Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Reviewed by Emily Yang

In his final days, the grandfather of the narrator begins spilling the details of his
life that he had kept silent for decades. As he lies on his deathbed under powerful
painkillers, the man only called the “grandfather” unravels a family history of
war, obsession, love, and mental illness. These are the stories on which Michael
Chabon, mixing fact and fiction, bases his newest work, Moonglow.
The narrator, Mike Chabon, is a fictionalized version of the author himself. The
novel is partially the grandfather’s tales and partially the narrator’s commentary.
The narrator supplements his grandfather’s stories with memories from his own
youth as well as modern-day events in his and his mother’s lives. This provides a
backstory and explains how the book came to be, but the narrative is not entirely
to be believed.
The novel begins with a warning in the author’s note:

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when facts
refuse to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as
I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with
names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities,
motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical
personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due
abandon.”

Chabon makes it clear through the author’s note and the title that the book is a
work of fiction. Nonetheless, the story weaves specific, true elements of the time
period, including the liberation of the Nordhausen concentration camp and the
launch of Sputnik, into the fictional grandfather’s life. The reader is left wondering
which parts might be attributed to Chabon’s real grandfather, who did live through
much of latter half of the twentieth century.
The text is sprinkled with German, French, and Hebrew, reflecting Chabon’s
heritage. His previous works, such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &
Claywork and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, do frequently focus on Jewish
identity, and this aspect of his and his family’s identity is also heavily explored in
Moonglow. Though fictionalized, at times the narration does seem to
reflect Chabon’s own, genuine thoughts. He writes, “In Egypt, in Shushan, in the
time of Judah Maccabee, God had intervened to deliver us with a mighty hand and
outstretched arm; big deal. When we were sent to the ovens, God had sat with His
outstretched thumb upon His mighty ass and let us burn. In 1947 there was, to my
grandfather, one reason to continue calling oneself a Jew, to go on being Jewish
before the world: as a way of telling Hitler Fuck you.”
Further contributing to the ambiguity are the footnotes. They contain brief
commentary about the ongoing scene as well as snippets of information the
narrator presumably obtains at a later date. The narrator claims that, many
years after his grandfather’s death, he followed up with the stories, researching
newspaper archives and contacting old acquaintances, before writing the novel.
This heightens Moonglow’s pretense as an authentic memoir.
The novel begins in the middle of one of the grandfather’s anecdotes, in which
he is fired and nearly strangles his boss. The story then moves to the grandfather’s
childhood, and we only learn the aftermath of the first event much later. The
grandfather grows up an unruly boy on Strunk Street in Philadelphia, and we
eventually amalgamate a past in which he joins the United States army and serves
in Germany during WWII, falls in love with a French woman, becomes a business
owner and engineer, and retires to a Florida community. Along the way, the
narrator reveals the grandfather’s colorful past, from making bombs—not while in
Germany— to spending a year in jail, hunting a python, and building meticulous
models of spacecraft.
The narrator maintains a casual tone in the novel, and the descriptions as told
by the grandfather are somewhat detached. However, dramatic developments are
often delivered in the midst of this, almost carelessly. The author does not bother
with foreshadowing or suspense, which actually contributes to the impact of his
statements. In describing the desperation of the Germans, Chabon writes “Bicycle
parts pressed into ad hoc service, a side car that seemed to have been formed from
a galvanized steel washtub, tires piebald with patches. Bicycles, arrow. Soon they
would be throwing bricks and rocks. They were already throwing the bodies of
their children.”
The narrator notes that the grandfather tells him the stories out of order, and
Chabon chooses to present them to the reader this way, jumping from one period
to the next and circling back later on. The author uses names and places to mark
the setting, but the lack of chronological order is still often confusing. Several lines
of reading are required before one can orient the time and place. However, this
also allows the reader to discover the narrator’s history the way he did, slowly and
in pieces, adding to what he already knew. One collects a gradual understanding
of the narrative, and past events are elucidated as new information is contributed.
One such element that becomes clearer as the novel progresses is the grandmother. She is first introduced when she shows a young Chabon a set of “FORTUNE-
TELLING CARDS FOR WITCHES” and proceeds to concoct a disturbing story from their faces. Later, we learn that she came to America from a Displaced
Persons camp, bringing her five-year-old daughter—Chabon’s mother—with her.
The grandfather fell in love with and married her, adopting her daughter. Their
life together is plagued by her struggle with schizophrenia and attempt to keep the
“skinless horse” in her delusions at bay. Chabon characterizes her as “a vessel built to hold the pain of her history, but it had cracked her, and radiant darkness leaked
out through the crack.” Eventually, the narrator discovers something from her past
that completely changes his conception of her.
The cover of Moonglow reveals the two things that connect all of
the stories. The matchsticks are reminiscent of fire, and throughout the novel the
grandfather shares a smoke with nearly all of the characters, from Germans to
his own daughter. Moonglow—the skies—seems to be the only constant in the
grandfather’s life. Chabon writes “You looked up and saw The Starry Night, he told
me; you realized that Van Gogh was a realist painter.” Obsessed with rocketry and
even making a career of it, the grandfather frequently imagines taking his family
to the moon and building a home for them. His passion gives him a place in the
world allows him to connect with others. He says “For a moment, Germans, to the
left, to the right, it didn’t matter. Everyone lifted his gaze, just for a little moment,
to the heavens.” The glow of the night sky unifies across all divides, including time,
space, and ideology.
Moonglow yields a compelling tale of discovering one’s past. While
Chabon’s account is fictionalized, this does not prevent the reader, or Chabon
himself, from gaining insights into history, love, life, and identity.

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