By Michael Chabon
430 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers.
Michael Chabon’s new book is described on the title page as “a novel,” in an author’s note as a “memoir” and in the acknowledgments as a “pack of lies.” This is neither as confusing nor as devious as it might sound, since “Moonglow” is less a self-conscious postmodern high-wire act than an easygoing hybrid of forms. Chabon has what sounds like a mostly true story to tell — about characters whose only names are “my grandmother” and “my grandfather,” and also about mental illness, snake hunting, the Holocaust and rocket science — and he may not have wanted to be bound too tightly by the constraints of literal accuracy in telling it.
At the same time, he has shaken loose the formal conventions of fiction, liberating himself in particular from the tyranny of plot. In his previous books, Chabon has always shown great skill at operating the novelistic machinery of cause and effect, foreshadowing and surprise, especially in semi-fabulist confections like “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” But in more realistic books the humming of those narrative engines can sometimes drown out the interesting cacophony of life. For me, that was the case in “Telegraph Avenue,” a well-observed slice of gentrifying urban life clogged with a bit too much Dickensian contrivance to work as well as it should have.
“Moonglow,” in happy contrast, wanders where it will, framing a series of chronologically disordered episodes from the past with conversations involving the narrator (who never tries to persuade us that he is anyone other than Michael Chabon) and various kinfolk, principally his mother and grandfather. This isn’t to say that the book lacks structure, but rather that its structure is determined by the logic of memory, and that the author has resisted the urge to do too much tidying and streamlining. The action zigzags across time and geography — from Germany in the last days of World War II through a grab bag of American locations in the decades after — with blithe indifference to the usual rules of linearity or narrative economy. A sensational and tragic revelation that might have been at the volcanic center of a more familiar kind of book is disclosed almost in passing. There are moments at which you can feel the irresistible temptation to embellish and invent, to infuse reality with Chabonesque touches of wistful Jewish magic realism, being resisted.
But not entirely. “After I’m gone, write it down,” Chabon’s grandfather instructs him. “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.” “Moonglow” both obeys these instructions and rebels against them, preserving the mishmash and mixing in generous dollops of meaning, a sprinkling of fancy metaphors and an abundance of beautiful sentences so that it becomes a rich and exotic confection. Too strict a recipe would have spoiled the charm of this layer cake of nested memories and family legends, which have been arranged with painstaking haphazardness.
Mementos, curios and old photographs figure prominently, as evidence of past actions and symbols of their hidden significance. Through these objects, recollected dialogue and his own powers of speculation, Chabon constructs a loving, partial portrait of an unlikely, volatile and durable marriage. At a synagogue gala in Baltimore in 1947, an irascible veteran from Philadelphia meets a melancholy refugee from France with a fetching accent, a young daughter and a concentration camp tattoo. The daughter will be Chabon’s mother. His scapegrace father, whom readers of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” will recognize, makes a few brief appearances later on, but this book dwells mainly on the mysteries of the maternal line.
The union of Chabon’s grandparents is disrupted by hospitalizations and imprisonment. His grandmother, who grew up near a tannery in Lille, is haunted by visions of a “skinless horse,” a monstrous creature that seems to embody the unspeakable, intimate horrors of Nazism. Her delusions test her husband’s patience, but they also illuminate his loyalty and ardor. A tough man whose temper is hot enough to bring him close to murdering an employer (which earns him 20 months in a New York State prison), he is guided by ethical instincts that seem to him as inarguable as the laws of physics. Promises must be kept, bullies must be brought down, hypocrites must be exposed, and the weak must be protected. He is stubborn and chivalrous, blunt and generous, physically brave and intellectually nimble.
In literary terms, Chabon’s grandfather might be the humbler cousin of Swede Levov, Philip Roth’s tragic paragon of American Jewish manhood from “American Pastoral.” He occupies a similar mid-Atlantic, rapidly assimilating geographical and cultural space and embodies similar secular Jewish virtues. But the book, rather than witnessing his fall, elevates him. It’s not a chronicle of filial revenge; it’s a grandchild’s testament of wonder and devotion. Grandpa chases the Nazi rocket-builder Wernher von Braun in Germany at the end of the war and stalks a pet-killing reptile in a Florida retirement community many years later. Fascinated by space travel, he designs rockets, builds a model moon base and drives for hours to watch the shuttle launch.
These are not so much explained as felt, woven into the very fabric of Chabon’s supple and resourceful prose. He brings the world of his grandparents to life in language that seems to partake of their essences. When he describes an asylum pageant staged by his grandmother, the feverish poetry of the images seems like the product of her tormented, enchanted consciousness: “Darkness falls over the field of clover, dawn breaks on the moon. Jagged moon mountains glow cool and silvery blue in the background as the bee herder, hatchet restored, strolls along unfazed by his new surroundings. He passes silver moon trees like the skeletons of cacti.”
This fantastical landscape coexists with an all-too-real one — a blasted German town described in the precise, engineer’s language of the grandfather: “The stray 88 had knocked the square tower off the shoulders of St. Dominic’s Church. The beams holding up the roof, which was clad in metal, had collapsed and caught fire. In their collapse, the roof beams had formed a kind of bowl or funnel into which the metal roof, now a molten pool, had poured. The glowing drizzle had burned a hole in the sandstone floor, then flowed through to fill the crypt. What missed the hole spread in ripples across the floor, setting fire to everything it touched that was not made of stone.”
Whatever else it is — a novel, a memoir, a pack of lies, a mishmash — this book is beautiful.
See also Michael Chabon - The Sandmeyer Reaction: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/books/review/michael-chabon-sandmeyer-reaction-short-story.html