Michael Chabon’s latest book, Moonglow, has to live up to the high expectations created by his previous work, which runs from alternate history to essays to children’s books to slice-of-life novels, most of them extremely good. Moonglow is one of Chabon’s best books yet. It is that rare pleasure—a book that has likeable characters, good writing craft, warmth and humour.
Moonglow is written as though it’s a memoir, but Chabon cheekily undermines his own conceit before the first chapter even begins, with a note that assures the reader that facts have been disregarded wherever necessary.With that done, he begins the story of how his grandfather grows up in Depression-era Philadelphia as a thug. Later on, he joins the army, where his indiscipline brings him not punishment but a transfer to the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This job hop sends him to Germany, where he hunts down Nazi scientists; and after the war ends, he returns to America and marries a concentration camp survivor; and then ends up making model rockets for the US space agency Nasa after an interlude in prison.
Stories about men living interesting lives across the 20th century are common, and are often enthusiastically turned into films as well. Forrest Gump, Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish and Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared have all played with their protagonists galumphing through, and making their mark on history. What Moonglow brings to the genre is the set of Chabon touches—marriages and other relationships that are as bitter as they are sweet, a certain sense of questing, an examination of Jewishness, and protagonists who take responsibility in difficult situations for a larger, visionary goal.
Since it’s a Chabon book, whatever the protagonists do will be slightly futile, no matter how extraordinary or ambitious it might be. In The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, the protagonists stood up against the Holocaust, and faced financial ruin. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a burnt-out policeman discovers a plot to resume the Zionist project, but can’t prevent it. And in Moonglow, the “grandfather” takes it upon himself to take care of his mentally ill wife and to oppose the legacy of Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, but in vain.
What makes this book different not just from other authors’ picaresques, but from Chabon’s other books, is its flirtation with magical realism—just as mischievous as Chabon’s note about disregarding facts with due abandon. He litters the narrative with characters and situations that seem magical—a half-bearded lady, a malignant skinless horse, or a French witch—and always, at the end, provides an utterly reasonable and mundane explanation for them. But this is the trick: In the time between these characters being introduced and the time the explanation is provided, the reader is left with a feeling of magic that never quite goes away. What Chabon does is not sorcery, but conjuring. There’s a trick at the heart of it, which makes his skill all the more impressive.
Coming up with reasonable explanations for magical phenomena is not just cheeky playfulness, it allows Chabon to do the sort of writing he does very well—show us just how important and meaningful material objects can be to us. The material things in Moonglow are the opposite of MacGuffins—replace the grandfather’s model of a lunar base, or the grandmother’s fortune-telling cards, or the mother’s childhood toys, and the book would be completely different. Chabon is unsubtle about the importance of objects at times—such as the time the narrator lists out the five things his grandfather carries along with him to his last home—but the writing is beautiful without subtlety.
Moonglow also shows Chabon being playful in a way he hasn’t been in earlier books; with a leitmotif. The moon keeps showing up in the narrative—whether as the goal of the Apollo missions, in songs, as the protagonist’s lunar habitat model, or tangentially, setting the beat to his wife’s menstrual cycle and the mental illness brought about by it.
But even without the word play, or without the well-crafted sentences, Moonglow would remain a wonderful book thanks to the portrait it draws of the narrator’s unnamed grandfather, a rascal, a curmudgeon, and a man of violence who nevertheless chooses to be kind and dedicated in every way he can when it comes to his wife and daughter. To quote the book, his wife is “an exhausting woman to love”, but he loves her anyway. He does it in the face of being fired, of seeing his ideals being perverted and a monster win fame and respect, and he soldiers on regardless. It’s a portrait of grace—very grumpy grace, but grace nevertheless—that is balm in our difficult times.