Light bleeds in among the cracks

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
by Michael Chabon

I found this book hard to read and I’m finding it hard to write about, but I don’t want to give the wrong idea. It’s hard in a brilliant, literary way. And it’s sort-of SF. Which I took a while to twig to.

In a big Jewish settlement in Alaska (that should have been my first clue that something was askew), detective Meyer Landsman is called in to the scene of a murder in the very same seedy hotel that he lives in. The dead man was a junkie who played chess – and that’s all anyone seems to know. Landsman’s lifelong love–hate relationship with chess has him intrigued by the case but he is almost immediately told to drop it by his boss, who is also his ex-wife. She is tidying up loose ends before administration of the Sitka district is handed back to the USA, as the Jews’ 50-year lease on the land is about to end.

“She puts a hand to his mouth. She has not touched him in three years. It probably would be too much to say that he feels the darkness lift at the touch of her fingertips against his lips. But it shivers, and light bleeds in among the cracks.”

There is so much going on this novel and it’s all wrapped up in gorgeous language, a combination of the purple prose of, say, Raymond Chandler, and Yiddish. Yes, Yiddish, which I am not so learned in, I must admit. And there’s also a fair selection of outright obscure words (a “hortatory cigarette”, anyone?). Which makes for brilliant quotes (I have marked so many pages in this book) but does not allow a quick read.

“Until this minute Landsman didn’t realize what he and every noz in the District, and the Russian shtarkers and small-time wiseguys, and the FBI and the IRS and the ATF, were up against…You could lead men with a pair of eyes like that. You could send them to the lips of whatever abyss you chose.”

Landsman of course does not drop the case and drags in his partner for good measure, a half-Native-American, half-Jew called Berko Shemets. Which gives Chabon the opportunity to discuss the effect a sudden mass-immigration of Jews immediately following the Second World War might have had on the local Alaskan population, not to mention on US politics in general. Social history, race, religion and culture are central to the story. The Jews are split between the averagely devout, the really devout, or “black hats”, and the…lapsed.

Unsurprisingly, Landsman is the latter. He is your typical detective – divorced, family all dead, a drunk, without faith, obsessive about his work and he chain smokes. He loves his friend Berko but is not above using him badly. He also (and/or perhaps Chabon) has a wry sense of humour.

“Landsman watches the progress of Elijah the Prophet and plans his own death. This is a fourth strategy he has evolved to cheer himself when he’s going down the drain. But of course he has to be careful not to overdo it.”

Despite the familiar trappings of a typical whodunit, with an action-packed story and a variety of bad guys who are linked in various ways, this is not a rip-roaring read because it is just too complex for that. I found it hard to follow and I am honestly sure if this was deliberate or if it was me struggling with the language. There are definitely facts held back, not fully explained until later. And the characters, while being realistically unstraightforward, are kept at a distance, because we effectively experience the story from Landsman’s perspective and he is almost perpetually drunk, so it’s tough to get to know even him.

“Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss. That is part of the policeman’s job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor.”

This novel is to some extent an intellectual exercise. There’s more than one “What if” scenario being played out, but there’s also a lot of general information about Jewish tradition, history and culture, some of which I felt I was expected to already know, to recognise from page one and be at home with. Add to that all the chess discussion and there was a fair bit of this book passing me by. But I kept going, because though I found it tough, I also found it beautiful, in a rough and dirty sort of way.

“The reporters have tumbled their way through the black hats…they haul out the questions they have brought. They unpocket them like stones and throw them all at once. They vandalize the woman with questions.”

First published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate in 2007.
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2008.

The problem with build-up

Great House
by Nicole Krauss

I loved Krauss’s two previous novels, Man Walks Into a Room and The History of Love. Add in that this book was shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize and you have some pretty high hopes and expectations. Were they met? Kinda, ish, not really.

This was one of those books that I started…not struggling with, but I wasn’t particularly drawn into it. Krauss creates complex, believable characters with distinct voices and interesting histories and weaves a story that slowly links these disparate people together, but it took a while for me to be hooked. Once I was, though, I was thoroughly hooked and stayed up far too late three nights in a row to get to the end.

Just one more chapter

This isn’t exactly one story, it’s the tale of several lives that are linked by a desk. Yes – a desk. It isn’t entirely clear, when you meet some characters, how they are connected. The stories come together from various angles, usually made more obtuse by having the narrator of that section not really be the person that it’s about. So there’s Nadia, a writer in New York who spends one night with an enigmatic Chilean poet and then never sees him again, though he haunts her whole life. There’s Arthur in London, caring for his dying wife who is losing her memory. There’s Izzy, an American student at Oxford who falls in love with an Israeli who can never be as close to her as he is to his sister.

“Great House” is a term from Jewish history, originally a quote from the Book of Kings. Most of the characters in the novel are Jewish and the action keeps coming back to Jerusalem and also to the Second World War. The timeline is not always clear, though every so often a date is thrown in to the narrative. It takes a while to puzzle out the desk’s journey across the world and it doesn’t help that there are some red herrings along the way. But while figuring out how the characters are linked is a interesting exercise, you could just as easily read this as separate stories because each one is beautifully written and in most cases I was sorry to get to the end and have to switch to a new narrator again.

I do have a couple of gripes. The book takes in a lot of locations and I thought it telling that New York, which is the author’s home, is not really described and yet is completely believable as a location, whereas Oxford is painstakingly detailed in terms of streets walked down and pubs visited and yet did not feel at all real. Similarly Liverpool. And, frankly, Arthur’s leafy London suburb could have been anywhere, though he doesn’t leave home much so that might be unfair. Jerusalem was better-realised though it didn’t completely come to life for me.

My other gripe is that two sections are told by and about characters whose link to the rest is, if I’ve understood it right, so slight that it seems out of place to have given them so much of the book. It does seem like the link might get stronger after the book ends, but that’s just supposition on my part.

Overall, the strength of the characterisation overcomes everything else for me and I like the book but I didn’t love it like her previous novels.

First published in the USA in 2010 by W W Norton.
Paperback edition published 2011.

On a related note, this month’s Radio 4 Book Club was with Nicole Krauss. They were talking about The History of Love but a lot of her answers are also relevant to Great House, particularly one about developing characters’ voices.