"Moonglow unfolds as the deathbed confession of a man the narrator refers to only as "my grandfather." It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and marriage and desire, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at midcentury, and, above all, of the destructive impact--and the creative power--of keeping secrets and telling lies."--Dust jacket.
Most of the story centers around his grandfather's efforts during WWII to track down the inventor of the V-2, a rocket with a murderous purpose but also one important chapter in the complicated history of rocketry and space exploration. That history serves as a parallel to the history of the family; some might find it distracting but for me it served as the anchor for the grandfather's life. His passion for rocketry feels so real, so imperative to his character. His love for his wife (Mike's grandmother) and his acts of heroism and cowardice in various moments of his young adult life make a good story. But the thread of rocketry and its intersections with those heroic and cowardly and passionate moments is what pulls it all together. That said, this novel is not about rockets or rocketry. It is a family saga and a poignant story of the devastating effect of war. It is the story of mental illness born of deep trauma. It is the story of love and loss, anger and aging. And it's brilliant.
What emerges is a straight-forward novel about an interesting man with the framing device of their conversations before he dies. The story is mostly chronological, with some jumping back and forth in time, from his childhood as a Jewish boy running around places he wasn't allowed, to his involvement in trying to find German scientists before the Soviets do at the end of WWII, to how he met his wife and their life together, and his life as a widower in Florida. In many ways, he lived an ordinary life, but in others he was extraordinary; in his devotion to the wife who never fully recovered from her life in France during the war, in his feeling of obligation to a German man who is being bullied in prison, to his fascination with the space race.
Chabon writes with an enormous amount of affection about his grandfather, and that sentiment pervades the novel. It's also, at a more basic level, just a good story about an interesting, yet ordinary man, well-told.
I must admit, up front, that I’ve never a book by this author. That is not to say I don’t have his books sitting on my shelves or loaded onto my Kindle, because I do. However, I’ve never managed to get around to reading them.
My library was really pushing this book, so I placed a hold on it. Shockingly, few people were ahead of me, so I nabbed a copy almost immediately.
Having no idea what to expect, but hoping for something different and maybe a little challenging, I dived into what some have referred to as a ‘novel memoir’ or memoir/novel.
Michael Chabon, in 1989, travels to Oakland, California to visit his dying grandfather. Never having revealed a great deal to his grandson during his life, his grandfather decides to remedy that, by regaling Michael with stories from his colorful and adventurous life.
‘Ninety percent of everything he ever told me about his life, I heard in its final ten days.’
The author never refers to his grandfather by name, but the gentleman lived through many significant phases in history. His tale is not told chronologically, but skips through time in no particular order. While I’m usually pretty good at dealing with flashbacks in novels, this nilly willy time trip, did create some problems for me at times. I also lost interest a time or two, as the topics just didn’t appeal to me in any way.
But, there were poignant moments than more than made up for those dry spells. I may have this all wrong, but I gathered the grandfather was the main focus of the book, and the other characters were meant to be secondary. I didn’t know what to make of his grandfather for a while, but by the end of the book, I realized I had enjoyed getting to know the man and appreciated his humor.
Now, why is the book labeled as a novel memoir?
“In preparing for this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when the facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
How much is absolute truth, how much is embellishment? Is it a real memoir, or a novel disguised as a memoir?
Either way, the novel is unique, with realistic and compelling characterizations, and a sophisticated prose, which is what I liked best about it.
Overall, this one is a little off the beaten path for me. It’s not the type of book I would want to read often, but I am glad I gave it a try, and it has inspired me to move the books I already own by this author moved closer to the top of my TBR pile.
As with "Kavalier and Clay" there are many characters, real and fictional, who appear throughout the story. It was an interesting and fun read.
As his grandfather laid dying he shared stories of his life with his grandson. Let me tell you this man lived many different lives, tried to kill his boss, blow up a bridge, spent time in prison, worked for the space program designing model rockets and loved and married a woman with mental difficulties. The novel goes back and forth, different stages of his grandfathers life, Michael discussing these thongs with his mother, his mother's recollections and his grandmother's forays into mental illness.
I did think the coverage of rockets, which was his grandfather's passion always, was somewhat too lengthy, and I admit to skimming some of these sections. Yet, the other events in his life more than made up for this, it was all so interesting, almost voyeuristic, looking into someone's personal history.
The funny and coincidental thing about this is that the only other book of Chabons that I read, Wonder Boys, featured a snake. A snake was also an important part of this book, occurring in his grandfather's life before he found out he was sick. Rockets and snakes? Well this is Chabon after all.
ARC from publisher.
The scenes are wonderful, especially the ones with his grandmother, who is a total nutcase. For some reason, Alger Hiss figures here, but he disappears after a first page and then another reference.
He explains in this memoir-like novel that 90 percent of everything he ever knew about his grandfather, he learned while staying with him during the last ten days of his life, while he was dying from cancer and numbing the pain with Dilaudid. The drug loosened the tongue of this noble, impulsive, intelligent man who one reviewer notes, might be symbolic of America itself, much like Bellow's Angie March.
