Writing the detectives
Michael Chabon follows up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with some hard-boiled, reimagined history.
Author Michael Chabon already had a loyal following before he came out with 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. But when the epic novel hit the stands, Chabon went from a familiar name to one of the country’s most beloved novelists. The story of two cousins who rocket to comic-book superstardom in 1940s New York nabbed the Pulitzer Prize and carved an almost permanent spot on best-seller lists. He followed it up with the best-selling Summerland, a young-adult novel, and the novella The Final Solution.
His highly anticipated new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (HarperCollins, $26.95), is his first major work since Kav and Clay. The book takes its cue from a brief moment in 1939 when FDR’s administration discussed opening Alaska for Jewish settlement if Israel didn’t work out. Chabon’s novel is set in contemporary Sitka, Alaska, which is now inhabited by displaced Jews. The novel centers on Detective Meyer Landsman, who discovers a murdered man in the seedy hotel he calls home on the same day he learns his ex-wife has been promoted to be his boss. As the town prepares for “Reversion,” when Sitka loses its sovereignty and is returned to American control, the ex-wife tries to take the murder case off of his hands, but it could be Landsman’s last.
Where did the idea for this book come from? Were you reading about the proposal to settle Jews in Alaska?
At some point I heard of this thing, but I don’t know how I heard of it or when. It wasn’t until I wrote an essay that was a response to this phrasebook, Say It in Yiddish: A Phrasebook for Travelers. I wrote this essay trying to figure out what the publishers and authors had intended, since they published this book in 1958, when there was no immediately obvious destination to which one could travel in which the infrastructure was completely Yiddish. And I speculated about this crazy plan I’d once read about. Over the years I kept thinking about that place, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write a book set in that place.
But this happens because Israel loses the war and there’s a massacre of the Jews who moved there. It’s hard to read a book about Israel in the Middle East and not see it as a political choice by the author.
Maybe inevitably, but not deliberately on my part. Built into the whole idea of writing alternate history is the principle that you can’t take things for granted. Some of the things that tend to get taken for granted—for example, the victory of Israel in 1948—in retrospect seems like this fore-ordained thing, but it didn’t have to happen that way. I think ungranting those things might have political repercussions. In doing that, you can spin it politically any number of ways, but I wasn’t interested in that, I was more interested in the lives of my characters.
With Kav and Clay you have comics, and this book is written in a pulpy, noirish style, both of which are sometimes considered “low culture.” Do you see yourself as an advocate for genres that are traditionally looked down upon?
At this point, I have a continuing sense of amazement that people try to make those old arguments and distinctions. To me, genres are quality neutral. There’s this very sneaky, critical game that gets played: When something emerges strongly from a genre that’s considered de classé, it’s granted a kind of pardon. People say, “This is not really science fiction because it’s really good,” which is a way of making it so science fiction can never be good.
The Kav and Clay characters see the world through comics. Landsman and others here have the same relationship with chess. Was that a choice, to give these characters the same sort of lens?
Not really. It’s more the case that there are just things I’m interested in as lifelong interests or things I wish I knew more about—those are the things you build your fiction out of.
How are you at chess?
I’m terrible at it. And I really can’t stand the game. But I love reading about it, the history of it and the lore of chess. I just don’t have the taste for blood.
Chabon reads Monday 21 at the Harold Washington Library Center.