Sort of about Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” or Stay Tuned to Life.
I recently have experienced a sudden decline in almost everything; vision and hearing, strength and endurance. Perhaps it is temporary and will pass. In the past, during my bouts with depression and its physical effects, I have always been able to convince myself they would soon be gone. Now I feel like a specter or ghost watching life go on around me through an ever darkening scrim, unable to do anything about it until I eventually disappear into the wherever or whatever; something like the ineffectual angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I wonder if I will get my wings after it is all over. (This last is an allusion understandable only by those over 70 years old.)
After finishing Sheldon Siegel‘s book, “The Terrorist Next Door” and being in the mood to read more in the Jewish policeman genre, I began Michael Chabon‘s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” It is a novel of dazzling style and inventiveness but lacking a soul. I much prefer Sheldon’s relentless humane optimism to Chabon’s unrelieved cynicism.
I like William Kotzwinkle however. He is an incurable optimist like Sheldon. He wrote “ET.” I do not think he was all that proud of it. But hell, it’s a living.
Like Chabon he could unleash the literary pyrotechnics. In one book, he was able to fill an entire chapter with the single word, “dorky.” Dorky repeated 400 times a page for the 10 pages of the chapter, 4000 dorkys (or is it dorkies?) in all. And this was while everyone was still using word processors.
Chabon, were he the one writing the same chapter after about the first hundred or so dorkys would probably write something like, “Shit, if I have to write dorky one more time, I going to plunge a zhmenye of cyanide up my tokhes” or something like that. Like I said Chabon is a real stylist.
To Kotzwinkle’s character, however, Dorky Day was the day he looked forward to. It was the the day he said nothing except dorky. It was his favorite day, better even that Christmas or Passover or even Presidents day.
Speaking of President’s Day, what’s that all about? Why did we change from honoring two of our greatest presidents, one who wore wooden false teeth and liked riding his horses almost as well as sleeping with his slaves and the other who had a glandular dysfunction and was always hearing voices in his head, to honoring them all, even the non-entities and borderline looneys? Do we really want to honor, Chester A. Arthur, George Bush or James Buchanan at the same time as we honor Washington and Lincoln?
Buchanan by the way was our first openly gay president. He was called “Miss Nancy” by his political enemies and affectionately “Aunt Fancy” by his friends.
Miss Nancy was born on April 23rd. Wouldn’t it be appropriate for that to be the day to celebrate gay freedom, or better yet marriage equality day? April 23 is celebrated in England as Shakespeare’s Day. It is also the feast day of St. Adalbert of Prague, National Book Day in Canada and English Language Day in the UN. Unfortunately, I do not know the actual date of Dorky Day, but April 23 would be as good as any.
While I am at it and since I have little to do for most of the day except sit around the coffee-house and fool with my computer writing messages to myself like this,… why do the self-proclaimed serious literary critics appear to so often look down on “genre” fiction? Why do we so often consider the literary pyrotechnics of the borderline depressive, even a humorous one, serious literature while gentle optimism is dismissed as superficial? I am sure my friend Ruth knows. She seems to understand these things. Maybe she will read this some day and decide to tell me.
Is it simply the strictures of plot required of genre fiction somehow make it more artificial than the meanderings through the minutia of life of much of modern “serious” fiction, even if that minutia is outside anyone’s experience, or beggars credulity? I mean, have you read “War in Peace?” Do your really give a shit about Pierre or Prince Andrei? As for other characters in the serious literary pantheon, most were despicable. Roskolnikov, Ahab and even Achilles were assholes. You can add Heathcliff to that list and don’t even mention Dorian Grey. OK, I admit Jane Eyre has something to recommend her, but talk about missing the obvious…. Did the reprobates that peopled Faulkner or Williams’ novels really do anything for you. The characters dreamed up by Elmo Leonard or Carl Hiaasan probably appear just as real, perhaps even more so, to most of us.
If one reads at all, by all means, one should read the classics and as much so-called serious fiction as he or she can digest but not too much. It can give one gas.
Nevertheless one should also read those authors not cursed with seriousness. Authors like Leonard, Hiaasion, Siegel, Weber (the Honor Harrington books, the rest of his books suck), Terry Pratchett, Nora Roberts and on and on; even ,Danielle Steel (well maybe not her). There are thousands and thousands of people out there writing fiction. Even if they have little to say, they say something.
Alas, in the age of u-tube and instant communication among perfect strangers, most of whom appear quite willing to spew out the most intimate and often embarrassing details of their lives, who needs fiction anymore? Maybe we are all becoming ghosts, viewing life through a LED display in a darkened room or an internet cafe somewhere.
Even that may be a passing fad. Given the amount of time we spend on our computers or smart phones socializing and collaborating or whatever, who has the time any more to take a video of oneself trying to jump off a roof into a tea-cup? Will future generations feature prehensile pinkies and double jointed thumbs?
Stay tuned to life, it always surprises.
- Writer Michael Chabon turns genre into literature (wvgazette.com)
- My Year in Not Reading (Where do I Start?) (vol1brooklyn.com)
- A Stray Grey Mark (philadelphiareviewofbooks.com)
- Essay: Reasons to Re-Joyce (nytimes.com)