Arbitrary Ruptures: The Making of History in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

Arbitrary Ruptures: The Making of History in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

Birte Otten


History is booming. In the last thirty to forty years, and particularly in the last decade, history has experienced an astonishing revitalization as a pop-cultural phenomenon. The reasons for this development are various. For Kurt Müller, it was “certainly the political situation of the 1960s which was particularly conducive to the re-emergence of historical interest. After the ‘tranquilized 50s,’ the 60s became a period of extreme political crisis and revolutionary political change” (Müller 43). The experience of these social struggles alongside increased skepticism toward language in the context of the linguistic turn prompted many scholars and writers during the last third of the twentieth century to question historical conceptions and their recording in the form of historiography. This can also be seen in the postmodernist engagement with history, especially in the form of historiographic metafiction. But there are other reasons as well. Barbara Korte and Sylvia Paletschek suggest that the history boom can be considered as part and parcel of our rapidly changing society. Since the 1970s, they state, values and lifestyles have been radically altered because of redefinitions of race, class, and gender categories, but also because of political, technological, and economic transformations. In these times of confusion and insecurity, history can be a means to provide orientation, continuity, and identity (Korte and Paletschek 9-10). Alongside the increase of incomes and leisure time, the growing medialization has played a significant role with regard to the importance of history in Western societies. Media not only appropriate and conserve different forms and expressions of history; they also possess the ability to distribute them to large audiences in an easily understandable way.

Thus, the last four decades have witnessed an immense proliferation of historical cultural artifacts. Historical novels, especially in the form of historical romances, are constant bestsellers. Movies with historical settings always stand good chances of becoming box office successes. Interestingly, the last twenty years have seen a noticeable larger number of successful historical films in comparison to previous decades, consider for example Schindler’s List (1993), Braveheart (1995), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Gladiator (2000), Cold Mountain (2003) or Valkyrie (2008), to name just a few. The 1990s, it seems, have ushered in a particularly fruitful era for historical engagements, as can also be seen in the launching of A&E’s “The History Channel” in 1995. While having been criticized for focusing too much on militaristic topics, especially WWII, the channel still has a large viewership and has been exported into various different countries.1 Moreover, the continuing popularity of Renaissance fairs and Civil War reenactments in the United States, both older phenomena that gained new momentum in the 1980s and 1990s, shows that history provides pleasing entertainment opportunities even beyond the media world. As Jerome de Groot posits in his recent book Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture, “since the 1990s, ‘History’ and genres of the ‘historical’ have grown exponentially as cultural artifact, discourse, product and focus. [….] ‘History’ as leisure pursuit boomed” (2).

One such cultural artifact of leisure history is the alternate history novel, a literary (sub)genre that will be the focus of this essay.2 Though its origins go as far back as the nineteenth century, and though its formation as a subgenre of science fiction took place as early as the middle of the twentieth century, alternate history has only witnessed a substantial increase of publications since the 1990s. What is more, in the last ten years, these “what-if” novels have increasingly transcended the conventions imposed on them by their “mother genre,” i.e. science fiction. With publications such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), alternate history has left the science fiction genre and entered the mainstream literary market. This essay wants to investigate the popularity of history and specifically of alternative history as they are presented in contemporary American literature. In addition, it will offer explanations for the upsurge of publications in this field. Finally, on the basis of a close reading of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it will propose that alternate history fiction might have gained popularity among non-science fiction writers because its content and structure provide a suitable frame for stories engaging with the themes of historical rupture and change, themes which have dominated public discourse since 9/11 and can indeed be found in recent non-science fiction alternate histories.

The History Boom and Alternate History Novels

What is it about (alternate) history that prompts people to spend more and more of their time thinking and communicating about it? What kind of need does the occupation with historical topics, be it in the form of film, literature, or active participation in staged historical live events, satisfy? Apart from its mere education and entertainment effects, the engagement with the past does indeed have specific functions which we aim to fulfill when “consuming history.” As described above, the occupation with past events might offer people a kind of “anchor” in these fast-moving times. Furthermore, the impact of medialization on the representation and distribution of “the historical” should not be underestimated. Jerome de Groot describes the medial transformations of the last fifteen years and their consequences as follows:

