Accidental Critic: Moonglow
Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow” bills itself as a novel—the label is right there on the cover. But it’s much more than that as well. It’s equally a quiet, funny, sentimental and probing memoir—or perhaps “memoir”—so much so that the reader might have a hard time sorting out where truth ends and fiction begins.
That’s intentional, I think. Chabon starts out with this Author’s Note:
In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform to memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.
In other words, it might be true; it might not be true.
That’s a lot like memory itself. Our memories don’t necessarily reflect history. We bring ourselves to them. We remember some combination of what we want to remember, what we wish had happened, what made an impression on us, and what people have told us happened. When we tell stories about our lives—stories we believe to be true—they might or might not reflect real events.
In other words, they might be true; they might not be true.
Chabon’s book grew out of a series of conversations he had with his dying grandfather in 1989. From that starting point, he weaves a novel that feels like equal parts memoir and tall tale, meandering back and forth through time and space from the U.S.-German front during the demise of Hitler’s Germany, to post-war Philadelphia and the race to space, to modern-day Oakland, California. His characters include a narrator named Michael Chabon; a grandfather who worked madly to find and capture Wernher Von Braun at the end of World War II; a grandmother who suffered atrocities during the Holocaust and mental illness for the rest of her life; a rabbi turned gambler and mobster; and Wernher Von Braun himself.
It’s a beautiful book, with a love story for the ages and a confused, dysfunctional family that nevertheless coheres and sticks together, providing support and comfort to one another. It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of memory and what constitutes truth.
“I call these characters ‘my grandfather’, ‘my mother’,” Chabon said in an interview with The Telegraph when the book was published in 2017. “If I hit certain marks that you’re expecting as a reader to find, you’re going to supply the rest: it’s going to have this supposed authority. Part of me wanted to say, ‘Anybody can do it. Anything can be passed off as a memoir. Be careful’. ”
Memoirs, he said, “give the appearance of authenticity… but the whole enterprise is questionable.”
So you might want to read Moonglow through a skeptic’s lens. Or you might simply choose to let it immerse you and carry you into its world of family tales and relationships and discoveries. But read it if you get a chance. I readily confess to being a big fan of Chabon, and I think this book belongs right alongside his best works.
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.