The Pulitzer Prize winning author of the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay returns with a family saga that examines an uncomfortable truth about the morally ambiguous times we live in. I loved it – but it’s definitely not for everyone.
There’s no real plot to speak of in Chabon’s latest work, instead it follows the course of an old man’s final ramblings on his deathbed. Our narrator has been called to his grandfather’s bedside in the final stages of his life as he dies of cancer. Perhaps because he wants to set the record straight, or perhaps because he’s on a lot of medication his grandfather (“My grandfather and his emotions, were never really on speaking terms”), is in the mood to tell his story, telling the narrator that, “After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours.”
Instead of following a plot, the stories in Moonglow appear in the order the grandfather tells them – from his attempts to track down Wernher von Braun (former SS officer in Nazi Germany for his work on the V2 rocket – which used slave labour camps similar to Auschwitz – and pretty much the only reason the human race set foot on the moon), to an episode where he serves time for trying to strangle his boss with a telephone cable.
There’s tonnes of detail in here, and you can be left wondering if it’s needed. Like when he spends a paragraph telling you how his grandfather makes a meat salad. Really? Really? It’s a meat salad, get it over and done with so you can get to the actual point of the story.
This excessive amount of detail means that Chabon includes loads of footnotes too. Yep, that’s right: footnotes in a work of fiction. If what you’re saying isn’t good enough to make it into the actual text, then you can probably leave it out altogether. They distract from the overall flow, and leaves you feeling short changed somehow – like the effort of reading them was absolutely not worth it*.
Despite these shortfalls, Chabon’s writing absolutely sings in parts. There’s a bit where the narrator’s grandmother is introduced, describing the “tick-tock oscillation of her hips” that particularly stuck in my mind. Every chapter is filled with little phrases like that. It’s brilliant.
Since Chabon pretty much ignores plot in any traditional sense, the impact of Moonglow occurs in a strange kind of way. For a good while you’re left wondering where it’s going (why should you be interested in an old man’s stories about a family you’ll never meet?), but then slowly towards the end, the cumulative effect starts to make sense – like a camera shifting into focus, or seeing the final pieces of a jigsaw fit into place (it’s pretty similar to the effect to the one Marlon James achieves in a Brief History of Seven Killings).
Using the Old Man’s stories, Chabon finds a way to illuminate what it means to be a person (or indeed a family), along with notions of American life and the Jewish experience (all Chabon’s best stuff looks at these last two subjects, just check out the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ). In the end, he arrives at strange truth: moral life (both personal and cultural) can be so complicated that simply choosing not to know everything can be the only viable way forward. This is why the narrator’s grandfather decides not to learn about the guilty secret at the centre of the his marriage, and why “Nobody wanted to hear that America’s ascent to the Moon had been made with a ladder of bones.”
Learning how to make our way forward in such a morally complicated world is a subject more relevant now than ever before. In today’s political climate, the question seems darker: Is there ever a right side of history, or is it just a winning side?
I highly recommend this, though I suspect its not a book for everyone. I’m a big fan of Chabon, so I was more than willing to work through the bits that didn’t seem to go anywhere, trusting that it would all make sense in the end. I’m not sure someone new to his stuff would be quite as forgiving.
*Yep footnotes. Like this one, filled with stuff that is a bit interesting, yet not quite good enough to make it into the actual text, like this fun fact: the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is easily one of my all time favourite books – one of only two that I’ve read more than once. In fact, I used to keep a stack of them under my bed so that whenever anyone told me they’d not read it, or I was short of a birthday gift at the last minute, I could spread a little bit of joy in their direction. Can you see what I mean when I say these asides aren’t worth it?