Two things had gone largely unaudited by academic historians. The first was a shift in access—from reality TV to new curatorial practice to popular history books to Web 2.0—that allowed the individual to seemingly conceptually and materially circumvent the historical professional and appear to engage with the ‘past’ in a more direct fashion. [….] Second, and concurrently (and somewhat contradictorily), History was increasingly prevalent as a cultural, social and economic trope and genre. (3)

Hence, history, understood as a conception of past events as well as their recording in the form of historiography and historical fiction, can now easily be accessed, shaped, and appropriated by an individual. These changes in access to and proliferation of history as cultural artifact can also be applied to the sub-category of alternate history fiction. Alternate history has a large internet fan base, as internet pages such as Robert Schmunks show, which is the most comprehensive webpage about the genre. The Alternate History Wiki currently features over 8000 alternate history stories and is open to anyone who would like to contribute. As with other non-mainstream cultural movements or rather fields of interest, the internet offers members of the alternate history community the possibility to find and connect with each other. It is a platform that enables them to exchange information in a fast and uncomplicated manner and to perpetuate their ideas. Moreover, Gavriel Rosenfeld sees the internet, or rather the technological revolution, as one reason for alternate history’s coming to prominence in the first place. By its transcendence of restrictions of time and space, the internet itself has “introduced us to an alternate or ‘virtual’ history” (Rosenfeld 8).

Yet this is only one among several reasons Rosenfeld identifies as being responsible for alternate history’s recent popularity. Others include the discrediting of political ideologies, which create a feeling of anxiety and insecurity; the emergence of postmodernism, which has dissolved the strict distinction between fact and fiction; recent scientific paradigms like relativity and chaos theory, which have led to theories about multiple universes; and finally the increasing significance of entertainment as one of the values of Western society, which sells real information as entertainment (Rosenfeld 7-8). This, however, does not yet explain why people write alternate history stories in the first place. Rosenfeld suggests, as do Darko Suvin and Catherine Gallagher, that part of the allure of alternate history is its occupation not only with the past, but ultimately with the present, because “alternate history is inherently presentist. It explores the past less for its own sake than to utilize it instrumentally to comment upon the state of the contemporary world” (Rosenfeld 10). By changing a familiar and momentous event in history, alternate history novels extrapolate a past, and often also a present, that developed differently from the historical record. Thus, they expose the constructedness of history, namely when past events are narratively linked and supplied with meaning in historiographies. At the same time, these tales of an alternative past or present practically force their readers to compare them to factual history and to make judgments. As a result, they present the fictional story as either preferable to our timeline or not, thus exhibiting clear utopian or dystopian elements.3 Then there are alternate history novels, such as Daniel Myers’ The Second Favorite Son (2004), which make a point of showing that a different past would have led to a different present. In his novel Myers presents a family saga over the course of two hundred years against the background of a US South that has emerged victoriously in the Civil War. This present, however, is portrayed as neither more positive nor negative than ours. Still others, for example Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, present an alternative past that nevertheless leads to the factual present, thus reintegrating the fictional past into the historical record. Whatever path they pursue, alternate histories always point the reader to the factual historical record by making claims about historicity and time. By their very genre conventions, they portray history as contingent, the implicit commentary being that “it could have happened otherwise.” Even a novel featuring a change manufactured by time travelers or magic, such as Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee or Jay Lake’s Mainspring, though often being less interested in the specifically historical aspects and repercussions of the change, nevertheless asks the reader to imagine a different past and/or present and to form an opinion about it. In such a way, the reader is asked to reflect critically about past decision and learn from them for the present and future. In my view, it is the connection to the reader’s present that has brought alternate history fiction to the fore in recent years. Apart from the general political and societal changes already outlined above, alternate history fiction has especially gained new significance with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

