Moonglow, the latest novel by Michael Chabon, is what the author rightly calls a “faux memoir” that takes impossible liberties with the genre and seems to be on steroids or hallucinatory drugs. The faux memoir was supposedly written about Chabon’s grandfather, with whom the author claims to have spent 10 highly talkative days at his deathbed in 1989. Here’s Chabon, in character as literary-minded grandson, alluding to the bedside dialogue that sparked Moonglow:
“I remember my mother telling me, when she was in the midst of settling my grandfather’s estate, that 50 per cent of a person’s medical expenses are incurred in the last six months of life. My grandfather’s history of himself was distributed even more disproportionately: 90 per cent of everything he ever told me about his life, I heard during its final 10 days.”
The disjointed, drug-addled tale spun by the ailing grandfather roams over the ruins of Europe during and after World War II, when, as an American soldier in special ops, he tasked himself with capturing Wernher von Braun and the V-2 team, and retrieving their secret archives buried in a German mountain.
with Another scenario within the tale extends to a “Night at Monte Carlo” Purim celebration at an American synagogue, circa 1952, where he meets the lady who will become Chabon’s grandmother. She is a delusional Holocaust survivor from France who was saved by hiding in a convent, and who, in desperate moments in later life, retreats to another convent for salvation. (That she does so on Halloween gives the author another occasion, like Purim, to dress his characters in theatrical costumes.)
Yet another episode takes place in a Florida swamp, where the grandfather, who set out that morning for Cape Canaveral to witness a rocket launch, is sidetracked into hunting down an alligator or python that has eaten a small dog named Ramon, leaving a lady in distress. This is just one of numerous improbable dalliances that the grandfather is lured into, like a picaresque traveller stumbling into misadventure.
All these comic-dramatic episodes unfold as if in slow motion, bolstered by an abundance of impressions and second-by-second details that the expiring grandfather would have had to convey to the avidly attentive Chabon in richly novelistic terms. Apparently transformed by the experience, Chabon occasionally lapses into an unblushing narrative omniscience with blatant disregard for the rules of the memoir genre, as well as the integrity of the narrative point of view.
But Chabon’s readers are used to his genre-bending tall tales by now. He’s the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), Telegraph Avenue (2012) and other novels whose vivid metaphors and wildly fantastic elements have long dazzled. If he was a painter, his palette would be filled with strongly impressionistic colours, and he would not be known as a realist.
On this last point, however, the author begs to differ. “I think I am writing absolute, strict, exact descriptions of how the world is, whatever that world might happen to be,” Chabon told The New Yorker last fall. “So the fact that it comes off as vivid and gaudy, hyper-exaggerated, with graphic-book-novel-like prose, it’s always a little surprising to me. That’s just how I see things. But Vincent van Gogh thought he was a realist, too.”
The son of a physician-lawyer and a lawyer, Chabon knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of 10, when a short story he wrote at school was awarded an A. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do. I can do this,’” he recalled.
His parents divorced when he was 11, an experience that caused him to radically alter his perception of the world. “After that happened, not only did I see that my world was broken but, in fact, that brokenness was everywhere in one way or another. It really affected my way of seeing everything thereafter.”
One of his university professors submitted Chabon’s master’s thesis, a novel titled The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, to a literary agent and it attracted an advance of $155,000. From that day forward, he’s been lauded and feted and awarded a multitude of honours, including the Pulitzer Prize for Kavalier & Clay.
In Moonglow, Chabon’s heroes are his immediate ancestors, and he magnifies their exploits to mythic proportions. In one sense, he’s a dutiful grandson preserving an ancestral tale, yet the story grows large enough to become part of a historical tapestry. Even the grandfather becomes concerned with Chabon’s overly enthusiastic need for more details, telling him he’s going to stop talking because “You’re too glad.”
“I’m too glad?”
Chabon goes into full denial mode: “Oh no. I’m bored out of my skull,” I said. “Really, I’m just being polite.”
His grandfather even warns that all the details he’s spewing don’t explain anything and just boil down to “names and dates and places…. It doesn’t add up to anything, take my word for it. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Chabon even deigns to comment on his own storytelling methodology, like a literary editor writing in the margins of his own work. A couple of pages later, even the grandfather makes suggestions as to how the tale should be written.
In this case, there’s a grandfather who is too eager to spin tall tales to someone who is too eager to hear them. But not all readers will be as eager to receive these twice-told tales, no matter how funny and clever their author seems at times. After all, those who pick up the book won’t care nearly as much as Chabon does about his own familiar grandfather, and although Moonglow has obvious literary merit, its characters remained strange and unsympathetic. Also, the novel’s story beats seemed flat and chapters ended indifferently with surprising regularity. The mainstream reviewers generally loved this book, so perhaps they don’t share my old-fashioned preference for likable characters and realistic plots.