Home > 2000, Abandoned books, American Literature, Chabon Michael, Crime Fiction, Novel, Science Fiction > I expected a chef, I got a short-order cook

I expected a chef, I got a short-order cook

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. 2007. 454 pages. French title: Le Club des policiers Yiddish. Translated into French by Isabelle Delord-Philippe.  

Ingredients:

Two policemen with very different characters. One must have the usual characteristics of a crime fiction investigator, policeman or PI. He’s been crashing for ages in a dump hotel room since his tumultuous divorce. He drinks heavily but still has a sharp mind when it comes to solving crimes. If possible, add family issues, like an obnoxious father who committed suicide and an uncle who has muddy relationships with the law. The other policeman must be his opposite, happily married, with children, the kind of guy who smells of cereals and baby lotion but can still play the tough guy when needed. It is recommended to add an identity problem, such as a mixed blood origin between an Indian man and a Jewish woman.

A setting. Choose an improbable place no one knows in a rough environment. Try to be original, like Sitka in Alaska. If the book is a success like Twilight, the city might even benefit from tourist tours. If you want, you can mix reality with fake history. It is called alternate history. You imagine what would have happened if an historical decision had been made another way. It’s a good thing as, in case of Jewish policemen, it might even relate you to Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, which is a good reference. And it could attract SF readers in addition to crime fiction readers.

A murder. It has to be mysterious. Try to mix personal drama, like a stiff obsessed by chess game like the policeman’s deceased father. If the murder reaches the policeman personally, it will give him a reason and the energy to overcome difficulties, fear and pressure to solve the mystery at any cost. The corpse must belong to an odd guy. A fake identity will spice things up as the policemen will have to research his ID before starting to look for his murderer.

Side characters: Think of several funny or frightening or controversial side characters.

Spices: Whatever you want as long as it tastes better. Try to be original, like using loads of Yiddish words so that your characters’ speeches sound more genuine or having the policeman’s ex-wife become his boss.

After you have gathered the ingredients.

Set the computer on Word. Grease a 450 pages book tin. Cream the two policemen together until they have a real connection. Stop when the dough creates phrases as

According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Lansman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.

Warm the events and side characters in a pan and add to the mixture. Mix well to a stiff consistency. Put into the tin and write until the 450 pages are done. Let it cool down and sell it to a publisher.  

A couple of years later.

By then it lays on a display table in a French bookstore where a reader named Emma buys it. She takes it home, put it on the TBR shelf and after a while decides to have it for her next reading fest. She chews a few chapters and quickly needs a break in the form of a British short story. She resumes reading her dish and after a couple of chapters, wants a sip of Lermontov. Then after 164 bites of the Jewish policemen recipe, she decides she can’t stomach it, pushes her plate away, gets up and fetches a Fred Vargas as a dessert.  

For a serious review of Michael Chabon’s book, read Wikipedia.

  1. July 7, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Funny review! Maybe, only maybe, it would have been better in English? I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and it was ok. Not great, not painful either, rather entertaining but not more. I thought this one might be a good book but some of it sounds very cliché and forced. I watched Wonder Boys on TV a while back and liked it very, very much and later bought the book. I really hope it is better than this one. Oh – I just realized I also got The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay…

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    • July 7, 2011 at 9:12 am

      It was meant to be funny, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I don’t think the translation is a problem here.
      Are his other books crime fiction too?
      This one sounded it like a student following a MO and not written by someone who gets a real kick at writing this genre.

      Like

      • July 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm

        Yes, it is always a crime blend but they are not really crime fiction and that’s maybe why it didn’t work for you. He adds the elements. Pastiche. Wonder Boys is about writing and if, like so often, the book is better than the movie it would be very good. In any case I would never expect anything very profound. His wife is by far the better writer (Ayelet Waldman. I mentioned her in my last post. I really, really like her.)

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        • July 7, 2011 at 10:35 pm

          I like light books too. If it is a pastiche, I missed it. I may try another of his books but it’s not a priority.

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  2. leroyhunter
    July 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Great review – I laughed! Love the short-order cook as well.

