Moonglow – Michael Chabon
Release Date: 26/01/2017
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Pages: pp. 448 RRP: £18.99 (Hardback)
Kindle edition available here (£9.99)
It’s not often that I read a memoir that seeks to play with the boundary between fact and fiction. Most simply present reality with a bit more flavour – Michael Chabon’s Moonglow goes further, and is a welcome return to form.
Moonglow follows Mike, a loose representation of Chabon himself, as he transcribes the memoir of his grandfather, as he breathes his last on his deathbed. As Mike’s grandfather lies back dying of bone cancer and dosed up on painkillers, he seeks to pass on his story in the time he has left, and presents a fascinating life story to his grandson. Through a deliberately haphazard chronological structure, we’re shown a man seemingly desperate to find meaning in the life he’s lived, covering such topics as his wartime service, marriage and a period of imprisonment – to the point he implores Mike to ‘make it mean something’ when writing it up.
I found the depiction of his grandfather’s war service to be one of the book’s strongest areas. It unfolds at a wonderful pace, depicting Mike’s rocket-obsessed grandfather on a hunt for Wernher von Braun, moving through a defeated Germany – including a fantastic sequence which begins with a duel against a man armed with a bow and arrow, and culminating in the exhumation of the body of a local saint on behalf of the local priest. A great deal of attention is paid to the ballistics of rocketry (with a strong nod made to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow), but it’s the culmination of the journey that imprints on Mike’s grandfather the most. His witnessing of the liberation of KZ Mittelbau-Dora, the concentration camp where the enslaved populace were forced to work on V2 rockets, ultimately haunts him – to the point that when his family gather to watch the moon landing footage some 25 years later, he finds himself having to leave the room, all too aware of the toxic legacy behind it all.
The relationship with Mike’s grandmother is one that gets explored in fascinating detail, but at times feels more comedic than it probably should have been. A woman who suffered from psychotic delusions (including being haunted by the apparition known as the Skinless Horse), to the point of being committed to a psychiatric hospital, she eventually meets Mike’s grandfather at a synagogue dance many years later. The unusual approach to chronology makes the eventual painful revelations about her heritage (drawn from the hospital’s records) carry that much more weight to them, with the fallibility of memory painfully colliding with the coldness of fact – Mike’s grandfather loves her regardless, and has kept the revelations from the family until this point. When at one point Mike and his mother attempt to reconstruct some missing photos of Mike’s grandmother from an album they’re examining (to the point she’s forced to give up finding them and resorts to describing them from memory), it’s here that we again see the notion that a fetishism of reality is being challenged comes to the fore – even to the point that when queried, Mike’s grandfather describes his story as being ‘[…] all the way I remember it happening’.
Ultimately I was quite impressed by how Chabon had played with structure in this memoir. Alongside his particular use of structure, small totems litter the work, such as a magazine clipping and lists of physical objects, these serve to act as anchors to reality, whilst the narrative escalates beyond this. I don’t think many other authors could have pulled off something quite as compelling as this. I can safely say that you should set some time aside to sit down with this book – you won’t regret it.