In His Expansive New Novel, Michael Chabon Blurs the Line Between Fact and Fiction
Reviewing Michael Chabon's 2012 Telegraph Avenue, I ventured that — having already rolled out a comic-book novel that won a Pulitzer, a police procedural that won a Hugo, a Sherlock Holmes novel, a y.a. baseball novel, and a medieval swashbuckler he didn't quite have the stones to entitle Jews With Swords — he should next essay a fantasy novel in the manner of crusading atheist Philip Pullman, a hero of his. Instead, as is no surprise, he did something entirely unexpected. Ostensibly, Moonglow is a semi-fictional memoir. Only then you dig around a little and admit that the "semi" is more like 98 percent.
In an introductory note, Chabon allows as how his book — in which a narrator called Mike Chabon works from a few weeks of 1989 deathbed recollections to chronicle characters designated "my grandfather," "my grandmother," and "my mother" — sticks to "facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it." The deepest of Moonglow's many tricks is that it leaves the reader deeply reluctant to acknowledge how big a hole his exception makes room for. You so love the two grandparents that you have a stake in their literal existence. You want to believe Chabon's tales of Wernher von Braun and Alger Hiss and Nevermore the Night Witch and the bomb fashioned in a prison cell and the model moon colony that covers the grandfather's dining room table. You want the world to be like this, not just some book.
Not that either grandparent is a paragon of kindness or genius — both are knotty and indeed nutty, the grandmother borderline insane and the grandfather a cantankerous failure whose brilliance is torpedoed by his arrogance, idealism, temper, bad luck, fascination with space travel, and love for his doomed, mad, maddening wife. But the grandmother is a refugee and the grandfather a kind of war hero. And both are gifted, original, and devoted to "my mother," the precious person the grandmother somehow brought to America as a young child, who is then adopted by the war hero after he falls for the grandmother during a "Night in Monte Carlo" gala at a Baltimore synagogue. Her collarbone, her sunglasses at night, and her observation that his head would look good on a fence had already taught him the meaning of "swept off his feet" when she sealed the deal by reaching out and zipping up the fly the putz had left open.
Through a devastating miscarriage, two institutionalizations and one incarceration, her local TV fame, his up-and-down career as a rocketry expert and novelty manufacturer, and her death from cancer in 1974, Moonglow is most fundamentally a credible and carnal love story. It proceeds in roughly chronological fits and starts that flash forward to a late-life affair and other secrets the grandfather conveys to "Mike Chabon" from his deathbed. Although some complain that Chabon garbles his narrative purpose with these diversions, I loved their casual-looking dazzle, reluctant to leave one thread behind and then instantly caught up in the next. So I was struck by a major departure from the back-and-forth — an uninterrupted 52-page World War II sequence so painful that I stopped reading Moonglow at bedtime until I was done with it, only to be truly harrowed by the 25-page sequel that materialized 71 pages later.
Despite how deftly and soulfully Chabon focused on the African-American characters in the undervalued Telegraph Avenue, which is essentially a celebration of the beleaguered middle class, it's fair to say that if Jews don't interest you Chabon may not either, and to point out that the Holocaust is a major preoccupation of both his big novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Moreover, Chabon has seldom even touched on the other minorities now suddenly under threat in our endangered democracy. Nevertheless, I have little doubt Moonglow's World War II material felt different to me post–11-9 than it would have before, and not just because anti-Semitism too is on the rise in Trump's electorally skewed America. It made me fear what horrors this inchoate beginning may yet bring about.
Moonglow comes down hard on how amorally the U.S. whitewashed von Braun's war crimes, including his hands-on collusion in the concentration-camp rocket factory whose countless dead and few half-dead survivors transform the grandfather from von Braun's starry-eyed admirer into his sworn enemy. But the America where Chabon wrote Moonglow has room for another moral twist. If it's the place where "Nazi Germany had won the war," as the grandfather concludes, it's also where he very inadvertently encounters von Braun at the 1975 Space Congress, where he benefits from that meeting, and — most strikingly — where he finds himself identifying irresistibly with the aspect of the war criminal with whom he shared moonglow dreams long ago. I wonder whether Chabon could have arrived at that credible paradox today. But I remain profoundly grateful for his ability to create this book's engrossing, contradictory, faux-memoiristic reality. Art, such magical stuff is called. We're going to need it.
By Michael Chabon