Wednesday, May 28, 2008

GUEST BLOGGER: Julia Spencer-Fleming

Morning folks!

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...

-Marcus

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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 Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a nearly perfect read. The world-building is so detailed, so real, that I dreamed of the District of Sitka the night I started the book.

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?

7 comments:

Michael Dymmoch said...

If the book is half as good as your review of it, I'll love it.

Bethany K. Warner said...

I like Michael Chabon but after loving "Kavalier and Clay" and "Wonder Boys" I was disappointed by "Yiddish Policeman."

As for getting rid of the genre signs, I'm all for it. I'm tired of some people thinking I'm not a serious reader because I like genre fiction (sometimes much, much better than the supposed "good" literary stuff.)

Rob said...

They can get rid of the signs, but they can't move or mix the sections. Then I won't know to stay in the middle of the store where all the good stuff is, and away from the icky stuff lining the outside walls. :)

Jude Hardin said...

Julia:

Thanks again for the ARC of I Shall Not Want. Beautiful writing, psychologically exposed characters, plot like a burning fuse.

That's the way we mute the critics of genre fiction!

Maryann Mercer said...

As a bookseller, I love the genre signs when it comes to getting customers to the authors they can't find. you'd be amazed how many people can't find Stephen King just because there's no "Horror section". I would however like the publishers to get their acts together and not classify books on a whim...or decide that one book by an author is "fiction" and another of the same type is "mystery". If you're ever in my store, though, just give me the title or the author and I'll get you to the right place (and maybe suggest a few more in the same vein).

Tony D'Amato said...

I agree with Julia Spencer-Fleming that the sentence “The blood from his head has scattered rhododendrons in the snow" is awful. But just what about it is so bad? After all, aren't details to be admired? Especially fresh ones? I thought back to Nabokov's teaching (no one ever liked details as much as he; one of his final exams asked for a description of Anna Karenin's wallpaper). What's so wrong with the rhododendrons in the snow is that Nabokov would have deemed it a gratuitous detail. When you go out for a walk you'll see hundreds of thousands of gratuitous details. But only the rare one illuminates. When a detail so brightens up the context of the book in which it appears that you later remember the detail more than the book itself, then you will have encountered a Nabokovian detail.

One of the greatest details appears in his book Laughter in the Dark. Toward the end of this very dark novel the hero goes blind. He tries to get aloog by himself. Now comes the detail that I thought of when rhodendrons in the snow was mentioned. Onr hero is in the bathroom, shaving. A little girl in the householf in which he was staying comes in and looks up at him. "Cream and strawberries," she says.

Unforgettable.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Tony, WOW!