What Pajiba's Reading / Dustin Rowles
Book Reviews | April 30, 2007 | Comments ()
As much as I pride myself on being a good reader (I make an effort to maintain a book-a-week pace, life’s obstacles be damned), I don’t read literary criticism, I rarely read book reviews (aside from EW’s 150-word blurbs), and I know very little about the big literary debates of the day. I read authors I know and love, books recommended by friends, and occasionally take a suggestion from Booksense. But, I am familiar with relatively recent convergence of popular fiction and literary fiction, though the specifics are a little murky: Popular fiction apparently has something to do with commercial success and evoking emotion; while literary fiction is more about ideas and critical success. The two furthest ends of the spectrum, say John Grisham/Danielle Steele vs. Toni Morrison/Don DeLillo, seem fairly clear. But, lately, highbrow and lowbrow have been getting busy with each other, and the bastard love children of the movement seem to be Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, and Susannah Clarke, among others (the latter of whom I would lump into the “insufferable fiction” category, but that’s just me). The blending of the two types of fiction also apparently has something to do with genre — if you write literary novels within a particular genre, then you belong in the pop-literary category, I guess. The term genre-fiction apparently refers to books with plot, as opposed to “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story,” as described by Chabon. I don’t really understand all the rules; I just like to read the books, people.
But huge fans of Chabon (among whose ranks we count ourselves) are all-too-familiar with his end-goal to “annihilate all literary categories,” which he started with the amazing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the Sherlock Holmes short novel, The Final Solution, and continues with his latest, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, a literary novel that dabbles in the “lowbrow” genres of historical fiction, noir, and the ever-popular chess novel. All of which means nothing to me, unless it’s also an entertaining read.
And it is — at least until the final one hundred pages or so, when The Yiddish Police’s Union crumbles under the weight of all those goddamn genres he’s trying to juggle. The premise itself is infinitely intriguing, taking a page out of Phillip Roth’s brilliant The Plot Against America, where history is reimagined, only here Charles Lindenberg isn’t elected President; instead, Franklin Roosevelt’s suggestion that part of Alaska become the new Jewish homeland becomes a reality. In 1948 (“strange times to be a Jew”), Congress establishes the Sitka Settlement in the panhandle of Alaska, granting the settlement interim status (“No Jewlaska” as newspaper headlines read), which would run for 60 years, at which time the land would revert to the state of Alaska, and the Jews “would be left once-again to shift for themselves.”
And that’s where The Yiddish Policeman’s Union begins, about two months before the reversion. Enter Meyer Landsman, the novel’s hard-drinking, self-hating hero detective, who is living in the decrepit Hotel Zamenhoff after divorcing his wife, Bina, who is now his superior at the police department. Landsman is a Yiddish version of a Chandler character crossed with Martin Riggs, a loose canon without the firepower (the Yiddish Police do not carry firearms). At the Zamenhoff, Landsman discovers the body of a neighbor, an unidentified heroin-addicted chess prodigy with a hole in the back of his head. And, for reasons that remain unclear for a good deal of the novel, no one wants the murder solved, though Landsman doggedly investigates the case — along with his cousin partner, Berko — over everyone else’s objections.
Chabon has created a fascinating world — full of black-hat Jews, Verbovers, rebbes, yids, Tnglits, the noz, Russian schtarkers, conspiracy theories, and the FBI — all described with a healthy dollop of Yiddish. And there are passages in Yiddish Policeman’s Union that are so unbelievably, breathtakingly composed (“the shave of his jowls as fresh as two droplets of blood”) that I found myself rereading them several times over. Take, for instance:
Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.
With a lesser author, one can imagine that the beautifully florid passages and extended exercises in wordplay (the literary stuff) might threaten to get in the way of the story’s momentum, which is a particular problem when dealing with noir, a genre generally characterized by blunt, spare language — just the facts, if you will. It’s a testament to Chabon’s storytelling talents that, for the most part, he’s able to drive the murder-mystery forward despite stopping off for paragraphs at a time to make observations about a man’s ass.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses and his Yiddish Bucky Bleichert gives way to a larger apocalyptic conspiracy theory, the momentum screeches to a grinding halt, and the final quarter — which should be the page-turniest of the novel — labors and wheezes to its disappointing, anti-climactic conclusion. I wanted The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon set in Jewish Alaska, but Chabon instead takes us into Tom Robbins territory without the satirical bent, as he connects the intimate story of one chess-player’s murder to larger world events. A noble effort, for sure, but not even a man of Chabon’s considerable talents can walk, chew gum, pat his head, rub his tummy and triple-somersault over tall buildings at the same time. I’m all for highbrow authors mixing aspects of literary and genre fiction — I just think they should stick to one or two genres at a time.
David Bledin’s debut, Bank: A Novel, on the other hand, doesn’t aspire to be great literary fiction, but it is an infinitely enjoyable read that sticks to the suddenly popular workplace-hell subgenre, and does it incredibly well. Comparisons to the The Devil Wears Prada are inevitable and not entirely unfair, as Bank focuses on the narrator, Mumbles, a first-year investment banking analyst who endures hellish 120-hour weeks crunching numbers and fiddling with Excel spreadsheets under the supervision of first, The Sycophant, and later, The Crazy Brit, the novel’s slave-driving Miranda Priestley character. Among the cast of characters are his co-workers, Postal Boy (a pasty, eye-twitching high-strung analyst who is always on the brink of losing it and creating “The Columbine of the banking world”), the Defeated One (Mumbles’ coke-snorting cynical best friend at the bank), and the Woman with the Scarf, the novel’s lawyer/love interest and target of romantic awkwardness.
The novel explores familiar territory for anyone who has read Adam Davies’ The Frog King — trips to Starbucks, cubicle rage, girlfriend neglect, co-worker adultery, office shenanigans, and emails accidentally sent to the wrong person — but it is, at times, hilarious, and at others, surprisingly endearing. Indeed, Bledin (a former investment banker) manages to do the unthinkable here by humanizing the plight of a number cruncher who spends 18 hours a day in front of spreadsheets, and does so while creating a healthy amount of suspense around something as seemingly mundane as the size of a bonus. But the novel’s main focus is whether Mumbles will be fired, resign, or have a nervous breakdown first and, unlike The Devil Wears Prada, Bledin offers, at least, a more realistic conclusion.
It’s not a particularly ground-breaking novel, nor is it as good as Joshua Ferris’ recently released workplace-related Then We Came to the End, but Bank is an immensely entertaining book propelled by Bledin’s sharp wit, clever sense of humor, and affection for his characters.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.