Stuart Walton reviews the latest novel by acclaimed author Micheal Chabon, arguing that the famed author is in a transitional stage and speculating where it might lead.
Michael Chabon, Moonglow (Harper, 2016) 430pp.
A publishing world replete with literary prizes answering to all categories ought by now to have established an award for authors who have most successfully bridged the gaping chasm between popular fiction and the literary novel. If such an award had existed by the dawn of the new millennium, it would surely have gone before long to the American novelist Michael Chabon. Few writers have so securely maintained a foot in both camps, even as publishers have prised them ever further apart.
Chabon’s career began with an eye-catching advance for his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), an unexpectedly charming bisexual coming-of-age story. Its successor, Wonder Boys (1995), was an extended comic romp set in the literary world, which partly satirises the author’s own Foster Wallace-ish attempt to write a contemporary epic which finally sputtered to a halt at around 1500 inconclusive pages.
While the shorter works have the quality of ephemeral jeux d’esprit, the longer novels have been significant achievements. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), for which Chabon won the Pulitzer, is an emotionally wrenching tale of personal aspiration and historical torment, set in the world of comic-books on the eve of America’s entry to the second world war, while The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) is a generically gritty detective story that unfolds in the beautifully realised postwar Jewish homeland of Alaska, history’s counterfactual alternative to Palestine. Only with Telegraph Avenue (2012) did the momentum appear to flag. Despite its promising mise-en-scène in a California music store run by a pair of defeated entrepreneurs whose lives revolve around revolving vinyl and their distinctly smarter wives, the gratuitously extended plot never quite takes off, and the nostalgia promised by the ambience of old songs barely surfaces, perhaps a casualty of the hideous copyright expense of quoting from song-lyrics.
After that last publication, Chabon’s website announced that he would be taking a timely break from writing. In the event, devotees have had to wait only four years for the latest, which arrives in the form of Moonglow, a fictional memoir of a twentieth-century life, as retailed from his final sickbed in the last ten days of its subject’s existence to his grandson. The grandson happens to be one Mike Chabon, a novelist who has built a career out of ‘fancy metaphors’, and who is entrusted by his grandfather to accord the events of his life some meaningful shape, which is what writers are reputedly good at doing.
Grandfather fought with US forces in Europe during the final phase of the war, and was present at the liberation of the Nordhausen slave-labour camp, where the Nazi rocket programme was developed under the supervision of Wernher von Braun. Like many a linchpin of fascist scientific endeavour, von Braun proved himself indispensable to his western captors once political expediency allowed the Cold War to sweep aside the historical memory of Nuremberg. The elder Chabon’s preoccupation with rocket science, and his pride in the American moon landings in the years following 1969, is thereby agonisingly bound up with a veteran’s horror at the constructive amnesia that allowed a war criminal his undeserved place in the democratic sun.
The narrative also embraces the grandfather’s seduction after the war by a sassy young woman at a dance he didn’t want to go to, their subsequent marriage and his wife’s death. In the later stages, he has a bumbling encounter at the local retirement community with a woman whose cat has gone missing, possibly to be devoured by a predatory snake that he offers to hunt down and destroy, only finally sparing it at her insistence. Earlier, after being widowed, he attends the Twelfth Space Congress of the United States at Cocoa Beach, Florida, where, having intended to boycott the award of a prize to von Braun, he inadvertently has an encounter with his nemesis, who has pottered into what he thinks is a vacant room to relieve himself in a plant pot. The analogy of the spared snake stands revealed.
Years later, Sally, the lady from the retirement village, turns up at a stop on one of the narrator’s book tours, still strongly redolent of the Opium perfume his grandfather had recalled about her. Over an uneaten lunch, she tells the writer that she hoped she made his grandfather’s turbulent life a little easier for him. The fragmentary memories, and the bits of memorabilia the narrator and his mother unearth from their storage in an old liquor box, make the point that if the mental traces of a vanished life are never quite as reliable as one would wish, neither do the physical belongings help fill in the gaps. Of such absences is the belief in an afterlife, invoked in the novel’s closing words, constructed.
If Chabon’s earlier work paid due homage to genre fiction, Moonglow defiantly wants nothing to do with it. The valetudinarian theme lends itself naturally to the kind of introspection that genre heartily despises, and although the episodic structure of the book aims for some kind of discontinuous narrative thrust, the episodes themselves are not particularly engaging. Even the wartime interludes, in which an elderly Catholic priest leads the grandfather to a hidden prototype of the Nazis’ V2 rocket, fall strangely flat, an impression not helped by the consignment of the discovery of Nordhausen to external references, in both Thomas Pynchon and various historical sources. If unspeakable crimes are just that, one has to be sure that their unsayability is a function of their enormity, not a matter of dismissive footnoting.
What doesn’t help is that the book’s ethical compass seems too facile for the gravity of its theme. In one passing cheap shot, the British are recalled as the appeasers of Hitler, even having stood alone in Europe against him throughout 1941, while the American space programme, built on the expertise of a vile persecutor of humanity, is nonetheless something of which the grandfather can feel doggedly proud. In the accidental meeting with von Braun at the Space Congress, he finds himself almost bonding with the Nazi scientist over the rocket models, sympathising with the failing physical health of an old man, and then von Braun utters a piece of boilerplate anti-Semitism and the balance is restored.
Chabon’s self-celebrated metaphorical gift occasionally shines through the uncharacteristically monochrome prose. When a dyspeptic medic drops a couple of Bromo-Seltzers into water, ‘the tablets hissed and chuckled in the cup’, and while they do, he prompts out a long belch like a sustained cello note. Elsewhere, though, the similes miss their mark. A vision of von Braun in a motorcycle sidecar ‘like a gentle-natured bear’ has a cartoonish quality that seems to recall Yogi, while the labia of a former circus worker that are remembered as ‘flying like a flag’ resist every effort of mental topology. The eternal verities, meanwhile, seem to be stretching in the direction of Scott Fitzgerald, but end up sounding more Reader’s Digest: ‘I reflected that it seemed to be in the nature of human beings to spend the first part of their lives mocking the clichés and conventions of their elders and the final part mocking the clichés and conventions of the young.’
As with its immediate predecessor, Moonglow lacks distinctive identity, an effect that Chabon seemed to have at command in his early career. The phlegmatic inconsequentiality that writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth made their own, as their principal characters aged along with them, a mode where incontinence and systemic pain accompany the unillusioned bitterness of later life, is a style into which Chabon himself might eventually settle, but for the time being, these transitional novels feel like signposts on an unmade road.
is a journalist and the author of many books including Out Of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and a new novel The First Day in Paradise. He also writes on food and wine and spent many years writing for The Guardian.