Michael Chabon’s 2016 book Moonglow is a novel that sits somewhere between fiction and memoir. Chabon retells the account his dying grandfather gives him of his life from childhood through World War II and up until his final years in Florida as a widower. Chabon fills in gaps in the story with brief additions to the tales from his mother, from his own memory and from some scant research into the historical record of the events his grandfather was a part of. Like all of Chabon’s books, it is a mesmerizing read and a bittersweet story wound around issues of Judaism, the Holocaust, fantasy, and family. I find it hard to shake his books long after reading them and this one is certainly no exception.
In the beginning of the book, the narrator gives the following qualification-
In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts, except when the facts refuse to conform to memory, narrative structure or the truth as I prefer to see it.
That qualification should probably come at the start of every memoir, as the division between fiction and non-fiction is lost in the cloud of memory in the form anyway. But, this qualification at the start of this book is particularly warranted, because Chabon seems to me to want this book to live in a place between a novel and a memoir. What is fact and what is fiction is irrelevant the same way that it might be in a novel, but nothing- at least nothing of great consequence to the story- appears to just be created in service of the story.
Stories and storytelling are at the heart of Moonglow. The narrator- Chabon himself, we are to believe- recounts early on in the book the way that his grandmother would tell stories drawn from a set of tarot cards. Later, he reflects on a time when he uses the same cards to build a house-of-cards in the presence of his grandfather. In this later incident, he muses on the wordplay between a building’s stories and stories of the imaginative kind. It is something of an awkward moment in the book, in my opinion. It is the one time that I felt genuinely drawn out of the book as memoir and set back down in a novel. I immediately recalled the disclaimer at the start of the book which I included above. But even as this bit of novelistic sleight-of-hand gave away the trick, I could not help but like and admire the book even more for it. Even if it is a writerly moment- and it is- it belongs to the world that is created in Moonglow and that world never feels different from the real world, even though it is a world built of stories.