    I must admit that, for no very good reason, I am allergic to Michael Chabon. Reviews of his books (I mean newspaper reviews) say a lot of things that should make his work attractive to me, but I end up running the other way.

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    • July 7, 2011 at 10:38 pm

      Thanks. Tant mieux si cela t’a fait rire.
      It seemed to be something I’d like too. I think he tried too hard to write crime fiction or noir or whatever the name that it sounded fake. At least for me. It’s well written though.

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      • July 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm

        This doesn’t bode well for the copy I have on my shelf (a gift). This is a book I would not have bought for myself, but I’ll try it at some point. I’ve never read this author, but I heard that every book is a change of pace.

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        • July 9, 2011 at 8:54 pm

          It’s not a book I would have chosen for you. I’ll be curious to read your review.

          Like

  3. July 9, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    That was a lot of fun.

    I hope I enjoy the book more than you though, because I own a copy too.

    Chabon’s interesting because he started out in literary fiction but has very publicly moved to genre. His novel Gentlemen of the Road is a historical fiction homage to classic swords and sorcery fiction such as Elric and Fahfrd & the Grey Mouser. This is an exploration of crime fiction. Along with Iain Banks he’s the only writer I know who started in literary and transferred to genre.

    The thing is though Banks always wanted to be an SF writer. He just couldn’t get published as one so wrote more mainstream fiction. Once he was established with that he wrote SF too, and personally I think his SF is much better than his praised literary fiction (I’d read The Player of Games over The Crow Road anytime).

    Chabon though, it’s trickier. I’m not sure why he had a crisis of his art but I wonder if he was being true to himself with those early novels. Now he’s writing genre, but he’s come to it as an outsider and I think that’s what you pick up on when you talk about him trying to hard.

    As that wikipedia page notes this won four SF book awards and was shortlisted for a couple more. It was as I recall a slightly controversial choice for at least one of those awards, with some arguing that he shouldn’t get it because he wasn’t a proper SF writer. As far as I’m concerned though if his was the best SF novel of the year it deserved to win. It’s really that simple. Whether it was is a matter for the judges and the competition that year.

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    • July 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      I’m glad you had fun.
      I’ve never read Iain Banks, so I didn’t get that part of your comment, sorry.

      I’m still lost in categories and honestly, without Wikipedia, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to give it a SF tag. The Plot Against America is not in a SF categoy. Unless there are spaceships later in the Chabon (which I don’t know since I abandoned it) why is it SF when the Roth isn’t? In my working life, I’m a sort of expert for putting things in the proper category. With books, I’m lost.
      I’ll wait for your review and you’ll explain it to me then.

      Like

  4. July 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    One of the things that has most surprised me since participating in the blogosphere is how restrictive most people’s ideas of what constitutes sf seem to be.

    Within the field there’s no question. Alternate history is one of the oldest sub-genres of sf.

    Outside the field there seems to be this perception that sf is all about aliens, spaceships, that sort of thing. I saw Linda Grant say once that something wasn’t sf because it wasn’t set in space. It was a statement that would confuse anyone with any familiarity with the genre. Stuff in space is only a small part of what’s out there. It’s like thinking all crime is about 1920s country houses and if it doesn’t have one it’s not a crime novel.

    For me it’s sf if it deals with ideas not of what is but of what could be or could have been. In doing so frequently it will really be about what is, but not directly. HG Wells for example wrote about his own society, its morality and its treatment of others. He did so though indirectly, using martians, time travel and other devices.

    Certainly if it’s set in a future, an alternate present, an alternate past, if it deals in how society might be if something were changed in what we take for granted, then it’s sf. Certainly as far as the sf community would see it.

    It’s people who don’t read sf who see it as a narrow field. From inside it’s never been that. It’s why it mystifies sf fans when people say that Atwood, David Mitchell or Winterson’s latest aren’t sf. Not only are they sf, to anyone who’s familiar with the field they’re absolutely slap in the middle of the genre. They’re not edge cases pushing the boundaries, they’re actually pretty traditional. One reason literary writers tend to write bad sf is when they try they often think they’re doing something revolutionary with the genre, when in fact they’re doing something that to anyone in the field was trite by the 1930s.

