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The trouble with collectors' edition hardbacks is they are big and heavy and beautiful, and it's easier when you are tired or travelling to read paperbacks. So I broke off reading Stand on Zanzibar to read this - thanks major_clanger for the timely loan.

I slogged through the first third of this book, finding it very slow going. Each chapter describes a static scene in minute and tedious detail, and while there are some superb cameo descriptions, and some lovely dialogue, I found the main character, Landsman, to be a stereotype (conflicted alcoholic policeman), and didn't like any of the minor characters either. I felt that thin material was interminably stretched out.

The middle third moved faster and interested me a lot more. There are more interesting characters, and  Landsman has more personal interactions with them, giving me more sympathy for him and insight into his world. The plot develops. The significant relationship between Landsman and his ex-wife, Bina, develops.

In the final third I lost my way again. There is some serious violence, some of which seems to belong to a different plot altogether and to be included to make Landsman suffer even more than the main line requires. There is a hugely improbable comic-book escape: Landsman is stripped to his underwear and shackled to a bedstead, so he throws it and himself through the window into a snowdrift, uses it to hit a baddie coming round the corner and take his gun off him, shoots off his shackle, and escapes on foot into the Alaskan forest. We meet a dwarf policeman, a painted cow, the CIA, and an international terrorist plot. Small, essential details revealed earlier matter, but I had forgotten them, and lost track of what was going on. I read to the - anti-climactic? - end with steadily lessening interest. I was pallidly pleased that Landsman and Bina achieve personal redemption, but frankly, it didn't matter very much.

This book has many virtues, and I can understand at least some of its high literary ratings. Much of the descriptive writing is superb; much of the world-building detail memorable; Landsman is a finely-drawn example of his type; the landscape is bleak and characterful; the minor characters suitably idiosyncratic, or even monstrous; the plot suitably monosyllabic. It could make a good film, though I am not sure that is a mark of merit in a novel. But there is no sense that any of the characters have lived any life off the page, and although the book comes most alive when its few live women characters are involved in the action, it is probably not coincidental that it fails the Bechdel test: there are no conversations between women about anything. This is perhaps a good indication of the book's failings: Chabon's characters dangle like puppets on the string of his plot. If his imagination had stretched to encompass the women, all of his characters might have been more human, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union might have been a better book.


Caroline M

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