ichael Chabon’s seventh novel, Moonglow, begins with a joke of a black and telling kind. Our hero, when a boy, throws a kitten out of a third story window. Asked why, he replies, “curiosity.” The boy, we are told, is Chabon’s grandfather. The conceit around which the novel is built is that in the late 1980s the author visited his dying and previously reticent grandfather and received the stuttering story of the old man’s life, spewed out under the influence of mind-bending painkillers. In an author’s note before the narrative begins, Chabon informs the reader that he has “stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
The charitable view to take of this is to understand the author to be working like an archaeologist, reconstructing, with knowledge and imagination, a life that exists only in odd scattered shards. Perhaps, however, the whole thing is a kind of literary trompe l’oeil, a trick. And yet we have to bear in mind that even if the grandfather is real (or indeed purely fictional), he might be making the stories up. “Everything you’ve been telling me is true, though, right?” asks “Mike” towards the end.
“Well, it’s all the way I remember it happening,” his grandfather replies. “Beyond that, I make no guarantees.”
Mixing fact and fiction is of course nothing new. Laurence Sterne did it at the very beginning of the age of the novel with Tristram Shandy (with which Moonglow shares other traits, not least the willingness and pleasure of telling stories inside stories, and the inclination to jump in and out of differing time periods). Many novels are plays on autobiography: David Copperfield highlights the possibilities of comic turns. A La Recherche du Temps Perdu provides the model for narrator “Mike” in the figure of “Marcel.” We read these works as novels, so their verisimilitude is beside the point. Their worlds are hermetically sealed. The difference with Moonglow, this “purported memoir,” is that we are being asked continually to ask whether what we are reading is true or not, and we are confronted with an equally continual, “It doesn’t matter.” The author seems to be insisting that fact, in the form of memory, is no truer than the fabrications of fiction and, by extension, that fiction’s truths are as factual as reality’s. Late in the book a doctor is accused of having a “useless addiction to the truth.” Post-truth indeed. Pity the poor historian.
“My grandfather,” who goes by the name of Rico to his Second World War comrades but by no other name here, is an almost picaresque hero. His childhood is full of brawls and disobedience. Jews, Irish, and Italians square up against one another in the streets of 1920s and ’30s South Philadelphia, “with bed slats, lengths of pipe, slingshots, and rocks.” He revels in this, making, from the start, his own way. And we discover early, too, that he has a heroic, romantic nature beneath the curmudgeonly and violent exterior. Many of his stories, as retold by his grandson, are about his attempts to help or liberate others. He doesn’t much change through the course of the book, not until the drugs kick in. He has a kind of stoicism to set against his anger and his taciturnity.
Early on he attempts to save a self-defining “drug sick whore full of TB.” Later he helps a German boy with diabetes; he mends several broken radios; he releases a struck-off dentist from the goadings of a bully. Most insistently, most heartbreakingly, he tries to save, to “fix,” his wife. She is a French Jew who has spent the war in a nunnery. A vivid, theatrical character, she is mentally ill, haunted by the vision of a Skinless Horse. The grandfather’s relationship with her is at the heart of the novel, though she remains enigmatic both to him and to the reader.
The grandfather, when not saving people and things, is occasionally killing them or blowing them up. And when he is doing neither, he is dreaming of traveling to the moon. (From time to time the ghost of Forrest Gump hovers.) He’s a pool shark in Philadelphia and environs; when the war comes he is signed up for work with the Office of Strategic Services, hunting missile-makers; he is among the first Allied troops to witness the horror of the Nazi camps; in the 1950s, he loses his job to Alger Hiss; he does time in prison; he builds and sells model rockets; he witnesses Wernher von Braun urinating into a potted plant at a conference center. He lives in Philadelphia, in New York, in Baltimore, in Florida. He hunts a snake.
The central portion of the book is largely taken up with grandfather’s war exploits. Some of the writing here comes close to the absurd genius of Evelyn Waugh, but the trick of the book hits a curve it cannot navigate when the hero reaches the Mittelbau-Dora slave-labor camp at Nordhausen. “‘You want to know what happened at Nordhausen?’ he said in his regular rasp. ‘Look it up.’” Fiction for once cannot match fact, and the tonal difference is marked. We are given a more or less straightforward history lesson.
While grandfather’s brother, Uncle Ray, is a rabbi (though he doesn’t stay one), grandfather’s own Judaism is vestigial, though brutally reasoned: “When we were sent to the ovens, God had sat with His outstretched thumb up 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 F— you.”
Little bits of Yiddish fleck the narrator’s prose, but Chabon’s Jewishness hasn’t the ingrain of Malamud’s or Roth’s or Bellow’s. It seems to rest on the surface of his characters’ knowledge of themselves: “Ordinarily, my grandfather distrusted Jews who wore bow ties.” As for the grandfather’s politics, these are a mystery to his co-workers; but from 1936 to 1948, we are told, he voted socialist; by the 1980s, he is reading Commentary.
Famed for his grasp of metaphor and simile, in actual fact Chabon’s facility is hit-and-miss. As often as they interrupt with their brilliance they befuddle with their oddness. Their cumulative effect is to undermine the seriousness of the project. They distance the reader from the characters, who look or smell or behave “like” rather than as themselves. Then again, they may be the reason that so many readers enjoy Chabon. There is something of the soufflé about his writing: It is lighter than it looks.
“After I’m gone, write it down,” the grandfather insists, as the deceit reaches its end. Chabon has said that at times during the writing of the book he felt he was writing about himself. The grandfather is a volatile, even sociopathic character, and Chabon reportedly is also a shy and obsessive man. As a writer, he is unarguably engaging, and his popularity is understandable. He writes of dark matters with a glowing pen. But perhaps in the case of this novel in particular, it really is possible to have too much of a good thing.