Like Paul Auster’s recent 4321, Michael Chabon’s latest novel has fun with the idea of memoir. Where Auster employs four versions of the same character to investigate the proverbial roads not taken, Chabon takes a real moment from his life (sitting by his grandfather’s deathbed, listening to final reminiscences) and uses that as a frame to build a fictional life story (albeit largely ‘told’ by a writer called Mike), told – in the style of all of the best literary novels – unchronologically. He’s on record as saying part of the inspiration for the book was for him to explore the strange way in which the perceived ‘truth’ of a memoir has been elevated above the truth of a novel in recent years, citing James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces as a case in point:
“So he writes this novel, he can’t sell it, so he changes the word novel to memoir, sells it for a ton of money, it becomes an Oprah book, a huge bestseller. And it turns out that he made it all up, and there’s this big scandal and he has to apologise, on television. We’re so upset with him because he lied to us, right? I mean, it betrays a great naivety about memoirs and how true they are, which is to say, they are not true. They are works of fiction. They may be scrupulous attempts by the memoirist to be as truthful as possible, with no intent to deceive or defraud or get anything wrong at all; nonetheless, they’re works of fiction. Because that’s how memory works; memory is a tool of fictionalisation.”
So there’s a playfulness at work here, shot through with a serious intent. The deathbed version of Chabon’s grandfather (or at least the imaginary version of Chabon’s grandfather recreated here) comes the closest to espousing this view within the book itself:
“He made another face. This one said that what I knew about shame – what my entire generation, with its deployment of confession as a tool for self-aggrandizement, knew about shame – would fit into half a pistachio self.”
Periodically Mike and his grandfather back and forth, one searching for meaning, attempting to join the dots, the other dismissing the effort:
“It explains a lot,” I said.
“It explains nothing.”
“It explains a little.”
“It’s just names and dates and places.”
“It doesn’t add up to anything, take my word for it. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Chabon employs versions of himself (at different stages of his life) to tell us the story of his grandfather (or rather ‘a’ grandfather, at various stages of his life). All of the stories, we are told, herein are made up. Chabon explains at the start of the book,
“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.”
We first meet Mike’s grandfather as he throttles his boss after being fired in May 1957. We skip back to the 20s and 30s and meet the (great grand) parents. As a boy, grandfather was given to throwing cats out of windows and perpetrating minor acts of criminality (such as sneaking into the local train yard engendering the ire of the patrolman Creasey). Then it’s forward to the 60s (when Mike “came into my patrimony of secrets”) where Mike is often left with his grandparents (his dad, we come to learn, is something of a scumbag and his mum has problems of her own) – his grandfather somewhat taciturn at this point, his grandmother given to making up stories using a Tarot pack when she isn’t beset by migraines.
Gradually a series of narratives coalesce – his Grandfather’s romance with his Grandmother, his Grandmother’s mental health issues, his time in the army, his time in prison, his retirement in Florida. In Florida, he has a romance of sorts with an elderly lady called Sally Sichel (pronounced ‘seashell’) who has lost her cat to the local snake (encouraging a minor comic exercise in heroism). In the war he is tasked with tracking down V2s and becomes fascinated with Wernher von Braun (at first willing to forgive him for his association with Hitler, later damning him for his association with Hitler). In prison, he uses his interest in engineering to fashion a rocket whose lift-off provides the foundation of a late flourishing career. But it is his wife, Mike’s grandmother’s mental health issues (she is haunted by a skinless horse) and their effect on his mother, that dominate the book. We hear from Mike’s grandfather but we are also offered glimpses into alternate versions of events by both his mother and his grandmother (and other characters, such as the doctor who looks after Mike’s grandmother when she is institutionalised briefly).
In some ways this is a departure for Chabon. Although he is obviously playing a game of sorts, it still feels like a more personal book (which is the point, obviously) but irrespective of whether the new intimacy is fictional or not, the truth he is looking for in novel form is imbued with a warmth that feels new. Although we liked his last book, Telegraph Road, we think Moonglow is a better book. There is an acuity here, a zeroing in, a way he has of circling a topic, that feels new and makes for a moving reading experience. And there are some terrific sentences too. Here is Mike’s grandfather looking at the sky:
“At least one man, looking up at the stars that night from the edge of a forest in the Westerwald, saw an archipelago of atomic furnaces in a vacuum sea, omnidirectional vectors of acceleration radiant from a theoretical point of origin that predated humanity by billions of years, as unperturbed by mechanised mass slaughter on a global scale as by the death of one individual.”
Later, almost at the end, he says:
“After I’m gone write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.”
And there’s a good joke there, right, because he’s retained the mishmash, and we know it because we’ve read it, and yet for all of that, the mishmash is where the truth lies.
Any Cop?: We’d go as far as saying this might well be Chabon’s best since Kavalier & Clay.