Rollicking Chabonesque Historical Fiction Awaits
The Berkeley writer’s latest is an angry work, but readers will remember more than that.
Michael Chabon’s new book, Moonglow, is like a Mad Lib.
Remember the word game in which players fill in blanks in short, logical stories with key words without knowing their context? Invented in 1953 by Leonard Stern and Roger Price, Mad Libs’ improbable word combinations created surreal and silly squiggles in a tale’s otherwise straight lines. The results were delightful.
So, too, will readers appreciate the Berkeley author’s (Telegraph Avenue, 2012, and others) deconstructionist memoir in which broad vocabulary is king: Things unbreakable are “adamantine” and fragility is “frangible.” Add to the vocabulary-building exercise facts that mirror history and details of Chabon’s life, mesh it all seamlessly with fictional fabrications, and the result is rollicking, Chabonesque historical fiction.
Occasionally, Chabon becomes over-fond of his own wordsmithing—dallying too long in his grandfather’s dalliances or in descriptions of rocket-building, just two examples. At these moments, the 448-page book threatens to fizzle like a lost, lunar orbiter. The otherwise well-paced story never entirely loses its charge—building suspense by hinting at then revealing truth behind its characters’ many lies—and ends on a note that’s poignant and universal: Establishing how we cling to both love and pain as we die.
Narrator Mike’s maternal grandfather is a hot-headed World War II veteran on his deathbed; his grandmother is “a source of fire, madness, and poetry,” a woman born in France who suffers visions involving a Skinless Horse and nonspecific (until near the novel’s end) Holocaust-related nightmares. Their life story, as told by Mike’s unnamed grandfather in 10 days, features characters who indulge in outright deceit, extreme flights of fancy, and imaginative exaggerations that mingle with fact-based historical events and people: NASA space exploration and moon walks, the Cold War, Alger Hiss, Wernher von Braun, the development of the V-2 rocket, and more.
Chabon whips out whole histories with single phrases or sentences. Describing the change two years can make in a teenager—especially when those years are spent living with a lecherous uncle while a father is in prison—he writes as the grandfather, “He had deposited with his brother for safekeeping a girl who smelled of Lifebuoy and library paste and retrieved a young woman who smelled of cigarettes and Ban.” Later, Chabon adds that she had “a plasma of anger that seemed to cling to her like St. Elmo’s fire.”
For a book with a lot of anger, it’s a tribute to Chabon’s skill that the thoughts and images that linger after reading the book are not the terrifying Skinless Horse, revenge plots, Mike’s family member’s unhinged dreams, or NASA space missions being “misplaced in some cultural bottom drawer.” Instead, we’re left with the glory of language, delicious laughter, and practical advice. Maybe it’s enough fulfillment to read a new book by Chabon and to be happy “in the cracks.”
Moonglow by Michael Chabon (Harper, 2016, 448 pp. $28.99)
This report appeared in the November edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Nov. 29, 2016 at 8:00 AM