A lot of talk has surrounded Michael Chabon’s new ‘novel’ – not only because, well, a new Chabon release is enough to wake the literary world up from its slumbers – but because of its clever use of a hybrid of forms. Moonglow straddles the divide between fiction and memoir; ostensibly a narrative born from Chabon’s grandfather’s stories as he lay dying back in 1989, the author freely admits that he was instructed: “Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours.”
So, has he taken liberties with his grandfather’s tales? Chabon confesses in the acknowledgments that Moonglow is a “pack of lies”, but this is merely a plea for the reader not to study every detail, but to enjoy the whole story. Memory is, of course, unreliable at the best of times, and the very nature of the stories being passed on from his grandfather at the end of his life while he’s ill – not to mention the re-telling from Chabon himself – suggests perhaps that we should take everything with a pinch of salt.
Chabon has fun, obeying his grandfather’s wish for a bit of narrative playfulness, as he explores his family’s sweeping history – a past that roams from a synagogue gala in Baltimore in 1947, to an end-of-World War II Germany; across a seemingly endless mishmash of American locations. Moonglow works as a series of vignettes – which Chabon explores with his usual humour and warmth – and at times may seem meandering. Yet this is also the nature of memory, and the book sticks to its own structure; one determined by his grandfather’s reveries. This book is better for its lack of ‘neatness’ and a strict narrative timeline.
Some of the most vivid scenes in the book recall his grandfather’s experiences as a solider in WWII; or the time he was fired from his job and took his anger and frustration out – with terrible consequences – on his boss. Chabon writes with wonderful lyricism and craft, fashioning out of his grandfather’s memories a story of love and loss, but also of laughter and warmth. The reader is also treated to some sharp, evocative passages on Chabon’s grandfather’s obsession with spaceflight. He drives down to Florida for every rocket launch, and is given a job for NASA building model rockets. He promises his wife – a refugee from France – that he will one day fly her “to find refuge on the moon.”
This ‘refuge’ is not only a nod to Chabon’s grandmother’s beginnings – which are explored with some terrific scenes elsewhere in the book – but as we learn more about her, it also suggests a refuge from herself and the “skinless horse” that plagues her waking dreams. Chabon’s grandmother suffered with voices and visions, and some of the most piercing passages in the book explore the repercussions of this.
In Moonglow, Chabon is on top form. Whether he is describing his fear as a child of the evil-looking puppets owned by his grandparents – that he ultimately thought were going to kill him while he slept – or his grandfather’s attempts to search out and kill a snake for the affections of a woman in the twilight of his life – Chabon’s story-telling (or re-telling) is a joy. Forget the issue of categorisation, Moonglow is, fittingly, a beautiful blend of fiction and truth; memoir, but with just the right sprinkling of embellishment.
Moonglow is released on November 22. Thank you to Harper Collins for the ARC.