Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Christianne Alarmist-Librarian reviews Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union

I was not personally aware that the Jews had been relocated to Alaska, but I suppose it only makes sense.

The majority of my knowledge of the Jewish culture and religion comes from my husband's stories about that dreadful program on the Home Box Office Network, Curb Your Enthusiasm. I normally would never allow him to watch such a program, but my sister and her husband, who live down in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, have strayed from our flock. If it weren't for the efforts of myself and my husband I swear that my sister and her husband would immediately divorce one another and marry the nearest person of the same sex walking down the street. Which is, as I understand it, the law in Massachusetts.

This is why it is so important that my husband watch Curb Your Enthusiasm with my brother-in-law. Because it allows them to bond, spiritually. It is our belief that just as in the time of Christ Judaism gave birth to Christianity, so too will Curb Your Enthusiasm resurrect my poor dear sister's fallen soul. As for my brother-in-law, he can go to hell for all I care. He's the one, after all, who bought the DVD's. He's the one who plucked my sister's soul from heaven and placed it in the dumpster, as one places a slim and still-fragrant orange peel on top of a heaping pile of rotting garbage (i.e. Barney Frank's congressional district).

But her peel can be saved! It's still fragrant! I've smelled it! I've smelled it in the way she washes the dishes, in the way she admonishes her husband's off-color jokes about Our President, and in the way she bites at her lower lip whenever I'm around. Her peel can be washed!

After these Curb Your Enthusiasm Saturdays my husband, too, must be washed. On the drive back to New Hampshire I make him repeat to me every blasphemous and un-Christian thing that happened in the episode. This is how I wash him.

As we leave the city he is usually deeply embarrassed, and blushes, and usually begins with the words Larry David uses. He said a swear, my husband will say. What swear, I will ask, eager to hear what swear so that I can wash it away with my, as it were, spiritual hand sanitizer. I think it was a Jewish swear--M@sh#gg@!-something. Oh dear, I say, usually while applying actual hand sanitizer to the fronts and backs of my hands, because my sister, in her spiritual neglect, keeps an absolutely filthy home.

After the first swear, usually a Jewish one, my husband and I tend to keep silent for several long minutes. But then, once we leave the city, we begin to loosen up and we become more confident in our faith, and he tells me everything that happened. Who said what, what those pagans did, how some seemingly small detail of the story loops back on itself to bite Larry in the tush at the end. By the time we roll into our driveway we're so hopped up on our faith and hand sanitizer fumes that we're practically speaking in tongues, which, with all of those Jewish swears, we sort of are. And the funniest thing is that our Enthusiasm isn't Curbed at all--it's Redoubled! I think that the PAX network should launch a counterattack on HBO called Redouble Your Enthusiasm! Now that's a show I could watch!

Wow, thinking about that show I got a little carried away with my faith there--I was picturing how heretical that episode where Larry David accidentally sets the Manger Scene on fire must have been to watch. But that's how faith works. When faith carries you away, you gotta run with it. You gotta run with it like you'd run away from a flaming Manger Scene! Ha!

I'm sorry. Let's return to Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. From what I gather this Mr. Chabon must have watched quite a bit of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I cannot say this for certain, as I do not know Mr. Chabon personally, thank God, nor have I ever seen the show. What I can say, however, is that as I read Mr. Chabon's devilishly clever descriptions of the characters in the Jewish-Alaskan town of Sitka, what I pictured was this:

A whole city full of foul-mouthed, bald, sinning, and from what I gather very Jewish, Larry Davids. Needless to say the first 50 pages were utterly horrifying. But, as happens in the car rides from Boston, I quickly regained the strength of my faith, flipped open a couple bottles of hand sanitizer, breathed in their cleansing fumes, and began rolling through chapter after chapter of Mr. Chabon's wacky narrative as though they were episodes of Seventh Heaven.

But why, you ask, would I ever even want to touch such a novel, even while wearing several differently scented layers of antibacterial hand sanitizer? Because the library where I work was going to put this book up on the shelf, without thinking. Book Sense recommended it and, sheep that they are, the other librarians ordered two copies to put up on the shelves for anyone (children, adults, Christians, Jews, Moslems) to read. Luckily I caught the two copies on the shelving cart, checked them out under the secret library account I made for just such emergencies, and reported the other librarians to the Department of Homeland Security.

