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Michael Chabon’s Moonglow is a stylistic hybrid of fiction and memoir, all in an effort to mislead the audience. Ballsy, yet fantastically done.
The author Michael Chabon wrote the book Wonder Boys, and as it was adapted by Steve Kloves for Curtis Hanson’s 2000 film of the same name. It contains this quote “Whenever I wondered what Sara saw in me, and I wondered more than once, I always came back to the fact that she loved to read. She read everything every spare moment. She was a junkie for the printed word. And lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice.”
(*The point being, you should read more, then you really appreciate the good stuff. The vaunted and now late film critic for Time magazine Richard Schickel told a future critic that they liked Rain Man as a film “because you haven’t seen enough movies yet.” Wise words, them.)
To wit, opening Chapter 19 of Moonglow, the new memoir-as-novel penned by Michael Chabon:
“In 1952 in Baltimore an autumn haze was closer to smoke, and though the Moon was high and nearly full, its light hung diffuse and opaque as if moonlight were only an inferior brand of darkness.”
And, further in that same chapter:
“The small room was all crosshatchings of shadow like a lesson in shading a sphere, an arc of darkness wrapped around a circle of grey with a bright spot a bit off-centre.”
I mean, come on. Do better than that, any of you.
Part of Chabon’s genius (and I’ll call it that; he stands with Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith as authors without parallel in the world) is that the work here is framed one way, and is executed in another. We don’t guess where the narrative is headed, nor are we tempted to because of how the work is initially framed – as a memoir. One can only assume the central character (the “author’s” grandfather) will eventually die, for the piece is told in flashback from his deathbed. So we get clues to whether this thing is a biography, a memoir or fiction as the piece progresses; Chabon describes sex and intimacy between his grandfather and various women with such frankness that it practically makes you blush (the very notion of either of my grandfathers having sex with anyone, ever, much less the specifics of it…baffling).
Chabon reflects his grandparents with compassion and care. His grandfather, pushed to his limits, bound by his responsibilities and finally enabled to cut loose by the effects of pain medications. It’s an almost cinematic enterprise.
To the meat and potatoes of the thing, the book is, according to its title page “a novel”, but within its author’s note, a “memoir”, and then fittingly, like Orson Welles’ F for Fake, in the acknowledgements page, a “pack of lies”. There was an element of suspicion attached to it going in, as the memoir as a construct (given to writers as what you’d only assume is a shiftless and lazy day at the office) and the genre within the novel itself is subject to shifts in form. This makes, within this work, something of a portmanteau; a high-wire act of postmodernism where the reader can only assume that the enterprise is based on fact (names, footnotes, newspaper clippings all allude to this being a product of history and research) until we’re told by the author it is otherwise. How it features tales told to an author named Mike Chabon, but same author says it’s all balderdash by the end. Kind of like how Adaptation was written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman, the central protagonists of the film, yet Donald doesn’t actually exist in real life (Oscar nomination not withstanding).
The tale, as it is, is gripping, imaginative, compassionate and propulsive. Chabon reflects on the life and marriage of those he purports to be his grandparents (he, a WWII veteran, fascinated by spaceflight; she, a holocaust survivor plagued by visions after the conflict manifest in a “skinless horse”, one presumes a metaphor for the horrors of Nazism) with compassion and care. You understand his grandfather, pushed to his limits, bound by his responsibilities and finally enabled to cut loose by the effects of pain medications. It’s an almost cinematic enterprise, vastly different although in no way inferior to his most recent work, the fascinating “moment in time” piece, Telegraph Avenue.
It’s a truly fascinating read; a challenge of one, and an engrossing exercise in challenging structure and generic form. And, a very human tale told in the bargain.
The piece was originally published on The Lesser Column as ‘Moonglow’ – Michael Chabon.