9/11 and Alternate History Novels

When it became clear that the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had become the target of a terrorist attack, people all over the world knew that this attack would go down as a major event in history. The common sentiment was that the attacks had changed everything, that from now on history would be divided into a pre- and post-9/11 period. The attacks were widely interpreted as a rupture of history.4 Immediately, politicians, journalists, philosophers, writers, and intellectuals started to compete for a valid interpretation of the event. It did not take much time to move from the immediate discussion of the event itself to a more abstract discussion of cultural values and paradigms. Many explained the nation’s extent of disbelief and shock as the intrusion of reality after a long period of superficial everyday living. Like “rupture of history,” the phrase “intrusion of reality” was used by people as diverse as Susan Sontag, Norman Podhoretz, and William Bennett. It was an event so unique that it triggered a mood for thought experiments. Many people asked themselves after the attacks: What if the intelligence services had cooperated more closely? What if the United States had pursued a different foreign policy in the last decades? What if this husband or that mother had not had a business meeting in the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11? What if Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000? One could continue endlessly. For many people, it seemed to have become necessary to ask “what if?” Thus, on top of a general mood of disorientation, insecurity, and superficiality, 9/11 became a metaphor not only for an attack on American key symbols and the brutal destruction of innocent lives, but also for the lack of control over and the fragility of individual lives. 9/11 as a public event showed how arbitrarily people’s lives could be affected by outside forces, how willpower and life plans could be made meaningless by the unexpected rupture of one’s life. Of course, life ruptures are part of human existence. Depending on one’s attitude to life, one views these ruptures as forces of fate, God, or bad luck. However, 9/11 was different in that it not only represented a deliberately planned attack on individual lives, but on a whole nation and what it stands for. It was thus a symbolic attack on an abstract concept. For the people concerned, however, an event of such magnitude destroys not only life as it was before, but also negates all practical and realistic alternatives with a single strike. The finality that this entails might explain the necessity to ask “what if”—to balance the impossibility of realistic options with a variety of imagined alternatives. People who were not directly affected still grasped the significance behind the attacks, because they participated in the public discourse that was dominant after 9/11. This discourse is identified by several scholars, though with different implications and under different headings. Thus, Stuart Croft speaks of “the ‘war on terror’ discourse” (9) in order to delineate “the discourse that emerged from the impact of the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001” (2). In his text, Croft takes a closer look at the way an elite of American political and social institutions constructed a narrative that helped pave the way for a particular kind of response, a policy program that was implemented after the September 11 attacks. Furthermore, several essay collections have been published that deal with public discourse since 9/11. Among them is Adam Hodges’s and Chad Nilep’s Discourse, War and Terrorism, which also speaks of “the ‘war on terror’ discourse” (3) and which explores “the discursive production of identities, ideologies, and collective understandings in response to 9/11 within the United States and around the world” (3). Others, like David Altheide and Matteo Stocchetti, speak of the “politics of fear” in connection to public discourse since 9/11. With American Thought and Culture in the 21st Century Martin Halliwell and Catherine Morley devote a volume of essays to discuss and challenge what they call “the ‘turning point’ theory of history” (3)—the assumption that 9/11 represented a rupture. Two further thematic approaches in the cultural debate since 9/11 are the field of trauma studies and the conjectures that surround the “culture war” debate in the US. Both approaches implicitly assume a change or, in the case of the “culture war” debate, an intensification of discursive practices in the United States that have engendered new responses in art.5 Depending on their vantage point, the above scholars consider public discourse in America since 9/11 as a crucial component of either political strategies or linguistic, sociological, and cultural output. What all these approaches have in common, however, is their belief in the emergence—and the power—of discursive structures that were only possible to come into existence after the traumatizing experience of the terrorist attacks. In this paper I would like to enhance the debate about discourse in America since 9/11 by proposing another approach already elaborated on above: the necessity to ask “what if?” and the wish for change this question contains. More than any other question, “what if?” expresses a longing for unfulfilled options, be they a matter of personal choice or coincidence. And it is this inclination or even need to ask “what if?” that connects the public discourse of change since 9/11 with the growing popularity of alternate history fiction.

