It’s unusual for an author to cheerfully refer to his own 400+ page novel as a “pack of lies,” as Chabon does in the Acknowledgements section of his new book Moonglow. But Chabon is an unusual author in many respects. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for propulsive literary epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, he has pushed the boundaries of traditional fiction, trying his hand at experiments of genre, voice, and tone. With Moonglow, he attempts something new and possibly even more radical: he creates a work of “fictional nonfiction” out of what purports to be the story of his own family.
Moonglow takes us back several generations to the so-called “greatest” one. The true-ish story it tells is not about Chabon himself but about his maternal grandfather, who, as the book begins, lies dying of cancer. As author/narrator Chabon feeds the old man Jell-o, he simultaneously pumps him for stories. And so he learns the tale of his grandfather’s remarkable life, starting in a rundown, working-class Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia, ending in a ritzy retiree community in Florida, and ranging through setpieces of war, suburbia, office life, and prison. As you might expect, Chabon learns much more than he expected to about his family, and about himself.
Are these increasingly baroque details of his past believable? Maybe. Why not? As history never tires of reminding us, truth is stranger than fiction.
At times while telling his grandfather’s story, Chabon is digressive, and at other times, too enthusiastic; see: his zeal for capturing his grandfather’s sexual feelings towards women in general and Chabon’s grandmother in particular. And he zigzags through time in a way that ignores the wisdom laid out in Alice in Wonderland (“Start at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop”).
Still, the novel is overwhelmingly effective at what it sets out to do. First and foremost, that is to tell the complicated story of a brilliant, introverted engineer who starts out as an odd but well-meaning kid and ends up the adopted father of an odd but well-meaning kid of his own—the daughter of the beautiful, broken European refugee he falls in love with, and shapes the rest of his life around, after World War II.
Chabon’s grandfather is a magnetic character, and a complicated one. He’s a war hero and a felon. An observer and a brawler. He’s also an obsessive whose life is animated by furious rivalries. Some of these are pedestrian: he feuds with his no-goodnik brother Ray and, later, a pet-eating wild snake in Florida. Others are loftier, even noble: he tracks the Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun across the bombed-out battlegrounds of Germany, only to encounter him decades later, under very different circumstances, near Ft. Lauderdale. But his life is also animated by real tenderness, and not just for the members of his family but for his enemies, too.
Moonglow‘s other mission is to complicate our relationship to the stories we tell to and about each other and ourselves. At one point during Chabon’s conversations with his grandfather, the old man loses his temper and tells his grandson to stop trying to make an accumulation of “dates, and names, and numbers” add up to a satisfying narrative, one that could help Chabon make sense of their lives. Just as scientists tried and failed to explain the Challenger explosion, Chabon’s grandfather says, “‘The answer was always going to be dates, and names, and numbers….the point was to find out. The meaning was in the inquiry.'”
Helped out by an unlikely discovery in the flood-damaged boxes in an old therapist’s estate, Chabon does end up with an explanation of sorts for the equivalent of the Challenger explosion in his own history (his grandmother’s madness). It is an explanation fuller than any his grandfather himself ever received; but like many explanations, it still prompts more questions than it answers. That’s okay. The meaning is in the inquiry. Besides, as Chabon has put it together, this inquiry is well-written, engrossing, and emotional. Its professed loyalties may be to the moon, but, like one of his grandfather’s beloved rockets, and like one of his grandmother’s beloved episodes of arson, this story manages to astonish while shedding both light and heat.