The words “a novel” subtitle Michael Chabon’s Moonglow. But the first thing a reader sees is an author’s note specifying that this is a 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,” Chabon confesses. So if it sounds like a novel, reads like a novel, then – is it a memoir? Slippery is what it is. Chabon, not famous for intellectual poverty, has written comics, screenplays and speculative fiction as well as novels. Mystery often crackles through his work. He traditionally makes use of personal family history to create spectacular tales that, more often than not, peel back into an enquiry about Jewish identity. Moonglow, novel or memoir, extends this pattern.
The narrator, a youth called Mike Chabon, recounts the story of his mother’s parents, as told to him by his grandfather (unnamed). Mike’s grandfather is dying, and his lips have been loosened by the drugs he is taking for his particularly nasty cancer. His was an adventurous and eventful life, part Captain Ahab and part John Wayne, so perhaps he is happy to have his stories recorded to make sense of the life that often made no sense. Above all, he would want to record the constancy of his love for his wife.
When Mike’s American grandfather met Mamie (as she is referred to in the book, “Mamie” being French for “granny”), she was a refugee from World War Two. A number was tattooed on her arm, and she had a daughter whom Mike’s grandfather came to regard as his own. Mamie, the mystery of her, threads the book together. “In her pain and her vividness and her theatricality, she seemed to have access to some higher frequency of emotion, a spectrum of light invisible to his eyes.” The beautiful, damaged woman spooked her grandson, and although he loved her he also had the insight to observe a secret grandmother. What happened to make Mamie as she was is hinted at but not revealed until an almost missable moment towards the end of the book. The elusiveness of Mamie is written as exquisitely as the materiality of the grandfather.
Reading Moonglow is often exhausting and tedious, unless you happen to be obsessed, as Mike’s grandfather was, with rocketry, or addicted to a Boy’s Own swagger through half of last century. There are war tales. The love story is beautiful and tender, and way more illuminating than any disquisition on Wernher von Braun. Sure, Chabon is wonderful, but perhaps he could try to not be quite as wonderful in all directions at once.
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