Apart from the question “what if?” there are other parallels which can be drawn between the discourse since 9/11 and the themes that alternate history novels engage with. Alternate history novels deal, by their very nature, with dichotomies that are similar to the broader topics surfacing in public discourse since 9/11: past and present, fact and fiction, design and disorder, beginning and end. They are deeply concerned with concepts of history and historicity, as they are connected to questions of reality and unreality. Whereas alternate history novels are based on a rupture of history to play out their alternative version(s) of past and/or present, 9/11 is often also understood to mark a rupture of history—in the sense that it was an event which caused major political, social, and cultural consequences. As such 9/11 is destined to become itself a topic of alternate history, though literary works on alternatives of and around 9/11 are still scarce. Age of Tolerance (2005) by Glen Reinsford, which presupposes Al Gore to have won the presidency in 2000 and which takes the reader well into the future, seems to be the only book-length alternate history novel about 9/11 to date (and is probably better described as a mixture between alternate history and future history). But the momentary lack of 9/11 alternate history novels has little to do with the argument that 9/11 triggered a change within public discourse which I see as having facilitated the increase of alternate history publications. It also contributed to “the mainstreaming of the alternate-history fiction away from science fiction and into the general category ‘novel’” (Gallagher “The Way it Wasn’t”). Michael Butter and Gavriel Rosenfeld have also commented on the fact that “writers of allohistorical novels no longer hail exclusively from science fiction circles but also from the cultural mainstream” (Rosenfeld 5). The reason for this development can be found in the fact that the genre is very suitable for a society that seeks to explore the validity of its cultural, political, and social conceptions. Although this observation also applies to the time before 9/11, the attacks undoubtedly introduced a phase of critical inquiry into America’s self-image and role of world leader, albeit often covered by patriotic self-assertions. Although most of this critical questioning was done by the political left, even ultra-conservative intellectuals like Normen Podhoretz still asked five years after the attacks “Why were we attacked? By whom exactly, and to what end? Could it have been prevented?” (2). Assuming, then, that the general atmosphere shifted in favor of alternate history writing, the question still remains what kind of function this genre fulfills after an event like 9/11. More specifically, what do mainstream authors who previously did not write alternate history fiction gain by using the alternate history format? How do they, at a time that is characterized by an elaborate discussion about the fictionality and factuality of reality and history, deal with a genre that—by definition—only exists through its mixing of fact and fiction, of past and present? The following close reading of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, published in 2007, will offer answers to these questions.

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union depicts the life of the Jewish diaspora which, after the assumed failure of the state of Israel in 1948, was established in Sitka, Alaska, instead of the Holy Land. The novel describes an alternative present in which, sixty years after the Holocaust, the two million Jews of Alaska have to give up their adopted home. The lease on the land that they were granted by the American government runs out, and at the time of the story’s events there are only two months left until “Reversion.” Against this background, the plot revolves around police detective Meyer Landsman and his colleague and cousin Berko Shemets, who have to solve the murder of an unknown middle-aged man. Landsman is a run-down alcoholic, two years divorced from his wife Bina and now living a dismal life in a cheap hotel. The only things that keep him alive are his partner Berko and his job. Landsman and Berko quickly discover that the dead man was Mendel Shpilman, the son of the powerful Rabbi Shpilman who as a child was considered to be the new Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the messiah to lead the exiled Jews back to Israel. But shortly before his arranged marriage to the daughter of another influential orthodox family, Mendel disappeared. Years later he turns up a drug addict, living in the same hotel as Landsman but dies before Landsman ever gets to meet him. Soon, the two detectives are deeply involved in a terrorist plot by a group of Jewish orthodox fundamentalists whose only goal in life it is to return the Jews to the Holy Land.

Being a detective story, this is a novel about the meaning of signs. For one, there is the mysterious murder of the former wunderkind Mendel Shpilman; then there is the chess set next to his corpse, which obviously leaves traces of a problem (and with it traces of the murder and traces of meaning) to be solved. In addition, the supposed-to-be messiah Mendel functions as provider of new meaning in a life full of disappointments and insecurities; and finally, it turns out that the murder is just the outgrowth of a much larger plan to gain re-entry into the Holy Land. But, as in Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, all these different signs run astray if analyzed. For Meyer Landsman, meaning becomes increasingly dangerous. When he finally solves the chess problem towards the end of the story, he has to realize that it points him back to his own family. He manages to solve the murder only by risking his life several times and by arresting his own uncle, Berko’s father Hertz Shemets. Thus the evidence Meyer Landsman collects and the investigative successes he achieves are highly ambiguous and in a way self-destructive. The same holds true for Mendel, who is himself a chess piece in a game other people play. Because he cannot and does not want to fulfill the expectations placed in him, he opts out: he chooses death by arranging his own death. He commits a symbolic suicide by asking Berko’s father to shoot him. Thus, it is a suicide which is no suicide at all, but a murder that is meant to demonstrate the impossibility of shaping one’s own reality. In the novel, Mendel is portrayed as someone whose whole life has been directed by other people and other forces, by his Rabbi father, the rules of the Jewish orthodox community, his standing as the chosen one, the terrorist plot he is used for, his homosexuality, and his drug addiction. Whenever he tries to take control of his own life—to shape his own reality—he fails and even seems to make it worse.  

