So not long ago I was reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon.
Now, being by Michael Chabon, this is a heavily slashed book ― that is, it’s an alternate history slash mystery slash thriller slash meditation on the relevance of chess to daily life. The “mystery” and “thriller” parts of the slash are fairly self-explanatory; the “alternate history” part of the slash is a little more involved, as alternate histories tend to be. In this case, the “alternate” part is that, in 1948, the nascent state of Israel was destroyed and Jewish refugees were resettled on Baranof Island off the coast of Alaska. (Fleeting mention is also made of the use of nuclear weapons during World War II, which could be the basis of an alternate history all on its own*.) And the final part of the “slash” is why this book was the second time within a month that I was exposed to the German chess term zugzwang, the first time having been in an episode of Lodge 49.
Zugzwang (German for “compulsion to move”, pronounced [ˈtsuːktsvaŋ]) is a situation found in chess and other turn-based games wherein one player is put at a disadvantage because of their obligation to make a move; in other words, the fact that the player is compelled to move means that their position will become significantly weaker. A player is said to be “in zugzwang” when any possible move will worsen their position.Wikipedia
If you read that definition and immediately thought of myriad real-world situations to which it can apply, congratulations! You are living in 2020.
Now in addition to combining all those different genres, of course, the book also includes Michael Chabon’s usual amazingly descriptive paragraphs that convey all kinds of information in just a few sentences. Take, for instance, this one, in which Our Hero (a mensch named Landsman) has just exited his partner’s apartment, where he was compelled to carry around his partner’s baby (“Pinky”) and hold hands with his partner’s daugher (“Goldy”):
Landsman goes back out to his parking place and gets into the car. He runs the engine and sits in the heat blowing in off the engine. With the smell of Pinky on his collar and the cool dry ghost of Goldy’s hand in his, he plays goalkeeper as a squad of unprofitable regrets mounts a steady attack on his ability to get through a day without feeling anything. He climbs out and smokes a papiros in the rain.The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
Having read that, the perceptive reader will not be surprised to learn that Landsman’s marriage fell apart a few years before the start of the book, in the aftermath of a tragic situation—or, if you will, a zugzwang—involving his wife’s pregnancy.
Meanwhile, work continues—perhaps not quite apace, but it does continue—on The Apprentice, or whatever I’m going to end up calling it. I’m starting to get back into the flow of it; or at least, I think I’m seeing where it’s going to end up going. But first, there’s a bridge it has to cross.
He took a few more paces, noting that with each one the lantern light grew dimmer, though not smaller. He stopped again. The shadow was close enough to see now; it was a black bridge or buttress, arched and carved, swung down like the gangplank of a ship to rest on the ledge of stone. What it led to, he could not see, but neither did he need to.
He remembered this bridge.
At the other end of it, there would be a black tower.
You know things are serious when there’s a black tower. Just ask Orson Welles.
* The use of nuclear weapons during World War II leading directly to the development of mutants and other super-powered characters was in fact the basis for my old Marvel Superheroes role-playing game campaign universe.**
** Surely it surprises no one that I once ran a Marvel Superheroes role-playing game campaign universe.***
*** Surely it further surprises no one that I was dissatisfied with the fact that in the old Marvel Superheroes role-playing game, attacks and powers dealt a fixed amount of damage, and that I came up with my own system for rolling dice to make the damage variable. Always knowing that Spider-Man is going to punch you for 40 points of damage is a lot different from knowing he could punch you for anywhere from 20 to 75 points of damage.