Saturday, July 21, 2007

Beware, Politics Ahead

My review of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union will appear in Strange Horizons next month. It will, I believe, be the first time an Israeli has reviewed the book (this is obviously your cue, loyal AtWQ readers, to point out the fourteen instances of reviews by Israelis which I have unaccountably missed), although I can't say that my reaction to it is primarily influenced by my national identity. Nevertheless, there's no doubt in my mind that the novel, an alternate history in which Jews flee Nazi persecution and later a lost war for Israeli independence to a temporary safe haven in Alaska, will have a different resonance with Israeli readers than it has had, thus far, with non-Israelis, and I am very curious to see what the Israeli literary establishment makes of it once the inevitable translation appears. An early example of one possible reaction was provided this week by the English-language daily The Jerusalem Post. Samuel Freedman, who writes a column on issues relating to American Jews, dedicated an entry, titled "Chabon's Choice", to The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

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.

13 comments:

Dotan Dimet said...

Perhaps it's Freedman familiarity with Israeli culture that's guiding him: For a long while (before "genre" or "kid lit" became "hot"), whenever an Israeli writer ventured out of the mainstream and into SF, it was usually for purely political purposes.
Amos Keynan used to say he was writing Political Fiction, not Science Fiction.

Anonymous said...

The reviewer begins with a territorial question about whether there are as yet any or many Israeli reviewers of Chabon's new book. I wonder what the reception to Chabon's earlier book with the provocative title "Final Solution" was in Israel.

As one of those who was put off by Chabon's solipsistic and perhaps even then antagonistic fantasies about "Say it in Yiddish," I share Freedman's concerns about Chabon's current intentions. Chabon's popularity and publicity is more than sufficient to convey them to his eager fans in the guise of a novel. If his work is left uncriticized in this aspect, any distinctions remaining between Chabon's and Waldman's "artful" political statements and those of Rachel Corrie's ilk will diminish in the minds of their fans, to the harm of those "parochial" Jewish concerns that might still be important in Israel and among Jews elsewhere.

I note that there was some concern about Freedman's qualifications --
whether he has has spent any time living in Israel. I might similarly ask where, other than the ghetto of Berkeley, California, are the geographic and ethnic locales that inform Chabon's fantasies?

I also note that the reviewer writes "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)." I think that statement merits some analysis, and, the reviewer having said that, wouldn't her further review necessarily be redundant?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Dotan:

For a long while ... whenever an Israeli writer ventured out of the mainstream and into SF, it was usually for purely political purposes.

True, but Chabon is American. As is Freedman. I'm really not certain whether his perspective on the novel derives from an ignorance of genre or from a willful blindness.

Anonymous:

It isn't clear to me whether you expect a response to your comment, which despite posting as a response to my essay you have chosen to address to an invisible audience, referring to me only as 'the reviewer'. Nevertheless, a few comments.

I wonder what the reception to Chabon's earlier book with the provocative title "Final Solution" was in Israel.

The Final Solution may have a provocative title, but it is a great deal less problematic, from an ideological and political standpoint, then The Yiddish Policemen's Union. It was published in a Hebrew translation last year, and the one review of it I was able to track down was complementary but not particularly in-depth.

If his work is left uncriticized in this aspect, any distinctions remaining between Chabon's and Waldman's "artful" political statements and those of Rachel Corrie's ilk will diminish in the minds of their fans

Well, again, that's assuming that a) The Yiddish Policemen's Union is primarily intended as anti-Zionist propaganda, b) Chabon and Waldman are operating as a cohesive block to further a political agenda. As I say in my essay, I don't accept either assumption.

I note that there was some concern about Freedman's qualifications --
whether he has has spent any time living in Israel


That's not what I said. My point was that it is possible that Freedman doesn't have first-hand experience with an aspect of Israeliness that The Yiddish Policemen's Union captures. It doesn't follow that Freedman isn't qualified to respond to the novel--merely that his reading of it might be affected by his lack of first-hand experience.

I do take your point, that Chabon probably has no more experience of day-to-day Israeli life than Freedman. Nevertheless, he has managed to capture an element of that existence that resonates with me.

I think that statement merits some analysis, and, the reviewer having said that, wouldn't her further review necessarily be redundant?

I'm not certain what you mean by this. I was speaking of the ultra-orthodox enclaves in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, little shtetls where life often seems to have stopped changing a hundred years ago.

Abigail's Mom said...

Indeed, I had to read Anoymous's comments three times before I could get past HOW he made them and figure out WHAT he was trying to say: Freedman right; Abigail wrong.

Of course, he's entitled to his opinion.

I'm just curious how a person so obviously unfamiliar with the norms of posting on this blog found his way here in the first place!

[For the record, Abigail and I have discussed this issue at length. I agree that she is correct when she calls Freedman to order for confusing literary genre with political writing.]

marc said...

could you email me urls to your writings on Battlestar Galactica
and Studio 60

I wanted to thank you for your analysis of Yiddish Policeman's Union. Our book group discussed it but missed a lot of the territoriality subtext. As the only Jew in the group, I provided a set of note on the Yiddish and cultural items but only got as far as suspecting it of being a criticism of Imperialistic Israeli policy.

I was also stuck by the successful re-creation of the ghetto attitudes that I find more in people of my parent's generation, the idea the the world is out to get them.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
msobel@marcsobel.com

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Marc,

You can use the labels on posts to find the ones relating to specific subject. Here are the entries I've written about Battlestar Galactica, and the ones about Aaron Sorkin (not just Studio 60 but also The West Wing) are here.

I was also stuck by the successful re-creation of the ghetto attitudes that I find more in people of my parent's generation

Yes, that's something I touch on in my review, although my perspective is more that Chabon failed to imagine ways in which the Yiddish ghetto mentality might change and develop after sixty years of virtual self-rule.

Ilana said...

Um...I write for the Jerusalem Post and so far, I think it's safe to say that if my articles have leaned in any particular political direction, it was left.

Abigail's Mom said...

Ilana,

Then you are the exception.

I've been reading the Jerusalem Post ever since I came on Aliyah in 1971. The editorial slant of the paper has always been right of center. It's shifted further right with the years.

Ilana said...

The regular paper is certainly slanted (and on that topic, are there any UNslanted newspapers in Israel?) but my dispute was with the statement that every single feature article is imbued with these political biases. That's taking it farther than is strictly true.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

the statement that every single feature article is imbued with these political biases

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that I don't believe I made such a sweeping statement, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a newspaper's editorial page to reflect its political stance. While I'm sure it's not impossible to find a right-wing editorial in Ha'aretz, you'd mostly expect them to run left-wing pieces, wouldn't you?

Ilana said...

Hi Abigail,

I reread your entry and it is true that your comments are somewhat less sweeping than I initially thought. What had caught me was this "This is a paper that literally asks, of every event it reports or comments on..."

Every event? Not really.

But that's probably a minor point.

Abigail's Mom said...

Every event? Not really.

Sorry, Ilana, but it's that awful old Yiddish joke: a zoologist is invited to speak at a local synagogue. His subject? "The Elephant and the Jewish Question."

The Jerusalem Post has always been guilty of reporting straight news from a skewed Jewish/Israeli perspective.

Matt Whyndham said...

As a recent reader of TYPU, I looked forward to this, but it turned out to be a review of a critic rather than a review of the novel! re the novel itself, dare I suggest that there's something in it for everyone, and that it doesn't have to be about Jewishness per se?

Post a Comment