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.

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