A Feature Review of
Moonglow: A Novel
A shadowy horse lopes in a long pasture at night, sliding in and out of the full moon’s bright glow. This image captures well the new book by Pulitzer prize-winner Michael Chabon.
The protagonist, Chabon’s grandfather—a fictionalized grandfather—strides large and complex and strangely sympathetic, a man who moves with riveting power, yet a man whose dreams don’t ever come true.
Oppositional defiance may spur him into page-turning situations: fighting in WWII, hunting German rocketeer Wehner von Braun, throttling his boss and, in his mid-70s, going after an escaped python alone.
These stories arrive thanks to death’s nearness, which loosens the tongue of this largely unknown grandfather, says the narrator, a fictionalized “Michael Chabon.” Fact and fiction crisscross, it seems, to form the genre-bending chessboard of this speculative autobiography or “faux-memoir.”
In a November LA Times interview, Chabon confesses: “It’s a commonplace thing for novelists to do, and we’ve been doing it for centuries now, to create a fake nonfictional document. It’s a convention.”
Chabon even satirizes all author’s notes everywhere. All the facts in his book are true except where they aren’t—that is, where the facts part with “memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
What adds to the compelling narrative is its intersection with significant broader history. Former Nazi-now-American scientist Wehner von Braun intersects with Operation Paperclip, the CIA effort to bring over 1,500 Nazis scientists and engineers to America, and to NASA. Which intersects with the Mittelbau-Dora German concentration camp and the sky-high rate of fatality for those who built the V-2 rockets.
Chabon masterfully braids generations, eras, stories, dramas. On one page, Grandpa nears 75 and is dying. The next, he steps into a synagogue; it’s now 1952 and he sees her for the first time, the woman he will love for life. Mental illness and secrets whisper around her, the character of Grandma—a plausible response to having, as a Jew, shared France with someone like Hitler.
Chabon’s prose is a spirited, even-gaited horse. In other words, a pleasure. About his great-grandmother: “In photographs she is a boxy woman, girdled with steel, shod in coal-black stompers, her bosom so large it might have housed turbines.”
And later, his description of a bridge near Washington D.C. that Grandpa nearly dynamites: “The bridge seemed to hold itself in tension, straining at its tethers as Orland Buck and my grandfather slid beneath its haunches. It thrummed with the passage of a car overhead.”
Moonglow includes Grandpa’s sexual history, too—frank and, frankly, voyeuristic. This history starts early with a “girl-whore” and includes Grandma with Grandpa. A case can be made to close the bedroom door; I wished it had been. Still I could hardly set aside the book. Chabon’s story carried me to the shadowy mystery of being human and to the broken puzzle bits that are our family stories.
Cynthia Beach is a long-time writing professor at Cornerstone University, whose latest contributions appear in Hope in the Mourning Bible (Zondervan) and The Horse of My Heart(Revell). She co-founded the two-day Breathe Christian Writers Conference. Currently she’s marketing her novel, The Seduction of Pastor Goodman.