It’s hard to believe that Michael Chabon has only published eight novels in the nearly three decades that have passed since 1998’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Certainly, other writers have created even more sprawling a profile across the reading world with less of an output. After all, David Foster Wallace only released two finished novels in his career. But one of those, Infinite Jest, redefined the idea and maybe even the reality of fiction in the ’90s.
The novel that still looms over Chabon’s career to this day is The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay (2000). It doesn’t cast quite the shadow that Infinite Jest might, but that novel still serves as a kind of defining moment in American literary and popular culture, not to mention a fulcrum in Chabon’s career and style, the earlier section of which he is just now tipping his gaze back to with his latest novel, Moonglow.
Before The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, his third, Chabon was, for lack of a better label, a literary author. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a witty and heartfelt bildungsroman about writing, identity, sex, literature, and that peculiarly American brand of undergraduate psychological and spiritual paralysis. Wonder Boys (1995) was a broader work in somewhat of the same idiom, again embedding questions about art and purpose in an antic comic narrative with an academic setting. That second novel nodded towards genre with its depiction of a brooding author of existential horror stories clearly modeled on H.P. Lovecraft.
But it wasn’t until The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay that Chabon revealed his great knowledge of and affinity for genre. To this day, that densely researched novel, with its mid-20th century Jewish comic book artists channeling their real-world passions and anxieties through a fantastic art form, remains something like a border crossing between the genre and literary worlds. After that it was off to the races for Chabon, who seemed freed up by his long embed in the comic-book world and started knocking out everything from Sherlock Holmes stories (The Final Solution) to alternate history (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) and quasi-historical rollicking adventure fiction (Gentlemen of the Road).
Following the baggy and somewhat Pynchon-esque Telegraph Avenue, a reference-heavy ode to funk and the East Bay (which likely helped germinate his later unlikely collaboration with Jon Ronson and Bruno Mars on “Uptown Funk”), Chabon circles back to the world that birthed his earliest fiction in Moonglow. It’s presented as a family history investigation, complete with an author’s note at the start that proclaims his intent in “this memoir” to stick to the facts “except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” In other words: I’m making this up as I see fit. There’s a story to tell, after all.
Chabon starts Moonglow in a great, glowing gush of reminiscence and incident. The narrator character that he has created for himself adheres to the broad outlines of his biography, though one who keeps himself surprisingly small in the background; no Philip Roth-ian excavations of the self to be found here. Instead, Chabon places himself at the bedside of his grandfather who is near death in the late-’80s. This is just after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has come out, and Chabon is there to hear the tales of his grandfather’s life. They come pouring out in a rush, “Dilaudid was bringing its soft hammer to bear on his habit of silence.”
As befitting the protagonist of some great, lost Mark Helprin novel, the life arc of Chabon’s grandfather (never referred to by his proper name) leaps from incident to incident, powered along through a Jewish immigrant family’s upbringing in Philadelphia to wartime and a cantankerous retirement, by a motor of spontaneity that keeps him teetering on the lip of disaster. After an opening scene where we discover why he ended up in jail (a misunderstanding with a boss in the ’50s that involved a telephone cord as improvised garrote), the story hops around in time like a short-attention-span painter. A dab here, part of a face there. All of it eventually building to the portrait of a man whose spirit enraptures but remains ultimately somewhat murky to the teller of his tale.
After a detailing of some of his postwar exploits, and a darker and more subterranean angle that tracks the melodrama and incipient vision-plagued occult madness of his wife (something viewed by Chabon as a child with both fascination and fear), Chabon takes the book into the crucible of World War II. That is where the grandfather’s obsession with rockets worms its way into the book, as he struggles across the Western Front, confronting the ragged elements of a shattered Wehrmacht while on the hunt for the greatest rocketman in the Nazi’s arsenal. Wernher von Braun, responsible in great part for the rockets raining down on England and the Jewish slave labor which made them, is the Moby-Dick to Chabon grand-pere’s Ahab.
There are times in Moonglow when it’s easy to lose the thread of the story. A long and curious side detour to the grandfather’s retirement in Florida and an obsessive hunt for a snake doesn’t help matters. Chabon’s earlier and more personal novels are hinted at here just as much as his later more plot-driven fantasias; the marriage of the two is occasionally a tense one.
But there’s rarely a moment in this book, even when the story might be dawdling, when Chabon isn’t delivering some of the liveliest and richest writing to be found on the current fiction scene. The historical sweep is sharply rendered but never overwhelming, the humor light and resonant: “My brother and I were raised by the last generation of American parents to feel that flat-out lying to children about unpleasant aspects of adult life was not merely permissible but humane and even beneficial.”
That’s what Moonglow is, ultimately, a lie. As fiction needs to be, particularly when telling the truth.