In the novel, several groups fight for their own reality, meaning the realization of their dreams for the present and future, by actively trying to create that reality. Having been exiled in Alaska for the last sixty years, the fundamentalists want to create an alternative reality to the one that does not provide them with the possibility of ever returning to the land of Israel. This reality is supposed to take the place of the one depicted in the novel. Consequently, in order to return to the Promised Land, the Jewish orthodox fundamentalists plan to bomb Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They want to fulfill the promise of the New Testament and hasten the coming of the messiah. This is what Mendel Shpilman wants to prevent by killing himself. The terrorists’ plan seems to be triggered by the memory of some missed opportunity in the past. The failure of the Jewish state in 1948 has haunted the Jewish community of Alaska ever since. Of course, one can see the bombing of Temple Mount as a reminder of the bombing of the World Trade Center. Here, too, the bombing is not mere destruction, but it is symbolic destruction. Its aim is to be broadcast all over the world and to mark historical rupture. It wants to make sure that “life will never be the same afterwards.” In the novel, the fundamentalists do create their own reality: they manage to destroy the Dome of the Rock, but it is only a partial success. Mendel Shpilman is dead. They do not have a messiah. The terrorist bombing can be read as a necessary confrontation with the unfulfilled past and one that has long been due. In the novel it is not only the Holocaust that haunts them, it is also their relocation to a place that reads like the outright opposite of the Holy Land. Thus, a key issue of the Jewish faith remains unfulfilled until the fundamentalists bomb Temple Mount. With the successful bombing they manage to shape their very own and very specific reality and impose it on the world.

As can be gathered from this overview, the novel addresses two topics that are of vital importance for the connection between alternate history and the 9/11 discourse. One engages with “nexus events”6 in life; the other, closely linked to the first, with the possibility of “shaping reality.” The most prominent example of such a “nexus event” in the novel is probably Landsman’s and Bina’s decision to abort their child, a decision that effectively leads to their divorce two years prior to the story’s setting. Whenever Landsman comes in contact with little children, he “plays goalkeeper as a squad of unprofitable regrets mounts a steady attack on his ability to get through a day without feeling anything” (48). Everyday he tortures himself with guilt and self-reproaches until this routine is broken by Bina’s reappearance in his life. For the last two months before Reversion, Bina becomes his boss, and Landsman suddenly has to deal with the love of his life on a daily basis. His regret about losing Bina and the chance to have children with her is an ongoing theme in the novel. For Landsman, it is the constant “what if?” that pesters him and that he cannot let go. It is only when Bina tells him that it was not only his decision to abort a potentially handicapped child but hers as well that he can move on. Bina’s comment is significant: “We did what seemed right at the time, Meyer. We had a few facts. We knew our limitations. And we called that a choice. But we didn’t have any choice. All we had was, I don’t know, three lousy facts and a boundary map of our own limitations. The things we knew we couldn’t handle” (410). This passage implies that even when there is a choice between two options there are always also constraints which accompany these options. Some of these constraints in turn might make it impossible for us to choose one of the options, so that we do not have a choice after all. This understanding of the (limited) freedom to choose is a leitmotif in the novel. It is described as “Zugzwang” (400), a chess term that describes the impossibility to draw without bringing on a disadvantage for oneself. In the novel, Zugzwang refers to Mendel’s constrained position in life. Neither wanting to play the Tzaddik Ha-Dor for the orthodox community nor being able to quit drugs, he does not see a way out. “He didn’t want to be what he wasn’t, he didn’t know how to be what he was” (404). So he asks Hertz Shemets to help kill him because he knows that he would understand.

