A novel that purports to be a memoir, Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow” proceeds from the premise that the story we’re reading was told to “Mike” by his grandfather on his deathbed, supplemented by insights and moments that Mike’s mother supplied.
It’s a canny strategy, tapping the current penchant for “auto-fiction,” but allowing for the free play of the author’s considerable gifts in the traditional storytelling mode. So when the narrator, explaining how he’s “abandoning — repudiating — a novelistic approach to the material,” tells us that “Sometimes even lovers of fiction can be satisfied only by the truth,” we might enjoy the dizzying experience of having our suspension of disbelief suspended. And yet we can be relatively certain that no grandfather repeatedly characterized by his silence (“he answered to his true nature and said nothing”) ever spilled so many intimate secrets.
The story hinges on the grandfather’s violent eruption upon being fired, which lands him in an enlightened sort of prison, where his interest in rocketry garners the attention of a friend of the warden’s. That friend makes the grandfather a partner in a model-building business that booms, for a while.
Upon this frame Chabon weaves the fabric of a life: the grandfather enlisting in the Army Corps of Engineers on Dec. 8, 1941, and going on to become an intelligence officer hunting the scientists and engineers behind the Nazis’ V-2 rocket operations; the grandmother an unmarried mother sprung (perhaps) from a concentration camp, enchanting him, and tormenting him with her madness, which visits her with visions of a skinless horse and lands her in a sanatorium while her husband goes to jail (that violent episode) and her daughter (the narrator’s mother) goes to stay with a rakish, irresponsible uncle.
Back and forth the narrative moves, prompted and interrupted by the narrator’s questions, between the dying grandfather and the account he is supposedly giving of his past, all rendered in richly novelistic detail: the grandfather’s pursuit of Wernher von Braun, hero-turned-villain; the grandmother’s fatal allure and secret history; the mother’s sad, spunky accommodations.
Threaded through it all is the wonder of the universe, the dream of spaceflight that has forever animated and frustrated the grandfather.
“After I’m gone, write it down,” he tells the narrator, at one desolate point. “Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours.”
But we can reflect back to his moment of imagined connection with von Braun, his wish to transmit “the only message lonely slaves of gravity might send: We see you — we are here.”
In Chabon’s novel-cum-memoir, we have a profound instance of listening to that message.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher in Wisconsin. On the web: ellenakins.com.
By: Michael Chabon.
Publisher: Harper, 430 pages, $28.99.
Event: 3 p.m. Dec. 3, Barnes & Noble Galleria, Edina.