    That said, what’s more important of course is not whether it’s sf or not, but if it’s good.

    Like

    • July 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm

      Thank you, the definition is very clear now.
      I suppose non-sf readers get confused by bookstores. At least, that’s the case for me. Chabon is with general literature. On the SF shelves, there are mostly books more easily identified with SF. As a sheep customer, I assume that all SF books are on the SF shelves.

      And yes, whatever the category, as long as it’s good…

      PS: any chance you could explain to me the difference between general and literary fiction ? 🙂 These words don’t even exist in French.

      Like

  5. July 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    If I had to draw a distinction with fantasy by the way (and it’s quite a recent distinction, I’m not sure it would have been recognised so clearly in the ’20s and ’30s) I would say that fantasy deals in worlds that could never have been. They may still though be indirect commentaries on the world we actually have and they may be set in our past, present or future but with the addition of impossible elements.

    It all blurs at the edges though. There’s no hard lines. In the end the books are what they are. Genre classifications are just ways of trying to understand them which may or may not be helpful with any particular book.

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    • July 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm

      So Kafka on the Shore and Dracula are fantasy? OK, I get it.
      But back to my previous comment, it isn’t on the fantasy shelves. And actually, I’m glad it isn’t there or I wouldn’t have read that Murakami. It’s an area of bookstores I never visit.

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      • July 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm

        Well, that’s where it breaks down. I was going to mention Murakami but thought it would be confusing.

        Dracula is horror. Murakami though…

        Much of his work arguably is fantasy, but nobody treats it as such. That reflects the fact that in part genres are marketing tools. The fantasy readership today is very conservative in my experience and might not be welcoming of the more surrealist or non-realist writers like Murakami. In a sense magical realism is a form of fantasy fiction, but nobody markets it that way and fantasy fans as a rule wouldn’t respond well to it (and magical realism fans wouldn’t thank you for the categorisation either – besides few readers of Will Self are going to take in a Robert Jordan as their next read).

        My impression is that the general fantasy readership is very reluctant to read outside a very tight genre scope. Much more reluctant than sf or crime fans. Why that should be I’m not sure. It’s a shame as it means good fantasy fiction struggles now to be published – the fans are too conservative to welcome it.

        Fantasy fiction in my view should be daring. It can do anything. It’s not bounded by reality. Commercial fantasy fiction though is deply conservative and reassuring. Decidedly unfantastic. Purely escapist. I see that as a sad dimishment of a once vibrant genre, fantasy fans themselves would I’m sure strongly disagree (I hope they would anyway, it would be very depressing if they didn’t).

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        • July 11, 2011 at 7:56 pm

          Horror, right, that’s another category. It’s endless. Good or not good are actually my favourite categories 🙂

          I think you’re right, marketing plays a role there. For me, fantasy and SF are in literary ghettoes, like crime fiction before, when it was called “roman de gare” (train station novels). When I think of book reviews in magazines, I don’t recall seing SF or fantasy reviews. Or maybe I just don’t remember. I’ll try to pay attention.

          I realise when I read your answer that I can’t give a name of a classic fantasy writer. I don’t think I know one; it’s really a genre I’ve never tried.

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  6. July 10, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    I borrowed a copy of The Yiddish Policemen’s Unit from a relative who didn’t really recommend it. I figured that because Chabon is relatively well-liked (and the book was so recognized in the alternate-history/not-ordinary-fiction world), it must be good. Alas, I could barely make it to the end… too awkward, too clunky.

    Unlike this review. This review is brilliant.

    Like

    • July 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm

      I see I’m not the only one who didn’t like it.
      Thanks for your kind comment.
      When I wrote about the Vargas book (following post) I tried to understand why I abandoned this book and loved the Vargas. On paper the ingredients are the same but the result is really different.

      Like

  1. January 1, 2012 at 1:10 am
  2. May 10, 2015 at 6:14 pm
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