The Jerusalem Post is unabashedly a right-wing paper, but to my mind its editorial stance is determined less by political conviction than by a parochial insistence on viewing the world through Jewish-tinted glasses. This is a paper that literally asks, of every event it reports or comments on, whether it is good for the Jews or good for Israel (the two are often used interchangeably) and quite often one gets the impression that, for its editors and writers, there is only one acceptable way to be pro-Israel. I had my doubts, therefore, about whether Freedman's piece would be worth reading, and at first glance those doubts seemed justified. The article opens not with Chabon but with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and with an essay in which she describes the process by which she arrived at an anti-Zionist point of view. "Chabon is Waldman's husband, and he dedicated the book to her as his 'bashert,'" Freedman concludes, "so it is hardly a risky stretch to believe that his work of fiction ratifies a worldview the couple shares."
Well, of course it's a risky stretch. Unless the work in question is as nakedly political as, say, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, it is both foolish and irresponsible to ascribe its political stance to its author (as Ian McEwan recently pointed out in a well-deserved smackdown to a Guardian reviewer who did just this in her review of On Chesil Beach). To top off this presumption with a reference to the political opinions of the author's spouse and then present this flimsy supposition as ironclad proof is nothing short of absurd, especially when coming from a professor of journalism at Columbia University. I was therefore surprised to discover that "Chabon's Choice" turns out to be a great deal more intelligent than its indefensible opening suggests. At the article's core is an intelligent reading of Chabon's novel, one that is sadly blighted by its author's apparent unwillingness to treat The Yiddish Policemen's Union as anything but a purely political work.
Freedman's main argument against The Yiddish Policemen's Union is that it, or more precisely Chabon, "appears to find landlessness and eternal wandering romantic." This conclusion is both correct and driven by inaccuracies in Freedman's reading. Although it is true that the novel's main character, the washed-up detective Meyer Landsman, and his boss and ex-wife Bina Gelbfish "exude not the slightest fear or anxiety" about the homelessness that will be their lot when the Alaskan Jewish settlement in Sitka reverts to US control in a few months (this is mostly because Landsman has despaired of his future in general, and Bina has plans to be absorbed into the incoming American police force), just about every character they meet, including the third member of the novel's primary character triad, Landsman's partner Berko Shemets, is. In fact, the novel's plot is driven by the fear and anxiety of Jews who don't wish to be displaced one more time, and resort to violence in their quest to ensure that they never need be again. Freedman also rather conveniently ignores the fact that these Jewish antagonists are not the novel's primary villains, a role reserved for fanatical Christian evangelicals, who against their Jewish co-conspirators' quite palpable fear and anxiety have nothing but a smug superiority and a desire to fulfill 'prophecy' to justify them. Is it not more likely that as an American, Chabon has saved his political darts for the targets that affect him directly, rather than aiming them at a nation on the other side of the world?
Nevertheless, there is no question that Freedman is right when he diagnoses the novel's fundamental attitude towards displacement. There is no other way of describing passages like the following:
You have to look at Jews like Bina Gelbfish, Landsman thinks, to explain the side range and persistence of the race. Jews who carry their homes in an old cowhide bag, on the back of a camel, in the bubble of air at the center of their brains. Jews who land on their feet, hit the ground running, ride out the vicissitudes, and make the best of what falls to hand, from Egypt to Babylon, from Minsk Gubernya to the District of Sitka. Methodical, organized, persistent, resourceful, prepared. Berko is right: Bina would flourish in any precinct house in the world. A mere redrawing of borders, a change in governments, those things can never faze a Jewess with a good supply of hand wipes in her bag.What Freedman doesn't acknowledge, however, is that Chabon's aggrandizement of the rootless lifestyle that, at the end of his novel, his characters have been doomed to, is not, as his column seems to suggest, an intellectually dishonest attempt to do away with the need for a Jewish state. It is a response--on Landsman's side, and perhaps also on Chabon's--to what the novel perceives as the great evil of territorialism. When Landsman angrily tells an American power-broker, who has just finished pitching Landsman their plan for establishing a new Jewish homeland, and possibly starting World War III in the process, that "[his] homeland is in his hat. It's in [his] ex-wife's tote-bag," he is not embracing a nomadic lifestyle. He is rejecting all other options in disgust. Over the course of the novel Landsman, driven by his fundamental decency and desire to see justice done, sloughs off all the layers of his self-definition--as a policeman, as a member of a religion, as a member of a nation--until all that's left are his convictions. At the end of the novel, he has narrowed that definition down to two simple predicates: he is the man who loves Bina Gelbfish, and the man who is going to do the right thing. Romantic? Yes. But not insipid or free of consequences.
I don't know Freedman's personal history--whether he has ever lived, even for a brief period, in Israel. If he hasn't, then it's possible that he can't understand just how powerfully The Yiddish Policemen's Union captures the corrosive effect of territorialism. I say this as someone who is a Zionist, who loves her country, and who hopes and plans to live here for the rest of her life: it can be exhausting to constantly define oneself as a member of a group, especially if that group's actions often challenge your most cherished beliefs. The temptation to fling off all but the most fundamental of allegiances can sometimes be overwhelming, and although I don't concur with Landsman's decision to do so at the end of The Yiddish Policemen's Union any more than I can understand Ayelet Waldman's choice to shirk off her Israeli identity because of the actions of a single prime minister, I also don't see that either choice is, as Freedman seems to believe, a refusal to engage with the issue at hand.
