Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Michael Chabon's unwieldy new book

There's a sequence in Hearts of Darkness where Francis Ford Coppola says that his biggest fear is to make a movie with sweeping ambition that misfires, because then all you have is a long, pompous, shitty movie that fails the grand ideas you care about.

Apocalypse Now worked out pretty well. The Yiddish Policemen's Union doesn't. It's an overlong, exhausting grind, with one plodding sequence after another, no memorable characters, and hard-boiled dialog that feels more like a test of will than a creative flourish.

The premise is that, in 1948, Europe's Jews converge in a protectorate in Sitka, Alaska. Zionism didn't work out as planned. The U.S. offers Sitka instead. Instead of Israel, a couple of million Jews settle into Alaska, where they receive quasi-nationhood. The deal isn't permanent, though, and in the present-day setting of the book, Sitka is about to revert to U.S. possession, and its inhabitants are about to become exiles.

The book tries to be a hard-boiled murder mystery to boot. The lead character is a detective named Meyer Landsman. He's a divorced alcoholic. He works with his ex-wife. One day a junkie is found dead in the residential hotel where Landsman lives, and what ensues is 350 pages of leaden prose. First we get a tour of chess fanatics, and then Landsman's investigation focuses on the Verbovers, an isolated millennialist sect that he thinks was involved in the murder.

All of this sounds promising enough, but Michael Chabon lived out Coppola's nightmare. He's written a book that fails on almost every level. Landsman is not a likable protagonist, but worse, he's not believable as a person. Neither is anyone else. The plot is smaller than the sum of its parts. It fails as a murder mystery. It's written with a leaden prose, presumably intended to mimic Dashiell Hammett and his generation. Instead, the language is exhausting.

Chabon establishes the Sitka polity effectively, and he gets credit for his premise. The book's most difficult trick was probably to establish a credible state-within-a-state comprised entirely of resettled Alaskan Jews, and he pulled that off. But Landsman's personal melodramas and the endless circus of his murder investigation obscure his larger points about political and cultural identity. He fell so in love with his genre that he lost track of his bigger ambitions.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay seems to be one of the best-loved books in the past 10 years. I see it on a shelf in every apartment. It was a good book that peaked halfway through and gasped out to its conclusion. Wonder Boys was one of the rare instances where the movie was better than the book, which, like Policemen's Union, was too often sidetracked by dead-end set-pieces (there was the whole bit with the dead snake) and an oddly self-satisfied tone.

Policemen's Union is a huge disappointment, and it kind of hurts. I've heard Chabon on Fresh Air and read interviews with him. He's enthusiastic and unpretentious, a real book person, someone I like and want to root for. Novelists and musicians, I try to give the benefit of the doubt. It takes a certain amount of courage to put yourself on the line this way. When I don't like a book or an album, I'm usually content to assume that the chemistry wasn't right for me and hope that other people will appreciate it differently.

But Michael Chabon is not an obscure struggling writer, and Policemen's Union isn't merely uneven. It is painfully bad.


waterloo said...

Agreed on all counts. I didn't even finish the book, it was that bad. That hasn't happened to me since Pynchon's "Against the Day" ("Heyday," incidentally, reads like an edited version of that book).

CrimeNotes said...

I just wonder how something could misfire so badly on so many levels. Take Ian McEwan's Saturday -- the only other novel that I've really savaged on this site. There, the underlying idea of the novel was lousy, and McEwan's seemed to end up over his head. He made a series of terrible decisions, and overall, it felt like it was written by an entity who literally had never interacted with a human being.

This book had the ingredients to be something special. The idea was clever and original, and Chabon has a good touch when it comes to blending serious and lighthearted. So what went wrong? The whole book felt confused and lost. Was it his editor's fault? Did he just get too immersed in a genre? What's the explanation for the dreary, meandering writing? Unlike Saturday, this book didn't seem beyond repair. What gives?

waterloo said...

I wonder if Chabon made the mistake of sacrificing character for plot and setting. Good novels seem to start with a good character and place the in an appropriate setting, not vice versa. Chabon's characters were flat. This can happen in noir fiction, but in most cases noir characters have a more convincing internal conflict.

I'd have to go back, but I also recall that Chabon was pretty hamfisted in revealing plot devices (a friend once called this "maid and butler dialog"). Stuff like, "And then he realized ..." It was like reading a screenplay for an episode of "Family Guy."

It reminded me of that one time I read a bad book by a really great author ...

winston said...

I'm halfway through, and I don't hate it. It's not his best, but the premise is interesting enough to sustain me. Plus, I find the liberal use of Yiddish slang entertaining.

CrimeNotes said...

I thought that the Yiddish was interesting too, and I also liked the premise. For maybe a 40 or 50 page stretch in the middle, I thought that it was starting to come together and that my initial reaction had been tough -- and then, nothing.

I'm glad that you like it, though. I think he has a lot of talent and I want him to do well, but I also feel like he still hasn't found a project that lets his talent fly, like Jonathan Letham had with "Fortress of Solitude." My favorite thing he's written is still the title story to "Werewolves in Their Youth." Come back and comment when you're done.

franQ said...

Hearing all this talk of the new Chabon release makes me a little sad…

A year ago, I would have been thrilled and no doubt attended his book signing. He’s been my favorite author since I first read his debut novel THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH back in the early 90s.

But I can no longer support the work of an author who has no regard for the story and characters that put him on the literary map.

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a film version of MOP coming out later this year… Written and directed by the guy who brought us DODGEBALL, in which he’s CHANGED 85% of Chabon’s original story.

And the sad part is… Michael Chabon himself APPROVED of the script! WHY would he do this? I can only think of one possible answer: $$

If you are a Chabon fan, esp MOP, I suggest you do NOT see this movie. You will be sadly disappointed at the COMPLETE removal of the gay character, Arthur Lecomte, and the fabrication of a romantic love triangle between Art Bechstein, Jane Bellwether, and a bi-sexual Cleveland Arning. And really, what is MOP without the presence of Phlox Lombardi? Alas, she’s barely in it.

CrimeNotes said...

I don't know, I think once a novelist sells rights to the movies, the final product is out of his hands and it needs to be regarded separately. The movie has a life of its own independent of the book, and sometimes what works in print doesn't work in film. Tom Wolfe bitched up a storm about "The Right Stuff," but that may be another rare instance where the movie is better than the book. The adaptation of "The Human Stain" might have been wobbly (I never saw it) but that in no way diminishes what I thought of the novel.