The term Zugzwang, however, can also be applied to the other plotlines. In fact, if pressed to summarize the novel in a single word, Zugzwang would probably be the best choice. It shows how the novel conceptualizes the shaping of reality and in doing so the shaping of history. What Bina and Meyer experience on a personal level is mirrored on a global level. The lack of an actual choice between two equivalent options goes hand in hand with the lack of control over one’s own life. The novel suggests that sometimes this feeling of Zugzwang drives people to desperate actions. In the case of Bina and Meyer, it is still relatively simple. They settle for one of the two available but equally dissatisfying options, an abortion. It has to be noted, however, that they fail to live with it afterwards. They only manage to get over it when chance brings them together again. In the case of Mendel Shpilman and the orthodox fundamentalists, things are more complicated. In contrast to Bina and Landsman, Mendel and the fundamentalists create a third option. Experiencing the impossibility to achieve what they want, they all attempt to regain control over their lives (or their lives’ dreams, in the case of the fundamentalists) by actively creating reality. They themselves generate a historical rupture and so become the shaping forces of history. Within these plotlines, then, the novel shows its genre awareness by addressing issues that characterize the genre of alternate history: the existence of consequential nexus events, the possibility of different options at a given situation, the influence of outside forces in such situations, the contingency of history, and the consequences that follow. On the novel’s diegetic level, the characters bring about historical ruptures to shape history just as the 9/11 terrorists wanted to shape history. The novel therefore addresses questions that also are of major relevance to the public discourse in America since 9/11.

It has to be noted that it is specifically the format of alternate history fiction which provides Chabon with the necessary setup for its central themes. Alternate history novels, by their very genre conventions, presuppose a rupture of history. They presume that at a specific point in time, history took a different turn. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union postulates that “Jews have been tossed out of the joint three times now—in 586 BCE, in 70 CE and with savage finality in 1948” (17). The novel needs this deviation from the actual course of history in order to create the background against which its major themes, the existence of nexus points as a possibility to shape reality, can be played out to their full extent. In the case of this novel, then, the alternate history genre provides a very suitable frame to portray the shaping of reality. But to which end is it used? What happens once a contested reality is forced into existence? In the case of Mendel, the result is disillusioning. His death does not prevent the fundamentalists from carrying out their plan. Landsman, Bina, and Berko have to witness the bombing of Temple Mount on TV before they are able to stop the terrorists (which again reminds the reader of the televised 9/11 attacks). But here the book ends. As readers we do not get to know if the fundamentalists succeed in their tactic of shaping reality, if they will finally return to the Promised Land, and what the global consequences are. Neither are we told how the characters come to terms with the way the fundamentalists impose their (model of) reality on them. However, the text makes a suggestion, maybe even gives a solution. The final paragraph reads:

But there is no Messiah of Sitka. Landsman has no home, no future, no fate but Bina. The land that he and she were promised was bounded only by the fringes of their wedding canopy, by the dog-eared corners of their cards of membership in an international fraternity whose members carry their patrimony in a tote bag, their world on the tip of their tongue. “Brennan,” Landsman says. “I have a story for you.” (411)

Interestingly, the two people in the novel who preferred to choose one of two unsatisfying options instead of creating a third one are also the ones whom the text provides with hope for a relatively happy future. Faced with the impossibility of controlling his life in a world ruled by chaos and uncertainty, all the concepts of higher sense-making (the messiah, the Promised Land, personal and communal identity, the homeland) are useless for Landsman if he does not have Bina. To her he is bound by very material objects (their wedding canopy, a membership card). The final passage of the novel presents an alternative world in which realities are constantly competing with other (people’s) realities, in which the future is uncertain and people’s lives are at the mercy of outside forces. It also seems to promote a life that concentrates on the fulfillment of basic human needs. But at this point we have to remember that this is an alternative present that the novel depicts. As such it is very different from our factual present, but the alternative timeline in alternate history is also always meant to be compared to factual history. Once we do this we have to realize that this alternative present does not differ all that much from our own world. In the context of Israeli-Palestinian animosities and terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, London and Madrid, a possible bombing of Temple Mount does not seem far-fetched. And it is through these experiences, among others, that the feeling of Zugzwang is not unknown in our timeline either.

With regard to these similarities, it is important to remember the text’s suggestions for life in such times. In general, the novel presents reality as very factual and material: the cold and ice of Alaska, the murder of Landsman’s sister, the abortion of his child, and the death of a hotel neighbor. The novel revolves around the fact that within two months, life as previously known will have to end with the reversion of the district of Sitka to American authorities. It often depicts life reduced to the hard facts of survival (eating, sleeping, not being murdered, and loving). The ending of the novel underscores this observation when Landsman realizes that he and Bina cannot rely on anyone’s promises. The only things they can rely on are very material objects, such as their membership cards, that join them together. With this grounding of life in material reality the novel offers a solution that reaches beyond the story and even beyond the fact that we are reading an alternate history novel. The novel seems to suggest that it does not matter which world we are part of, the factual present or its fictional alternative, because both consist of insecurities and contingencies that we can best cope with by clinging to the very material things that mean a lot to us. In this way, it implies that confronted with competing models of reality one possible reaction to the increasing determination and violence by those who wish to see their model into existence, is to focus on those almost banal things that ground people in their daily lives. It is not only a rejection of abstract concepts of higher sense-making but also of ideologically motivated violence against others. The themes of rupture, reality, history, and possible alternatives on the diegetic level support this interpretation. But even more significantly, it is the generic frame of alternate history that gives full force to this depiction of life, reality, and history.


