In the middle of working on a set of personal essays about motherhood, I was eager to read Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, a novel structured as a memoir. Although in the Acknowledgements, Chabon calls the book a “pack of lies”, it reads like something true in all the most important ways. In a talk he gave last November in Rochester, New York, as part of the 2017 Lane Dworkin Jewish Book Festival, Chabon made that very point, emphasizing that memory is a tricky thing and that, by trying to stick too close to the facts, the truth can be lost.
Moonglow, one of the few Chabon books written in first person, is built around the reminiscences of the narrator’s grandfather on his deathbed. The normally taciturn grandfather has grown chatty under the influence of painkillers, telling the narrator tales he has never heard before.
As in all my favorite Chabon books (and I love almost all of them), his descriptions are creative, remarkably apt and never over-worked. A scar the grandfather obtained in his youth is “a silvery pucker, the kiss of violence”; an old missile is found “jammed into a frozen pond like a cigar butt into the sand of an ashtray”. But in Moonglow, some of the best prose is found in tight sentences that reveal character and relationships. When the grandfather first meets the grandmother, “he felt he was standing in the path of something fast-moving and gigantic that, in its blindness was bound to carry him away.” When they next meet she is no longer the playful, flirtatious girl he first met. Instead she “seemed heavy at her core, subject to some crushing gravity.” Ultimately he comes to understand how troubled the grandmother, a holocaust survivor, is and thinks that, “in mending her, he might also be mended.”
Perhaps anticipating our society’s current obsession with “true” stories (note all the recent movies based on “actual events”), the book includes as a postscript Doree Shafir’s BuzzFeed interview with Chabon, in which Chabon admits that “the grandfather’s really me in a lot of ways.” Not in terms of the specifics of the grandfather’s life, of course, but in terms of his reactions to experiences and the people around him. Chabon’s wife, Ayelet Walman to whom Moonglow is dedicated, was diagnosed in 2002 with bipolar disorder. It is likely that Chabon’s personal experience of marriage to a woman with a mood disorder informed the emotional charges in the marriage that is at the heart of Moonglow. The resulting novel is filled with poignant honesty, with characters that are both heroic and vulnerable, and with language that entrances by being exactly right.