Moonglow, the newest book by Michael Chabon, is a novel wrapped in a memoir. Or maybe it’s memoir wrapped in a novel. Either way, it’s an elegantly structured narrative that examines what can be known about a family history colored by personal and historical suffering.
The book is based on the deathbed confessions of Chabon’s grandfather. While high on painkillers, he began telling Chabon stories about his stint in jail, serving in World War II, retirement in Florida, and marriage to Chabon’s grandmother. Moonglow is the grandfather’s life story, but with embellishments to fill in the gaps. As Chabon puts it, “I have stuck to facts, except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
The grandfather is a familiar 20th-century type, emotionally repressed and controlled. He’s the kind of man who drinks one glass of scotch every Friday night and makes models of lunar bases in his spare time. Chabon’s grandmother, on the other hand, is a dramatic figure who tells stories to her grandson using Tarot cards and who plays an Elvira-like character called the Night Witch on Baltimore television. The first time the grandfather sees her, she’s “posed beside a potted palm, in a fox stole and sunglasses, under a banner that read, TRY YOUR LUCK!”
Some of the best passages in Moonglow are about the grandmother’s mental illness, which involves terrifying hallucinations of a skinless horse. The illness is related to the grandmother’s trauma as a Jew during World War II. “She was a vessel built to hold the pain of history, but it had cracked her, and radiant darkness leaked out through the crack.” The grandparents’ relationship is a model in fidelity. Despite the turmoil driving them apart, they keep coming back together. Deep love exists alongside personal pain, which seems to necessitate careful negotiation. While Michael learns the full story of his grandmother’s experiences in the war, the grandfather remains willfully ignorant. “What if she were to tell you something or you learned something about her… that caused you to question everything she had told you before?” a psychiatrist asks the grandfather. He replies: “Sounds like I ought to tell her not to tell me.”
In addition to beautiful language and complex structure, Chabon’s prose is dense with research, covering topics like the history of trick-or-treating, Florida’s invasive pet problem, and advanced robotic navigation research. You can almost picture Chabon looking up the underside of the Francis Scott Key Bridge or what type of sweater a GI might have worn during World War II: “Shawl collar, toggle buttons, and a sash that Aughenbaugh left untied because he felt self-conscious about having womanly hips.”
While the research can bog down the narrative, when done well it enhances Moonglow’s interplay between fact and fiction. In one chapter, for example, Chabon drops storytelling for a digression on the history of German rocket engineering during the war. On the surface, it’s easy to lose patience with what feels like a sudden dive into a term paper, but the chapter gives depth to the grandfather’s war experience, which included witnessing a German labor camp. It’s a relief that we can both experience the gravity of what he saw without having to see it with him. Some things are too serious — too real, if you will — to be subjected to imaginative rendering. Perhaps the only respectful move is to let the facts stand as they are.
Moonglow is a subtle, poignant novel. A plot that first seems to be about mundane people soon circles and tightens and becomes more reflective of its themes. Revelations come out, sometimes only in footnotes, and connections are made. In the end, this complicated book is a rewarding read — with much to say about our perception of loved ones, the unreliable nature of memory, and the burdens of inheriting a family story damaged by history.