Michael Chabon is in top form with Moonglow, in which a grandfather, in his final days, recounts many untold stories to his grandson regarding the tumultuous and sentimental days of his life. Jumping around in time with this story is like watching a street artist complete a scenic depiction: there is no full picture until the end, but what a masterpiece it turns out to be. The form of the story itself is worth puzzling over, both due to the difficulties of defining it, but also due to its dazzling intricacy. The publisher dubs it an “autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir.” And Chabon himself states in an introduction, “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
If we were to take the stance that this was a memoir with streaks of fiction, then we’d have to assume that the narrator, Mike, is not the same as the author Michael Chabon, and that his maternal grandparents are not the same as the author’s maternal grandparents. With enough digging—or enough imagination, I suppose—you would find the many similarities between fiction and reality. I found myself constantly asking that age-old question of “whose story is this to tell?” Indeed, Chabon gets so deeply entrenched in the telling at times it feels as if we are hearing the story directly from the grandfather’s lips. And since he’s high on pain-killers for his cancer, it feels almost shameful to listen to what the dying man reveals—but listen we must, for the desire to understand bleeds through the narrator onto the very page.
Ethical curiosities aside, Chabon’s intrigue as the grandson is palpable, and his discoveries about both his grandparents and their lives transfix him. As a child, Chabon’s grandfather is stubborn and impulsive. He defies authority and struts through life with a dare on his face. After he and a military buddy almost blow up a bridge in a joke gone a bit awry, an officer from the Strategic Services of World War II sizes him up—“You’ve been looking for trouble your whole life”—and then immediately recruits him.
As his grandfather falls in love with a captivating woman who eventually becomes his wife, the traumas and difficulties of war-torn Europe fall away at first. Together, they build a new life in America, though each must deal with their own demons. The grandfather suffers from PTSD, and the grandmother develops a mental illness that neither of them are equipped to handle. In addition to the mysteries revealed from his grandfather, Chabon supplies anecdotes that don’t include the grandfather, but instead focus on his childhood memories with his grandmother. We are privy to the tender and intimate bond the two shared and the secrets they keep from the grandfather, not the least of which involve tarot cards and his grandmother’s past as a witch. It is with deft skill that Chabon handles the fluctuations in his grandparents’ lives, shining a light on the struggles and realities that many of us experience each day.
Characterizing his grandfather through his passions is a talent of Chabon’s, but sometimes this technique goes too far. There are long descriptions of rocket parts and bomb compositions, not to mention a Pynchon novel and several unnecessarily lengthy sections. At 500 pages, it is already a hefty novel—some tighter editing would hardly weaken the narrative. However, it is worth considering if this was not a direct parallel to how his grandfather recounted these passions—long digressions that come from a sick man’s addled mind. In retelling a life, it would make sense to include tangents, as life itself is full of them. To view these rather tedious sections in this light is to have sympathy for the very thing that made this dying man feel alive.
The question of truth crops up repeatedly throughout, tying in neatly with the nature of the book itself—fiction or nonfiction? What should the character Chabon believe as his grandfather lets loose his tongue? And then what should we as readers believe in turn? Was there truly a young circus girl that the grandfather found in a train yard when he was a boy? Did he really try to strangle one of his bosses with a telephone cord in a fit of rage? Or does it even matter? Mike does not seem to think so. In fact, he finds the stories to be a sort of relief; they offer a peek into his grandparents’ true natures, both together and individually.
Whether this is a fictional novel, a biography, a memoir, or some experimental combination of them all, Moonglow is a true Chabon exploration. Family, regret, mental illness, time, war, loyalty, secrets—through its myriad cracked, sharp fragments of a life lived, Moonglow comes alive through vivid storytelling. This novel is at once the most imaginative and personal book Chabon has tackled yet.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Published November 22, 2016
Michael Chabon is an American novelist and short story writer whose works include the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.