Reviewed by Barrett Hathcock
For a time, around the turn of the century—alongside Wallace, Franzen, Lethem, Whitehead—Michael Chabon was semi-ubiquitous. Nerd lit was ascendant, and he was, arguably, the smoothest nerd around. Now, though no longer as young and trendy as he once was, he is still smoothly filling the shelves with literature. Since his most recent novel Moonglow (2016), he’s published a collection of essays about fatherhood (cue the tears), and now he’s the show runner for a new CBS series, Star Trek: Picard, which must be a kind of polymath nerd’s apotheosis.
On the one hand, Moonglow is a fabulous novel, well-oiled and well-told. Chabon creates an effortlessly detailed engine of invention that is thrilling and daunting. But it’s a peculiar novel, sneaky in its use of point of view and constantly twisting the chronology of events, and I am still puzzling over what ends result from the various strategies he deploys.
First off, it’s a false memoir: the novel is narrated by a Michael Chabon who is ostensibly writing a memoir of his last days visiting his dying grandfather, who narrates to the young writer the story of his life. The result is a fantastical epic: a heroically inventive and martyr-like “grandfather” (he is never named) grows up in dirty industrial South Philadelphia. He is an engineer by inclination and astronaut by aspiration who works in the Office of Strategic Services during WWII where he follows in the wake of the D-Day invasion to “pick Germany’s pocket” of leftover scientists and technology. Through this he nearly apprehends infamous German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. He comes home to marry a schizophrenic, widowed Holocaust survivor. He raises her child as his own (Michael’s mother), goes to prison for assaulting his boss at work (long story), works eventually for a toy company that replicates rockets, and retires to a life of space craft model-building obsession in the stuccoed wilds of southern Florida. It reads as if Wes Anderson had written a version of The Shawshank Redemption. Encompassing the bulk of the 20th century, it’s sweeping yet meticulous, sweetly nostalgic, and almost completely unbelievable.
Two bits stick out to me now. The first is the novel’s “big secret.” His grandmother’s origin story is actually a lie. Rather than being a Holocaust Survivor who was abandoned by her Jewish family of horse hide dealers to a nunnery in rural France for being a pregnant teen, she was in fact just an orphan who grew up at the nunnery. While there she experienced a different string of misfortune. She was raped by an SS officer (resulting in Michael’s mother being born) and she was later befriended by another Jewish girl, who actually did come to the nunnery a la Anne Frank from her actual hide-dealing family and who was later deported to Auschwitz. The grandmother assumes this dead girl’s identity in the wake of WWII in order to get to America with her young daughter. I hope you are appropriately confused.
So the poignant lynchpin of the grandmother’s entire origin, and one of the supposed major ingredients of her hysteria, turns out to be a fiction. This seems like it would be a big deal for the novel—or at least for Michael, the narrator—who is the vector for this realization, having read a psychiatrist’s memoir that reveals the deception after the fact. But it doesn’t seem to trouble him that much. Though he says, “this discovery . . . messed me up for a long time,” this paragraph is one of the only parts of the book where it’s even addressed. (We don’t see him ever explicitly tell his mother.) For one thing, he doesn’t make the discovery until after his grandfather has died, until way outside the narrative frame of the book. Michael knows that something is fishy about his grandma’s story, but the grandfather doesn’t want to know what it is and Michael’s mother essentially laughs it off. Grandma was always telling stories, etc. It’s the great falsity on which their entire lives are built, but it’s never allowed to penetrate the awareness of the major players of the novel. It’s a buried treasure discovered after the credits have rolled.
A second peculiar feature of the novel is the narration itself. I can’t figure out why Chabon has a fake version of himself as the narrator, why the novel is essentially a false family history. (The notion that it’s a real memoir is quickly dispensed with.) The novel begins with Michael reporting information narrated to him by his grandfather, but as it progresses it becomes clear that Michael has knitted together multiple sources of information: the grandfather, his mother, his grandmother’s former psychiatrist at the asylum, his grandfather’s late-in-life girlfriend, etc. It’s a mosaic of remembrances. However, the resulting narrative is not like an oral history told from different family members. The combined narrative reads more like a fairy tale, a seamless unfurling of narrative exploit. Its effect is more like The Princess Bride, where the soothing children’s movie is interrupted occasionally by the frame tale of the crusty grandpa telling the story to a young Fred Savage. Though there are multiple sources to this narrative information, the constructed narrative that is the result rarely questions the validity of that sourced information. These potentially unreliable informants are all smoothed over in Michael’s narrational dreamscape.
Consequently, the book seems like a kind of wish fulfillment, a novelist’s false origin story, the family history he somehow wishes he had. The novel is not unenjoyable, but it feels distant, trapped under glass with a snow globe’s sense of floating wonder. At one point the grandfather builds a model of a moon base, which contains a “moon garden.” Reclining in safety in this moon garden are 00-scale models of his offspring. It’s a touching bit of projection on his part. But the models are so small that their faces contain no detail. The same effect occurs with the characters here, except now they are the novelist’s imagined predecessors. It’s a novel that pretends it’s a memoir but feels like a fantasia—a boy’s wondering much more than an adult’s reckoning.