“Moonglow” by Michael Chabon, Harper, 448 pages, $28.99
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“After I’m gone, write it down,” the grandfather instructs his grandson, mid-story, on his deathbed. “Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.”
The grandson, who narrates Michael Chabon’s new novel, “Moonglow,” and shares the author’s name and much of his biography, only partially fulfills his grandfather’s dying wishes. Nothing seems to be in order, and only some things are explained in the end.
There are, however, lots of literary flourishes, as is Chabon’s habit. And the book—a work of “speculative autobiography” that deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction, and feels perfectly timed to the current “post-truth” moment—certainly does mean something, even if it requires some patience to figure out what it is.
Over the course of his brilliant career, Chabon has published a string of majestic novels full of complex characters, esoteric cultural and historical references, dictionary-busting vocabulary, and nostalgic Yiddishkeit. (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” earned Chabon a Pulitzer Prize in 2001.)
For all of his books’ charms, though, their plots often stall under the weight of the atmospherics, which can make losing oneself in the stories a bit challenging. I must admit that I listened to “Telegraph Avenue” on tape after two aborted attempts to hack my way into the narrative thicket via the printed page.
“Moonglow” is typically Chabonesque in its ambition and density, a concerto performed at an adagio tempo. It demands a lot from the reader, but it proffers many delicious rewards in return.
Tongue loosened by a powerful painkiller, the cancer-afflicted grandfather—referred to throughout the book as “my grandfather”—reminisces about his remarkable life as his writer grandson listens at his bedside, taking notes for the book he doesn’t yet know he will write.
The old man recounts episodes from his freewheeling youth in South Philadelphia in the 1920s, his Nazi-hunting escapades for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) during World War II, his marriage to a mysterious French refugee who may or may not have been interred in a concentration camp, his career as an aerospace engineer at the height of the space race, his stint in an upstate New York prison for assault, and his retirement in Florida, which he spends building scale models of spacecraft for NASA.
When memory fails the grandfather, Chabon fills in the gaps via research (see the book’s many footnotes), his imagination, and sometimes a bit of both.
Similar DNA to that of 'Augie March'
This book shares some of the DNA of “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow’s classic picaresque novel about a Chicago-born rascal who manages to find trouble wherever he goes.
Like Augie, the grandfather in “Moonglow” is an independent, wily Jew with anger issues who punches back and pursues stimulation in all of its forms. Some of his misadventures sparkle with intrigue and tension while others fizzle.
Characters appear and then disappear just as quickly. There is verisimilitude here; life doesn’t always get your heart racing, and we often can’t control when and how people enter and exit our lives.
“Moonglow” is disorienting for another reason: It is by far Chabon’s darkest book to date. From the opening scene, in which the grandfather strangles his boss in a blind rage (earning him that prison sentence), there is violence and emotional trauma at every turn. Men are brutalized in war. Multiple suicides and suicide attempts are mentioned.
The Challenger explodes. Not one but two characters are impaled by arrows. Statutory rape is alluded to. Pregnancies are lost. Cats are abused. Tormentors materialize in the form of a skinless horse and creepy puppets. Mental illness is discussed at length. This is a veritable phantasmagoria.
The narrative zigzagging and existential darkness may lead some readers to avoid or abandon “Moonglow,” but there are many compelling reasons to pick it up and stick with it. Foremost among them is the passion for the English language that radiates from every page.
People do not simply snore; they take shifts “working the stops and pedals of the pipe organ they appeared to have smuggled into the bed.” One can only marvel at his lyrical descriptions of the night sky: “the circuitry of heaven was printed in bright joints of solder,” “a dark hide tattooed with everyday implements and legendary beasts.”
Chabon’s intricate sentences often require a second or third reading, either to savor them again or to figure out what the heck he’s talking about. After being injured in battle, one of the grandfather’s comrades “diverted his thoughts from the pain by describing in Alabaman detail the unnatural use that my grandfather had made of my great-grandmother.” (See what I mean?)
He also has an uncanny ability to describe odors, doing so in staggeringly precise ways. For example, “masked by Pine-Sol and narcissi in pots, a bloom of human feces in the air” is how he captures the scent inside the mental institution to which the schizophrenic grandmother is committed.
There are unexpected moments of grace, too, as when an elderly German priest who has seen too much destruction anoints a dying man with oil. Neither is humor completely absent.
The grandfather, who kept “a kosher belly” but saw no use for synagogues (“great Jews from Abraham to Hillel had never laid eyes on one”), makes a point of attending shul every Shabbat for a year after his wife’s death in order to recite kaddish, even though Jewish tradition only calls for a one-month mourning period for a spouse.
“He had always believed that the only real satisfaction offered by the experience of attending synagogue lay in the knowledge that church would be even worse,” Chabon writes.
This book’s faux memoir conceit has been used before, notably by Philip Roth. In his 1993 novel “Operation Shylock,” Roth would have us believe that he worked as a Mossad operative and changed certain facts “for legal reasons.”
Chabon claims to have done so for more idiosyncratic reasons; that is, when the facts “refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
What further distinguishes “Moonglow” is that it encompasses the grandfather’s entire life and necessarily implicates other relatives, including the narrator’s great uncle, mother and father.
The shocking family secrets that come to light toward the end of the book reverberate as powerfully as they do because Chabon has nearly convinced us that these are real people, his people.
The big picture
So, what does it all mean? The grandfather rejects the idea that his life — his suffering, and the suffering he caused others — has some cosmic significance. “You think this explains everything,” he tells his grandson.
“Me and your grandmother. Your mother. My time in prison. The war. It explains nothing. It’s just names and dates and places. It doesn’t add up to anything, take my word for it.” The grandson counters that it means “a little.” It turns out that “a little” is just enough for the grandson (and the author) to run with.
On one level, “Moonglow” can be read as a warning about the perils of excavating one’s family history. Beware, it seems to say, you will learn things you didn’t want to know that might change the way you feel about the people you love. It can also be read as a celebration of failure, of getting only “halfway there.”
Throughout the book the grandfather repeatedly falls short of his personal and professional goals. He had hoped to one day fly to the moon and establish a colony there for his family. “On the moon,” Chabon writes,
“230,000 miles from the stench of history, there was no madness or memory of loss.” But like Moses before him, the grandfather never reaches his Promised Land (at least not while he was alive).
He may admit to feeling ashamed that his is a story of things unfinished and not started, but this doesn’t diminish the grandson’s affection for him. Indeed, the grandson measures success not by the outcome but by how good the story is.
We learn there was a lunar eclipse the night the grandfather was born in 1915, and moons appear or disappear at auspicious times throughout the book.
One Halloween, after the grandmother disappears from her Baltimore home, sending the grandfather out into the night looking for her, the narrator observes that “though the Moon was high and nearly full, its light hung diffuse and opaque as if moonlight were only an inferior brand of darkness.”
The tricky thing about the light of the moon, as anyone who has walked in an unpopulated area at night can attest, is that it illuminates as much as it obscures. “Moonglow” does that, too. “Sometimes even lovers of fiction can be satisfied only by the truth,” Chabon writes with a wink.
The author’s next book may well be another phantasmagoria. He is editing a volume of essays with his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman, about the “human cost” of 50 years of the Israeli military occupation.
After visiting the West Bank last April, Chabon was quoted as saying that the treatment of the Palestinians was “the most grievous injustice” he had ever seen, prompting some Jewish readers to vow never to read him again. That, as “Moonglow” attests, is entirely their loss.
Andrew Esensten, a former staff writer for Haaretz English Edition, is working on a book about Israel’s African Hebrew Israelite community.