Read To Win

Michael Chabon’s ‘Moonglow’: When a memoir is full of lies (which is why you want to read it)

Even by his wildly inventive standards, Michael Chabon has outdone himself in his new novel.

“Apart from so-called hard science fiction, which he read ( as with The Magic Mountain) for its artful packaging of big ideas, my grandfather regarded most fiction as a ‘bunch of baloney’. He thought reading novels was a waste of time more profitably spent on nonfiction.”

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow is a story based on a series of conversations the narrator has with his dying grandfather. The nameless grandfather has bone cancer, and is on a cocktail of drugs to keep him comfortable in his last days. As the narrator, Mike Chabon, says, he heard about 90% of his grandfather’s life in the last few days. It is quite a heady mix.

By page 45, for instance, the grandfather’s reminiscences have included his meeting with a “hermaphrodite”, blowing up a bridge during World War II, an encounters with the founder of the CIA – Wild Bill Donovan – a walk-on part by Russian spy Alger Hiss, the character of Wernher Von Braun – the brains behind nuclear missile technology and later known as father of space programme – free love, Carmelite nuns in Lille, an unwed mother, a grandfather who had trained as a piano-tuner and tried killing his boss, and a rabbi who ultimately gave up religion to become a professional hustler.

And this fantastical achronological landscape is created in the first few pages of this extraordinarily crafted story. Naturally, there’s a lot more to come!

The “Author’s Note” in the preliminary pages of Moonglow are revelatory.

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.”

In the “Acknowledgements”, too, Chabon mentions a list of names who, “if they existed, would have been instrumental to the completion of this work”.

The made-up memoir

Moonglow is on the surface a memoir of a dying man, recounting his life as a businessman, his tender love for his wife even though she was mentally fragile and needed institutionalisation, his affection for his stepdaughter whom he adored and who reciprocated lovingly in his final days, and his obsessive passion for the space mission. In fact his unit in the Jewish retirement home was unlike any other, crammed with models of rockets from all over the world, including the French Arianes, Japanese Mus, Chinese CZs, an Argentine Gamma Centauro.

“The expanse of wall that carried from the living area to the dining area beyond, which in Sally’s unit was taken up by a large hutch full of china, which…in other units was often occupied by family photo galleries or earth-toned batik prints of Israeli and biblical scenes, was here taken up by four glass shelves mounted on metal brackets from just above the terrazo floor to within fifteen inches of the ceiling. These held models of known Soviet launch vehicles, from the early R-7s that had put Sputniks aloft to the Proton. On another, relatively small shelf on the wall over the television was a collection of American rockets: the Atlas, the Aerobee, the Titan….It was all very impressive, but …not necessarily admirable.”

The grandfather also has absurd moments of a comic superhero who gets ready for a mission – except it is to locate a python which may have eaten his neighbour’s cat.

In an interview with The Guardian Michael Chabon says, while discussing the art of creating a memoir:

“There are a lot of elements of my experience as a reader and as a writer that inclined me to try to push this fake memoir thing out there and see what it felt like to write a memoir knowing it was entirely invented…And one of those things is the prolonged, mounting feeling I’ve had as a novelist contemplating the rise of the memoir, of the literary memoir; and the kind of apotheosis of it, the apparent claim that literary memoir makes – that we seem to be willing, culturally, to grant it – to some greater truth, to some greater value, because of its supposed truthfulness…

“So he [James Frey] writes this novel, he can’t sell it, so he changes the word novel to memoir, sells it for a ton of money, it becomes an Oprah book, a huge bestseller. And it turns out that he made it all up, and there’s this big scandal and he has to apologise, on television. We’re so upset with him because he lied to us, right? I mean, it betrays a great naivety about memoirs and how true they are, which is to say, they are not true. They are works of fiction. They may be scrupulous attempts by the memoirist to be as truthful as possible, with no intent to deceive or defraud or get anything wrong at all; nonetheless, they’re works of fiction. Because that’s how memory works; memory is a tool of fictionalisation.”

Is there a specific reason Chabon introduces Norse mythology? His grandmother’s hallucinations involving the Skinless Horse is reminiscent of the nuckelavee, a horse-like demon from Orcadian mythology which combines equine and human elements. It is the most horrible of all the demons of Scotland’s Northern Isles.

In fact, Chabon records in the introduction to the beautiful new edition of the D’Aulaires Book of Norse Myths that what bound him forever to this book as a child was the “bright thread of silliness, of mockery and of self-mockery”. It is this technique that is employed well in this novel.

No wonder Moonglow is a striking example of literary experimentation, while also managing to be a sharply told chronicle of modern Jewish history. It can be quite challenging to read a novel with an achronological structure, but after the first few pages the fantastically imaginative storytelling grips you and it is impossible to put the book down.

Moonglow is a book which will be talked about a great deal in 2017. And, perhaps, win more awards for Chabon.

Moonglow, Michael Chabon, Fourth Estate.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.