Thoughts on the 2008 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel: The Yiddish Policeman's Union

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Non-fiction writers think the fictioneers have the easy jobs; after all, in non-fiction, you have to figure out how to portray what happened in an engaging manner, and almost everything you write is the refinement of many, many hours of research.

Fiction writers, on the other hand, think that the non-fics have it easy; after all, they already have reality to lay a framework on, while a fiction writer, even with research, must forge the body of the work from imagination—a hard meal to grind indeed.

Alternate history writers must have it pretty bad…. because now you have to imagine, fiercely, what could have been built upon the major excavation sites of what was. You have to really love (and/or strongly hate… strongly something, anyways) the history you’re going to unravel and re-weave.

Indeed, I think the best alternate history fiction pieces drop you into the world, such that you feel every pulse of it. In its way, alternate history is the epitome of world building, because in its pure essence, the world is the main character—and without a writer who can cup this world in his hand and show you all the little facets, there is little point to being alternate history. (In some ways, you could even regard Lord of the Rings as alternate history, and that would actually be a fitting classification for its style and heft.)

All those words preceding are my attempt to frame exactly the kind of magic the best alternate history throws upon the reader. I remember Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the winner of the 2005 Hugo for Best Novel, a story of an alternate history Victorian England where magic works, written in the style of that age. There was some serious atmosphere there. Working alternate history seems to mean working your prose to its highest degrees possible; refining fire to burn words of an unreality against the reality of what’s gone before.

Which is what The Yiddish Policemen’s Union does. I find myself re-reading the book and trying to figure out how Chabon does it. From the first page to the last, when I read this novel I feel that I am in this odd world where Yiddish never died, where an entire city is Yiddish, where black hats are the Yiddish mafia, complete with serious young men with automatics and neatly trimmed beards and four-corners. It’s not anywhere near as “magical” a world as Strange & Norrell, but there is some fantasy in it—the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the potential Messiah, is real in a way that the magical science in Susanna Clarke’s world is real; just a touch left of sense, the formula for miracles.

I think a key ingredient in the mix of a good alternate history is language. In Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Chabon constantly uses some of the oddest metaphors and similes, sometimes reflecting back into Yiddish and Jewish culture in the choice of words and allegory, sometimes playing upon the expectations of the reader of the noir work (even if said reader has never seen any noir apart from The Maltese Falcon). Linguistics was a favorite tool of Tolkien’s, too; the right words and the right meter shift the world just a touch left, enough so that you notice, but not enough so that you don’t think it’s real. Your thinking changes as you read the words—something pervasive, almost subliminal, a kneading of your world view that happens oh-so-craftily as you read and read.

The plot of YPU by itself leaves much to be desired. But it’s merely the framework for something more—it’s a mood piece, a mural of another history painted in words and impressions and verbal texture; a love song for another world in another place, where Say It in Yiddish would actually have a use apart from inspiring a cheeky writer to pen a Yiddish alternate history noir novel.

On re-reading, I think I made a mistake by voting for Brasyl in the top spot, with YPU in second. They really should be reversed.

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