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.
Chabon’s work has often walked a drunken line between memoir and fiction. There are details of his real life throughout Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonderboys and both of those novels could easily be interpreted as quasi-memoirs. There is also a sense of place in his books that is so strong and well connected to the real world cities of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philly and Oakland that it grounds his fiction close to reality in a way that feels more like memoir. His skill in delivering a sense of place is incredible and every bit as vital to the impact of his work as his vast and sprawling imagination.
Moonglow is a book that racks up the frequent flyer miles. It runs through the swamps of a Florida retirement home, the Western front of Germany in World War II, Jewish Baltimore and its suburbs, a minimum security prison, a mental institution, and a French tannery farm. All of these places and others are brought to life without the need for Tolkienian-sidebars illuminating the landscape down to a blade of grass. The few details given are consistently the right ones and each stop on this long journey through space and time feels perfectly alive.
The places that require and get the wealth of the adjective and supplemental clauses are not the real ones, but the imagined ones- the models and moon-stations that Chabon’s grandfather crafts in his retirement. Chabon writes these with the same care that he tells us his grandfather devoted to building them and the effect that choice is, oddly enough, to make them seem less like real places and more fanciful. The moon-base is the books great metaphor, a place that never comes to exist in the real world but cannot fail to exist inside the members of Chabon’s family, their great shared dream of escape from the planet that made them the broke people and the broken family that they are. Were this simply a novel, the presence of such an obvious bit of symbology would be unremarkable. But lives do not conform to the demands of narrative and even if Chabon readily admits to reshaping them to that purpose, the idea of such an obvious literary device at the heart of a piece of memory is jarring.
Life simply does not conform to our idea of narrative like that.
Instead, life is picaresque. It is a series of often unrelated scenes, a collection of happenings brought about equally by will, by chance, by desire, and by defeat. The long life of Chabon’s grandfather is this way. He stumbles from youthful misadventure into war and espionage. He falls from suburban familial not-quite-grace to imprisonment and rises again as a maker of models of the great rockets he dreamed of building for real. There are cameos from a bearded lady, Wild Bill Donovan, Werner Von Bruan, kindly warden, a hapless dentist and a German priest, all of whom enter and exit life of the tides of chance and circumstance and leave as the ocean rolls back once again. It is the magical realism of memory, not entirely truth, but truer to life than what comes from exhaustive research into the matters at hand as they “really” happened.
If touches like the house of cards or the moon-base feel like they belong to the world fiction, that is no slight against them. Moonglow feels intensely personal and the person relating it is Chabon, a novelist. It is not surprising that he is able to find grand metaphors in the life of his own family and he does not dimish their tale but pointing them out. Instead, what he is able to do with Moonglow is to remind us that the division between fiction and memoir is a false one anyway. Just as buildings are built of stories, lives are as well. We all give segments of our lives the arches of narrative, the trappings of stories. We cannot help it. There are arbitrary beginnings and endings to those stories and their raw material is reshaped to make them worthy of the telling.
In some ways, the struggles of Chabon’s family in Moonglow are struggles with the stories they find themselves in. The stories turn on the moments that the stories that were being told fail the tellers. The grandfather lands in jail after going psychotic on his boss during his firing just as the narrative of a happy, family, at peace in middle-class suburban life is shattered by the ghosts of the past. The imagined kinship between the Jewish-American hero and Von Werner curdles in the light of the Nazi reality. In the most dramatic story in the book, the fantasy of the “night witch,” a character Chabon’s grandmother plays on TV and the demonic presence of the “skinless horse,” which haunts Chabon’s grandmother childhood memories and from her holocaust experiences collide to become too real for her, sparking a mental breakdown.
In Chabon’s telling, his family’s stories are not defined by lines of fiction and reality, they are one in the same. That is literally true for his mentally-ill grandmother. At one point, he describes her tormentor- the skinless horse- as a way of casting her inner demons out into the world so that they will not have to live inside her. Madness might give Moonglow the most direct case of an inner story but every story in the book functions in this way. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives, our own fictions, build the lives that we live. Metaphors like the house of story-telling cards and its own stories or the sanctuary of the moon-base do not need to be created to better make reality fit the demands of a good story because reality itself was created by fiction anyway, it cannot help but fit the form it.
Moonglow is a family epic as much as it is a memoir, but it is a love story as well and it is as a love story that it had the most impact for me. The best stories we tell ourselves are about the people we love. Those are the stories that push us to reach for the moon, even if we can only reach it at a reduced scale.