Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Moonglow by Michael Chabon (4.5/5)

Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, opens with the following:

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the 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.”

Anyone familiar with Chabon’s work will recognize his belief in elevating narrative over “truth,” or to put it another way, to acknowledge that Truth is always out of reach and thus is shaped by narrative. It’s safe, then, to say that we shouldn’t take Moonglow, which purports to be a biography of Chabon’s late grandfather, at face value. Out of fact and fiction, Chabon weaves a tale that spans a good chunk of the 20th century, but never loses sight of the beauty to be found in a life at turns ordinary and singular.

As the story goes, shortly after finishing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in 1989, a younger Michael Chabon found himself beside his ailing grandfather’s hospital bed. During his final weeks, Chabon’s grandfather unfolds a sprawling personal narrative of a Jewish-American whose life was disrupted by World War II and who struggled to maintain a family in postwar America, ultimately constructing a sturdy middle class life that was more easily obtainable and also expected in the second half of the twentieth century. Along the way, Chabon’s grandfather (who is never given a proper name) endures a stint in jail and the reverberations of traumas both global and familial.

Moonglow finds Chabon continuing to turn his attentions to the everyday interpersonal lives of his characters, much like his previous novel Telegraph Avenue, which took as its subject two music nerds living in the Oakland area. At the time, Telegraph Avenue was a departure from his more conceptually ambitious works, like The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The most surprising change in Moonglow is Chabon’s more restrained style. You won’t find the kind of stylistic gambles as there were in Telegraph Avenue, such as an entire chapter consisting of a single unhinged sentence or a visit from a pre-presidential Barack Obama into the lives of Chabon’s fictional characters. Some of these artistic wagers worked (the former) while others fell flat (the latter). By reining in his linguistic trickery, Chabon fashions a tone that’s appropriate for a more intimate and personal narrative, even if not everything in Moonglow is to believed.

That’s not to say that Moonglow isn’t a beautifully written novel just like everything Chabon has produced. Read this short passage about Chabon’s grandmother, who escaped Europe only after the atrocities of World War II:

“There were days, however, when being left with my grandmother was not very different from being left along. She lay on the sofa or on her bed with the curtains drawn and a cool cloth folded over her eyes. These days had their own lexicon: cafard, algie, crise de foie. In 1966 (the date of my earliest memories of her) she was only forty-three, but the war, she said, had ruined her stomach, her sinuses, the joints of her bones (she never said anything about what the war might have done to her mind). If she had promised to look after me on one of her bad days, she would rally long enough to persuade my parents, or herself, that she was up to the task. But then it--something--would come over her and we would leave the movie theater halfway through the show, conclude the recital after a single poem, walk out of the supermarket abandoning an entire cart of groceries in the middle of the aisle.” (19)

Just in this passage, you get a sense of Chabon’s innate sense of detail. He makes use of parenthesis to indicate his split understanding of these experiences, one that’s contemporaneous and another that clearly occurs years later. And then there’s how Chabon chooses to reach towards the hidden trauma his grandmother has endured, using pronouns and French words to prevent us from ever fully grasping this penumbral history. While Chabon has largely avoided the syntactical backflips of some of his other works, his writing is just as powerful as ever.

The themes common to Chabon remain in tact. As ever, he’s interested in Jewish identity, nostalgia, and mid-twentieth century history and technology. The most immediately gripping portion of Moonglow occurs during grandfather’s service in WW II. As an engineer, grandfather is tasked with capturing both a V-2 rocket and the Nazi scientist, Wernher von Braun, a man who was never punished for his involvement in Hitler’s regime.  Instead, he was pardoned by the United States and enlisted into the emerging space race. The story of Von Braun and the V-2 rocket speak to the multilayered aspect of nostalgia. We venerate WW II as the good war while often overlooking the moral compromises endemic to every armed conflict.

The rocket becomes a reoccurring motif through much of Moonglow. Chabon writes of the V-2:

“None of that, however, could be blamed on the rocket, my grandfather thought, or on the man, von Braun, who had designed it. The rocket was beautiful. In conception it had been shaped by an artist to break a chain that had bound the human race ever since we first gained consciousness of earth’s gravity and all its analogs in suffering, failure, and pain. It was at once a prayer sent heavenward and the answer to that prayer: Bear me away from this awful place. To pack the thing with a ton of amatol, to hobble it so that instead of tearing loose once and for all from the mundane pull, it only arced back to earth and killed the people among whom it fell, was to abuse it.” (167)

Like William Blake’s “Tyger,” the rocket is both beautiful and fearful. This image of the rocket reverse engineers the technological utopianism found in postwar America. The rocket is a symbol of human endeavor, but in reality more often becomes a tool of violence. This is also a reminder that technology does not exist outside of culture and history, but rather is always bent to the will of its users. In our present age of technological fetishism, it’s useful to consider technological progress does not automatically lead to human progress.

Moonglow can be read as a story of the twentieth century as filtered through a particular American family. In this sense, there are some interesting parallels between Chabon’s latest and the Chinese author Mo Yan’s novel of the mid-twentieth century, Red Sorghum. Like Chabon, much of Mo Yan’s novel takes place during WW II/the Second Sino-Japanese War, and he refers to characters solely in accordance to their familial relationship to the narrator (father, grandfather, grandmother, etc.). Despite the countless amount of reminiscing we’ve spent on the twentieth century, we’re still forced to look back, attempting to make sense of the strange mix of destruction and unbridled optimism that impossibly stood side by side. And in doing so, we might somehow understand where we are and how we might move forward.

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