We have a treat today -- the fabulous Julia Spencer-Fleming is taking the reins of the blog. Most of you probably know of Julia, but if you don't, get thee to a bookstore, and I mean now. She's won every award there is for her gorgeously written Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series, the latest of which, I SHALL NOT WANT, comes out June 10th.
Jules will be hanging around for the next couple of days to answer questions and such, so feel free to bombard her, either on topic to her post or about anything else.
Without further ado, the lovely Julia...
I told Marcus I would write something vaguely salacious for The Outfit, but I just finished a wonderful read, and I guess I’ve reached the stage in life where I’d rather talk about books than sex. (Actually, I reached that stage a long time ago. There’s only so much you can say about Tab A fitting into Slot B, but a good argument about, say, Kipling’s place in the English pantheon can go on forever.)
I’m late to the party when it comes to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.
When it was published last year, I stayed away, despite the intriguing premise. (For the three of you who don’t know about it, Chabon posits an alternate history where the dispossessed Jews of Europe and a failed Israel have been allowed to settle—temporarily—in the Federal District of Sitka.) Every reviewer I read at the time patted Chabon on the head for his brilliant writing while marveling at how he managed to escape relatively unsmeared by the scummy waters of genre. A Slate reviewer famously said, “Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.” At the Stone Coast MFA summer session, me ‘n the skiffies titled our panel discussion GENRE FICTION ATE MY BRAINS in response.
Needless to say, at that point I wouldn’t have read the book if I had been trapped in a lifeboat with only the Life of Pi as an alternative. What changed my mind? Well, the book got nominated for a Nebula. Then an Edgar.Then the Hugo. I figured of all my shambling undead peers thought it ranked with the best books of our genres, I ought to give it a try.
I was wary. I have been burnt before by “literary” authors who dabble in mystery or horror or science fiction. They get part way in, then they seem to realize it’s bad — it’s dirty, it’s wrong! And they pull out again, leaving me screaming in frustration. Yeah, I’m talking to you, David Guterson and Jean Hegland.
But, to paraphrase the dreadful back copy on the Advance Readers Edition of my own upcoming release (subtle product placement! Did you notice?) Michael Chabon Shall Not Disappoint.
The characters are so vivid I started saying things like nu and mitzvah--and I’m a born and bred East Coast Episcopalian. I say nearly perfect: some of the mystery’s final unspooling is a little too off-stage, and there are a few places where Chabon lets his love of wordcraft get in the way of creating a clear image in the reader’s mind. When I read, “The blood from his head has scattered rhododendrons in the snow,” I wanted to say, “It’s okay, Michael. Just tell us the blood splattered.”
Here’s the best part, for me: the book is absolutely true to the mystery genre. 3/4ths of the way through the story, we get what I always think of as the tipping point, the first clue that’s going to finally start leading the detective and the reader to answers, rather than more questions. Then piece by piece, step by step, Chabon puts the puzzle together.
Every casual, seemingly-coincidental encounter, every digression into history and memory, everything I had filed under the heading of “literary storytelling technique” was shaken out, held up to the light, and pinned into its place. I did something I never do when reading mysteries anymore; I went back and re-checked the clues. It was all right there. Chabon played utterly fair with the reader.
“So, nu,” you ask, “He can braid all his strings into a rope to hang you with. For this you go on like the man is Conan Doyle?”
Despite the Edgar and Hugo nods (and Nebula win) I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union expecting literary fiction. You know: beautiful writing, psychologically exposed characters, plot like an empty cardboard box. Discovering the real mystery inside gave me a unique reading experience: a completely fresh view of the genre conventions I love so much.
Reading a work labeled crime fiction, I only notice if there are flaws — an insufficiently motivated murderer, say, or the too-convenient clue. Expecting nothing, I was swept up in the pleasure of the plot, each fresh reveal—so this meant that!—like popping another mouthful of caramel corn and peanuts.
What this means, I can’t say. Maybe we should tear down the signs demarcating bookstore sections. Maybe we should be boldly mixing up genres. Maybe we should figure out how to recreate the pleasure you got from that first mystery, that first romance, that first science fiction novel that tore the top of your head off and hollered hello in there! How this happens, I can’t begin to guess.
Any suggestions, zombie minions of the genre apocalypse?