomfortable contact with the ex. Going places without permission. Bullet grazing scalp. Jumping to wild conclusions that just happen to be right. Getting drugged. Waking up locked in a little cell. Discovering that an accidental death was really a murder--that just happens to be related to this one. 
  • That wild conclusions thing--it really pisses me off. Excuse me, but if I recall correctly my 11th grade AP Government class taught us that police cannot just go busting in on you because they have a "hunch." Hunches are generally frowned upon. Hunches do not stand up in court. Hard evidence obtained with a warrant is appreciated, though. (That one goes out to you, too, Law & Order, CSI, and Generic Crime Show Knock-Offs.) 
  • I was amused, though, when our main character, Landsman, says, " I know I go a little too far. Play the hunches. The loose-cannon routine." Uh, durr.
  • These leaps of thought...sometimes the reader isn't invited along for the ride.
  • Landsman goes out on a rouge mission after having his badge taken away. He gets caught, drugged, and wakes up chained to a metal cot in a detainment room. Through some crafty moves, he breaks out of his cinder block cell and just happens to drag the cot he's handcuffed to through the window. Um, how big is this window? Also, what idiot put an a window that 1) is breakable and 2) big enough for a grown man and a cot to crawl through in a detainment cell. Detainment cell FAIL!
  • The story takes place in Sitka, Alaska. Not the Sitka, Alaska of The Proposal, though. Its a Sitka, Alaska in this alternate universe where the U.S. created a place for Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler and Ryan Reynolds does not bare his chest. I was disturbed that this book and a far-fetched romantic comedy chose the same (but different) setting. Movie Sitka poisoned Book Sitka for me.
  • As Chabon has imagined this real but fictional world, he takes liberties with facts. (Who was the first lady in the early 1960s? That would be Marilyn Monroe Kennedy. Duh.) This is amusing. And bothersome. Chabon alters the history of the world. Chabon's invented history is strange and hard for me to swallow. An exercise in re-imagining history is always educational and helpful, though.
  • Despite the conflicts that the Sitka Situation causes in the book, it is nice to imagine that the U.S. actually manned up and accepted Jewish refugees rather than turning their ship away and sending them to their deaths. (Yes. This really happened. High school textbook companies like to censor the material in order to make children believe that all Americans shit sunshine and roses, so it is likely y'all missed out on that tidbit. And don't give me crap about immigration quotas. Rules are made to be broken.)
  • The book is extremely descriptive--in a good way. It describes the things I want to hear about--wrinkled shirts, lost buttons, mummified bananas. Nothing puts me off a book faster than an overly long  description of a tree or a field. I'm not one for scenery. Give me a description of rotting fruit any day.
  • The back of the book includes praise from these little known newspapers and magazines: Washington Post, People, Publishers Weekly, New York Times. These bits of praise include such phrases as "Bloody brilliant," "Fearlessly descriptive,"  and "Terrifically funny." As I just told roommates not two minutes ago (in response to a friend's obnoxious roommate that thinks he is the shit. I assure he is not.), stop thinking you're awesome and maybe you would be. Remember that bit about praise ruining stuff?Yeah. It may not have ruined Chabon's style, but it ruined a lot of this book for me.  I have to dislike it because of my twisted principle.

There's an interview with Chabon at the end of the book. I read it. Of course.
  • Our lurvely author mentioned that he was going for a new style. One like a detective novel. I must give this a big, fat, Ah-ha! You're trying to please critics by spicing things up, aren't cha?
  • Chabon used shorter sentences. Like this one. To make it snappy. And full of fragments. So he could sound like a 1950s detective show writer.
  • Chabon actually admitted to going for the vintage thing in the article about him at the end of the book. Thanks, douche bag. Having proof that it was supposed to be all 1950s-ish altered the way I read the book. Shouldn't I be allowed my own interpretation rather than one polluted with sepia-toned images? Or choose what jaunty detective hats I want them wearing?


  1. Love love love Chabon. I even named my son after a character in a Chabon novel (Wonder Boys). That said, this wasn't my favorite Chabon novel, as I'm not a fan of detective fiction. Though I think this novel fell a little flat for me because it lacked Chabon's gorgeous prose.

    Try Kavalier and Clay for his best novel. Wonder Boys for his funniest. He's also a terrific essayist.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! I'll definitely have to look for those. I think I could really enjoy his work, but the detective angle really put me off.