It’s been four years since Michael Chabon published a novel. That was Telegraph Avenue which I never got around to reading (and may have dodged a bullet based on the reviews). It’s been seven years since I’ve read a novel by Michael Chabon. That was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union which was a fantastic read (and still the only book I know of that has the Parah Adoomah, the Red Hefier, as a key plot point). And it’s been two weeks since I’ve finished Michael Chabon’s latest novel. That would be Moonglow and it’s very good indeed (though not as good as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union).
Moonglow is a memoir, the deathbed memories of a man who fought in WW2, who married a Jewish refugee with secrets and demons of her own, who became fascinated with rockets to the point that he devoted his later years to building miniatures of aircraft and space shuttles and lunar modules and who once nearly strangled to death his boss with a telephone cord after being fired from his job to be replaced by Alger Hiss. This man is also the grandfather of a Mike Chabon, a young writer with a familiar sounding name who on a tour for his first novel visits his terminally ill grandfather in Florida. It’s Mike who records his grandfather’s recollections – stories that have never been told – and who presents them as a memoir.
This book is not a true account of Michael Chabon’s grandfather. He did have bone cancer and he did narrate his life to his grandson in the months before he died. But the memories that were told to Michael are not the same as those related to Mike. This is a revisionist memoir, a historical account steeped in lies. Just like most fiction.
To be fair, Chabon makes it clear from the outset – in a glib but revealing author’s note – that this is a fictional account, with a small dollop of truth. If you’re like me you spent most of the novel wondering which bits of Mike’s grandfather’s life and for that matter Mike’s grandmother, his mother and Mike himself were based on a true story – like the best Hollywood biopics – or were imagined from whole cloth. This metafictional game, while key to the book’s theme of truth and history, is the least interesting aspect of the book. It’s the storytelling that sings, that takes centre stage. Yeah we’ve all read narratives about veterans recalling their wartime memories (especially WW2), but I found something a little bit awesome about Mike’s grandfather’s search for Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun and his secrets of the V2 rocket. And yes, we’ve all read books about how war leaves scars on those that survive. That’s certainly the case for Mike’s grandfather and his wife, a Belgium Jew who intimately experienced the horrors of Nazism, but these scars result in some of the books most powerful, tragic and human moments.
But put all that aside. What I truly loved about Moonglow was it’s Jewishness and how Chabon avoids all the usual ‘oy vey’, Matzah ball stereotypes and treats Judaism as a cultural identity, a state of mind that’s nearly impossible to avoid even if you have no faith in God and care little for rituals (Mike’s grandfather in a nutshell). My Jewish upbringing doesn’t match that of Mike or his grandfather and yet it somehow resonates – flash and you’ll miss them moments, maybe only recognisable to someone who was brought up as a Jew. It’s rare to see my culture presented with such matter of fact honesty.
This isn’t a perfect book. The revelation about Mike’s mother and her Uncle left a bad taste, mostly because it felt out of place, gratuitous. And Mike’s grandfather’s desire to kill a snake hunting the pets of Floridian retirees did very little for me. But other than that I certainly bonded with Moonglow.