Michael Chabon is an American-born novelist, known best for his recurring themes of nostalgia, familial relationships, and the Jewish identity. Chabon was 25 when his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, became a bestseller and launched him into the literary spotlight. His novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay earned Chabon the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. Since then, Chabon has published various works of fiction and non-fiction, his latest publication being the novel Moonglow in November 2016.
Moonglow is a piece of fiction under the guise of a historical memoir. In this novel, Chabon himself is the narrator of the story of his grandfather’s life. This alluring story spans decades, taking readers to locations across the world, encompassing the protagonist’s poor upbringing, involvement in World War II, the space race, love, loss, and existentialism. Chabon’s sophisticated prose is rife with metaphor, creating a vivid and immersive landscape that results in the reader feeling that they are reading a true memoir that presents as fiction rather than a story with truthful elements.
Moonglow starts with an author’s note, reading “In preparing this memoir, 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.” The lines between fact and fiction begin to blur from the start. We find our narrator—Michael Chabon—at his grandfather’s deathbed in 1989, an event which occurred in reality. The protagonist of this story— referred throughout only as “my grandfather”— begins to tell Michael his life story. The novel continuously weaves from truth to fiction, with some events being outrageous enough to garner a double take, but not quite over the line into disbelief. The words “truth is stranger than fiction” frequently come to mind while trying to separate truth from myth as the novel progresses.
One of the most captivating features in this novel is Chabon’s ability to capture the magic of the space race. This era is often lost on later generations who weren’t alive to gather together in front of their black and white televisions to watch the moon landing. If one were to create a playlist to be enjoyed while reading Moonglow, it would undoubtedly feature a blend of classic jazz songs like Sinatra’s Moon River and Nat King Cole’s Stardust paired with Rocket Man by Elton John and Space Oddity from David Bowie.
The entire novel captures a deep and profound love of the night sky and all its mysterious workings. The protagonist’s love of rocketry and space travel carries him through the final days of World War II in Germany, his time spent in a New York Prison, a retirement village in Florida, and ultimately into the afterlife. This passion seeps from the pages and into the reader’s heart.
The constant intermingling of historical facts and creative fiction ignites the need for fact checking, particularly around the subject of space travel. In the novel, Chabon speaks of the V2 rocket and its inventor, Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun. Chabon’s grandfather made it his life goal to meet this man who solved the mysteries behind rocketry that would ultimately lead to space travel. The V2 rocket—the V standing for the German word Vergeltungswaffe, or Vengeance Weapon— was manufactured with the intent to help the Nazis win WWII. Primarily built by prisoners of concentration camps, the V2 rockets caused more death to the builders than the intended targets. While deemed a failure in regards to its intended purpose in WWII, von Braun would go on to become the face of NASA and the inspiration for Columbia Pictures’ biopic I Aim at the Stars. (Smithsonian.com)
Chabon is renowned for his ability to define the Jewish experience through his work. It speaks to his irrefutable skill as a writer to be able to impart a lesser known dark side of history while maintaining a balance with ingenious fabrication. While Chabon hasn’t yet confessed to readers which aspects of his grandfather’s story is true, he paints the picture of an honorable yet flawed individual, who was heavily influenced by the world around him.
The protagonist is a man of his time: reserved, tough, plagued by “combat fatigue” in days before society acknowledged the existence of PTSD. Throughout Moonglow, the protagonist shows little emotion. However, at the brief intervals when the emotions appear they are powerful, and beautifully captured. Many of these feelings are a direct response to the love story, which is by no means a Hollywood romance but rather a raw, real, and often painful devotion.
Chabon’s grandfather meets the woman who will someday be his wife at a fundraiser in 1947. At the time, World War II was still recent history and neither the grandfather nor grandmother—a Holocaust survivor—were far into their post-war recovery. The protagonist sees a broken woman and decides he wants to help fix her. He courts her and takes in her fatherless child during a time when nuclear families still dominated the census. He stays by her side when she’s plagued by mental illness. He raises his adoptive daughter while his wife battles demons no one else can see. Chabon captures the devastating familial effects of mental illness so precisely that it’s hard to believe that this aspect of Moonglow can be anything other than true.
While the segue between time periods in Moonglow is often jumbled and confusing, the thought-provoking conclusion ties everything together, leaving readers with a thirst for knowledge. Moonglow has unsurprisingly earned Michael Chabon the nomination in the fiction category of the National Book Critics Circle awards for 2016, alongside other celebrated authors such as Margaret Atwood. Moonglow invites readers to ask questions; question the world around you, your role in its existence, and consider how the tiniest of actions can change the course of history. With its linguistic tapestry, historical relevance, and profound ideas on humanism, Moonglow is—in a word—stellar.