Refusal to engage is in fact Freedman's culminating accusation against Chabon and The Yiddish Policemen's Union:
Roth in Operation Shylock and The Counterlife and Roiphe in Lovingkindness drew powerful and often critical portraits of Israel's place (or lack thereof) in the existence of American Jews. Yet as writers of a certain generation, they did not need to eradicate Israel, or at the minimum treat it as a communal embarrassment, in order to depict something vital in the Diaspora experience. Roughly two generations younger, apparently imbued with the belief that Israel is a colonial, imperialistic oppressor, Chabon has found joy in, at least on paper, making it cease to exist.And there we have the fundamental fallacy of Freedman's argument: the belief that every decision in The Yiddish Policemen's Union was made first and foremost for political reasons. Never mind that the novel's genesis is in an article, "Say it in Yiddish" that Chabon wrote ten years ago, in which he imagines a modern Yiddish nation (for which, as this blog entry reports, he has also been roundly criticized by Yiddish-speakers who claim that the language isn't nearly as dead as he suggests. All I know is that in my personal experience of Yiddish-speaking enclaves in Israel, they are precisely the kind of ghettos Chabon describes in The Yiddish Policemen's Union). Never mind that for the sake of that alternate history, Israel as we know it can't exist. Never mind that the noir anti-hero has to reject the security offered by his corrupt society in exchange for his silence and tacit approval of its sins. Never mind that Chabon has been an outspoken proponent of bringing genre tropes and conventions back into literary fiction. None of these possible reasons for the form the novel ultimately takes are as persuasive as the political one, perhaps because Freedman can't imagine any reason to write a novel other than to make a political point.
I was thinking about Freedman's article when I read Nader Elhefnawy's review of Brian Aldiss's latest novel, HARM, in Strange Horizons. According to Elhefnawy, the novel, in which a British cartoonist of Muslim descent is jailed and tortured for making a joke about killing the prime minister, is "unambiguously (and for a publisher, intimidatingly) about the present War on Terror, and Paul's torturers, at the titular Hostile Activities Research Ministry, are unambiguously American and British officials." I was struck, while reading Elhefnawy's review, by how little he actually discusses the novel as a work of fiction. A significant portion of his review is taken up by plot description, and more importantly, by his highlighting of the ways in which HARM mirrors what is happening in the real world today.
Paul also remains in custody even after paranoia has ceased to be an excuse for detaining him, as his interrogators freely admit among each other. The American interrogator, Abraham Ramson, figures out in just one session early in the novel that Paul is not a threat and that it is a waste of time to hold on to him. Algernon Gibbs, the British manager of the facility, simply stubs out his cigarette and remarks "I'd nuke the lot of them, given the chance"—which is all that matters to him.It's hard to escape the conclusion that for Elhefnawy, HARM's virtue is rooted in its unadulterated mirroring of reality, which is entirely antithetical to my feelings about what makes good fiction. Elhefnawy closes the review by concluding that "HARM richly deserves a place in the canon of dystopian science fiction," but last time I checked, a dystopia was a work that imagined how the future might be, in its worst possible form, not a work that describes the present day. 1984 is powerful precisely because it can't be pinned down to a single era, or a single menace to our freedom and civil rights. It was famously written in response to Stalinism and then appropriated as a response to fascism, and it works equally well for both, as well as remaining a vibrant and terrifying warning in the face of present-day incursions into civil liberties, because its ultimate focus is the universal human tendency to give away freedom for the sake of the illusion of security (this universality is absent from Orwell's other anti-totalitarianism novel, Animal Farm, which is one of the reasons that it hasn't aged nearly as well as 1984). As Elhefnawy describes it, HARM is not so much a work of fiction as a work of fictionalized journalism, the kind of novel, like Operation Shylock, that Freedman deems justified in its criticisms of Israel because it traffics not in fancy but in slices of reality.
I've probably harped on this issue so often that it's become dull, especially in my discussions of Battlestar Galactica and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but I don't believe it's possible for a work of fiction to be good art and good propaganda at the same time. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a good novel, partly because it can't be boiled down, as Samuel Freedman attempts to do in "Chabon's Choice," to a political statement. I don't mean to say that art shouldn't be political, or shouldn't have a point of view. On the contrary, I think one of the hallmarks of great art is that it can win you over to a point of view, not in the sense of changing your opinions, but by placing the reader in an emotional frame of mind in which certain opinions are inevitable, at least for as long as the pages are turning. James Tiptree Jr. did this in some of her short stories--as I once wrote, one of the marvels of "The Screwfly Solution" is that it makes you frightened of a misogynistic tendency in all males that you probably don't even believe exists. Ian McEwan manages it in Saturday, when he makes us sympathize with an affluent, privileged Englishman who really hasn't done enough to earn his good fortune or try to spread it around. Russell T. Davies manages it in The Second Coming, an atheist fantasy whose fundamental assumption--that humanity has, en masse, outgrown religious belief--is untenable. All of these works, however, have more to offer than an opinion. Disagreeing with Tiptree or McEwan or Davies doesn't make it impossible for us to enjoy their work, and neither is that enjoyment predicated on accepting their viewpoints. This is, to me, the essence of worthy fiction.