Chabon is a gifted writer as evidenced by the number of passages I felt compelled to highlight for posterity. The narrative is not told sequentially but rather delivered the same way the memories might have been told to him by a dying man on his bedside. He didn't even take his grandfather's advice,
"Anyway, it’s a pretty good story,” I said. “You have to admit.” “Yeah?” He crumpled up the Kleenex, having dispatched the solitary tear. “You can have it. I’m giving it to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you."
The NYT puts it nicely "Mr. Chabon weaves these knotted-together tales into a tapestry that’s as complicated, beautiful and flawed as an antique carpet."
The scenes range from his grandfather's time in the waning years of WWII, trying to capture German scientists who could be useful in America, to his time in jail for assaulting his boss, to his skill working with NASA creating space stations, and even to his retired years in Florida, snake hunting to prove his gallantry to a new Love.
His grandfather's story also reveals the hardship of his love for his wife, who suffered atrocities during the war that haunt her forever. "From the first that was a part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose."
What's not a challenge is reading these scenes of a finally examined life. It was a pleasure.
Some good lines:
"Like many of the spouses of “the lucky ones,” my grandfather had observed that what got labeled luck was really stubbornness married to a knack for observation, a fluid sense of the truth, a sharp ear for lies, and a deeply suspicious nature."
"Gorman stood for a moment just inside the doorway. He nodded to my grandfather. His close-cropped skull was indented on one side as by the corner of a two-by-four. In the crevice formed by his brow and cheekbones, his eyes glinted like dimes lost between sofa cushions."
"His belly sloshed in the wineskin of a ribbed undershirt. His bare shoulders were ivory-yellow and densely freckled. The freckles, like his hair and eyelashes, were the color of a Nilla wafer."
The overarching story here follows the life of the narrator’s grandfather, jumbled for presentational impact, from about the outset of WWII to his death in 1995. The grandfather is an engineer with a fascination for and dream of space travel. That his war work brings him close to the, later, famous (and infamous) lead architect of the US space program, Werner von Braun, is apt. But the real story, perhaps, is that of the narrator’s grandmother who may or may not have been who she claimed. There are enough details of the ordinary life and mundane family history of the narrator for this to have all the appearance of memoir. But the literary archness and subtlety of the writing suggest that it is as much the author’s response to Pynchon and Salinger and others as anything extra-textual.
Chabon is never less than readable. He regularly comes up with the interesting turn of phrase, as well of the mocking of that turn of phrase. And if this novel is not as tight and controlled as, say, his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, its looseness does at least seem deliberate. And of course there are still many incidents in which the near-high adventure of Chabon’s storytelling can’t help but come out.
When Chabon is great, no one can touch him, and here he is at his greatest. I never thought he could write a better book than Kavelier & Clay, but I think he did just that. This book is so many things. First, it is a book about family and about how the family that goes all in are the center of the universe. Second, and most obviously it is love letter to his grandfather, a true iconoclast who is a cross between Job, Leo Szilard, and Preston Tucker. Fourth, it is about mental illness and the monumental toll it takes on those in the orbit of the ill person. Fifth, this is a book about the effects of war, the way in which it changes people at a cellular level, impacting every aspect of their own lives and those of their progeny. Sixth, it is about love and hate and class and race and sex and desire, and about how our personal responses to touch and taste and scent are destiny. And finally, it is about how cats always triumph in the end.
ETA its also incredibly laugh.out loud funny. Tragic too, and sometimes a little slow, like life.
His grandmother, a beautiful and elegant Frenchwoman, survived World War II and the camps. With little more than a set of fortune-telling cards that would be springboards for stories she told her grandson, she emigrated to Baltimore. There the would-be Dolly Levis of the synagogue hoped to match her up with their young rabbi. The night they were to meet at a temple social event, the rabbi dragged his unwilling brother along, and a match was made, just not the one the women expected.
The Frenchwoman had a daughter already (Chabon’s mother), but his grandfather accepted her a hundred percent, as is. And “as is” was not easy. She suffered from severe bouts of depression that resulted in several hospitalizations, and the delusion that a skinless horse lay in wait for her. Nevertheless, they were a good pair. Keeping bad news away from her, as the grandfather insisted upon, “suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”
The main story is the grandfather’s, and the premise of the book is that he was close-mouthed throughout life until the week before he died, when he told Chabon everything. “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from,” Chabon says.
Chabon skips gleefully back and forth across time and space in recounting his grandfather’s World War II experience (where he participated in Operation Paperclip, an effort to snatch up the German rocket experts before the Russians could get them), his lifelong fascination with rocketry and model-building (NASA obtained some of his precisely detailed models), his prison experience, businesses built and lost, and a late-life romance in a Florida retirement village where a giant python was stealing the pets.
In short, the grandfather reveals and Chabon skillfully assembles and polishes a treasure chest of experiences, Dickensian in their variety, one to be explored with delight and wonder.
For very good reason, Moonglow was selected by numerous publications as a “best book” of 2016.