Michael Chabon’s alternate history novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union reflects the growing popularity of representations of past events as well as alternate history’s increasing popularity. The reasons for this can be found in the novel’s engagement with issues that parallel those in our timeline. It presents a setting in which the characters are ruled by outside forces. It addresses the changing of society, the disorientation that accompanies it, the feeling of losing control, and the clashing of various (political, religious, individual) interests in a world determined by different power players. Even though the fictional background deviates to a large extent from our own world, the novel nevertheless addresses broader themes that are of relevance for its readers as well. The contrast between the formal disparity of factual and alternative history on the one hand, and their thematic similarity on the other highlights the ‘presentist’ aspect of this novel. In addition, the contrast is based on a rupture of history, i.e. the deviation from factual history. But it is also deeply interwoven with a depiction of historical ruptures on the diegetic level of the novel. The attempt to create historical ruptures in order to actively shape history is a theme that reverberates not only in the novel, but also in American public discourse since 9/11. By choosing the alternate history format Chabon not only wrote a novel about the present but also about present concepts of history. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union portrays history as a highly ambiguous process which is determined by individual interests. In the face of the impossibility to retain control individuals or groups may resort to desperate means to achieve their goals. Such a view presents history as a chaotic process in which groups of people actively force their own particular model of reality into existence because they experience their limitations as Zugzwang. Seemingly faced with only disadvantageous options, they create a new option for themselves, however thereby limiting and harming other people’s lives. The novel thus portrays history as a process which is not only ruled by contingencies, but just as much by the active manipulation of history by a small group of people. The majority of people, however, experience these intended ruptures as arbitrary. This is the paradox: depending on the perspective, the historical process is experienced as either deliberate manipulation or arbitrary rupture. This paradoxical connection between historical manipulation and historical rupture finally links the story of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to the alternate history and presents a major reason for the novel’s success. The default structure of alternate history novels is defined by the manipulation and rupture of history. In the case of this novel the manipulation comprises a Jewish diaspora in Alaska instead of a Jewish state in Israel. Without the historical change, i.e. a similar story with a realistic setting in the factual world, this novel would be a rather straightforward detective-cum-adventure tale. But the fictional change of the historical record directs the reader’s focus to questions of manipulation and rupture and opens his or her mind to possible alternatives or the lack thereof. It is precisely the change of historical events and the consequences this entails for the plot that allows for the novel’s successful presentation of the paradoxical conception of history outlined above. This also answers my initial question of what writers like Chabon gain by using the alternate history format: it enables them to give expression to conceptions of reality and history which have been altered by the September 11 attacks and which are now imbued with a post-9/11 sensibility. The conventions of alternate history allow these authors to imagine the relationships between fact and fiction, past and present, continuity and rupture—which all play crucial roles in the public debate since 9/11—in new ways and articulate them as such in their literary works.

1 For criticism on the “History” channel see, for example, Schone. According to the Huffington Post, “History” belongs to the ten top-rated cable networks in primetime in the first quarter of 2010 with a viewership of 1.504 million people.

2 Alternate histories are also known as alternative history, allohistory, parahistory, or uchronia. Oftentimes these terms are used synonymously.

3 For a more comprehensive understanding of the relation between alternate history, utopia, and dystopia see Korthals, Ransom, or Rosenfeld.

4 For a more thorough discussion on this notion of rupture see for example Meyerowitz or Dudziak.

5 See for example Gray, Halliwell, Sandbrook, Rickli, Poppe und Schüller.

6 The term “nexus event” is one of several terms that define the point in time in alternate history novels when history is manipulated to diverge from its actual course (Hellekson 5). I use it here, however, disconnected from its genre-specific connotation, in a more general sense of “crossroads” or “bifurcation.”

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