And so I read it, the whole thing, every night in the bathtub surrounded by antibacterial candles and opened bottles of hand sanitizer. It took all of my faith to stand up to it and its blasphemies. During this time my husband reports that I would sometimes talk in tongues in my sleep, and when he tried to describe the noises that issued from my unconscious mouth I quickly recognized them as passages from the book. For example this one:

A mob of black-hat Jews chugs its way, a freight train of grief, from the gates of the cemetery--the house of life, they call it--up a hillside toward a hole cut into the mud. A pine box slick with rain pitches and tosses on the surf of weeping men. Satmars hold umbrellas over the heads of Verbovers. Gerers and Shtrakenzers and Viznitzers link arms with the boldness of schoolgirls on a lark. Rivalries, grudges, sectarian disputes, mutual excommunications, they've been laid aside for the day so that everyone can mourn with due passion a yid who was forgotten by them until last Friday night. Not even a yid--the shell of a yid, thinned to transparency around the hard void of a twenty-year junk habit. Every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve. Now the pious of the Sitka District have pinpointed the site of their collective unworthiness and gathered in the rain to lay it in the ground (197).
Shtrakenzer? Yid? Twenty-year junk habit? Viznitzer? Shell of a yid? After repeating these phrases, foreign to him and now all too familiar to myself, my husband reported that in my sleep, as I lay on my back repeating Mr. Chabon's words, tears were running running across my cheekbones, away from each other, and onto the pillow.

This is not to say that in its Larry David-like fiendishness The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a great book. It is a good one, a fun one, and an entertaining one. I don't say this because in the novel's pages the Apocalypse did not actually happen, which is of course the truest sign of any truly great book. No. I say this because in spite of its prose, which is often sublime (I repeated it in my sleep, after all), it lacks something. Call it heart. There are times where the heart is there, as in the funeral scene of Mendele Shpilman quoted above, but more often than not the heart seemed to me to be almost purely linguistic. Call it "heart."

Or better yet, call it humor. The dark humor that saturates this book like a clammy Alaskan humidity never quite makes it to the places that, I hear from my husband, Curb Your Enthusiasm makes it to. There are genuinely funny lines, but overall the humor holds far too much back for my (husband's) tastes, as though it were more worried about not making a bad joke than about actually making good ones. The jokes are muted--muted and plentiful. Perhaps this reflects the muted beaten-down nature of the citizens of Sitka (its population is reported to be over 3 million, and is slowly being evacuated). Chabon never holds back as much as someone like Kafka, who--so I hear--never breaks a straight face. I would say, and I know this is harsh, that Chabon in fact holds back the exact wrong amount.

It reminds me most of the slapsticky tone and humor of Thomas Pynchon, who I have read and banned from my library, and who I've never found outrightly knee-slappingly hand-sanitizer-fumingly funny. Not funny like John Kennedy Toole or David Foster Wallace are funny--(I banned them, too). The humor, rather, is diffused throughout the--and I can't repeat this enough--absolutely brilliant and tenaciously inventive prose, so that as you read you find yourself "laughing" rather than laughing.

And don't get me wrong. It's not that I think that Michael Chabon missed his mark. I think he hit it dead center. I suppose what I can't figure out is why he would be aiming for that mark in the first place.

And yet I genuinely liked this book. It Redoubled My Enthusiasm! Heck, it Quadrupled My Enthusiasm! And so I didn't ban it. I merely shelved it, secretly and without the Department of Homeland Security's knowledge, in the Non-Fiction section. People should know about the plight of those poor Jews in Alaska--they just shouldn't know too much.

Here are my dogs:
Moral Note: We allowed Samson [bottom left] to wear the blasphemous Harry Potter costume because of how much he licks himself. We figure that if he's going to hell anyways, why not let him have some fun beforehand. Plus the wizard's robes make it harder for him to lick himself.

1 comment:

uncomplicatedly said...

Your dogs, madam, are delightful and offer an important visual allegory. As Larry David is Larry David is Larry David whether he's in a collared shirt or pearls or a t-shirt, as a Jew is a Jew is a Jew whether he is a Gerer or a Shtrakenzer or a Viznitzer, so a pug is a pug is a pug whether he be princess, wizard, or butch motorcycle person. None are quite to be trusted.