Fantasy and facts blend in rich ‘pack of lies’
Michael Chabon’s relationship with realism has always been complex. Despite their word-drunk prose and playfulness his first two novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, didn’t stray far from the everyday worlds explored by most of his contemporaries. Yet in his third novel, the Pulitzer prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon left conventional literary realism behind, drawing instead on his fascination with pulp traditions and superhero comics, a move replicated in subsequent novels such as The Final Solution, Summerland and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
Despite its delight in tall tales of giant pythons in the Everglades, Chabon’s impressive new novel, Moonglow, is not overtly fantastical. Yet the power of fantasy, not just to give shape to longing but to shield us and sometimes harm us, is written deep into its fabric.
Purporting to be the family history of a novelist called Mike Chabon, whose life, career and family closely resemble Chabon’s, it is an autobiographical fiction disguised as a novel posing as a memoir, but it’s also a secret history of the space program, an often intimate explor- ation of the psychic cost of World War II and the Holocaust, a portrait of a family ruptured by mental illness and trauma, and a surprisingly tender love story.
If this description makes it sound overstuffed that’s because it is, but in a good way. Chabon is at his best when he allows himself the space for the sort of narrative and emotional acrobatics that make novels such as the The Amazing Ad- ventures of Kavalier & Clay so satisfying, and Moonglow is no exception. For while the novel derives some of its emotional effect from its focus on the relatively small group of characters at its heart, its Proustian method and sprawling, digressive plot grant it a capaciousness it might otherwise lack (and which stands in stark contrast to Chabon’s previous novel, the overwritten and somewhat joyless Telegraph Avenue).
The novel’s looping structure is at least partly a response to the conceit at its centre, which is that the events described — part testimony, part recollection, part reconstruction — grow out of the week Mike spent with his grandfather at the end of his life, a week in which “Dilaudid was bringing its soft hammer to bear on his habit of silence”, calling forth “a record of his adventures, his ambiguous luck, his feats and failings of timing and nerve”.
The man who emerges from these drug-induced wanderings is one of Bellovian complexity and appetite, a powerfully built, poolhustling son of Jewish immigrants from the south side of Philadelphia (the echoes of Saul Bellow and, to a lesser extent, Philip Roth are presumably deliberate, a way of connecting the novel to the larger mapping of the Jewish experience in American fiction). Growing up he learns to fight to survive, but he also reveals considerable intelligence and, in a confusing encounter with a young girl whose physical peculiarities embody the divided self of many of the characters, a curious conflation of sexual desire and the need to rescue those in distress.
From Philadelphia, Mike’s grandfather travels first to England and later to Europe where, in the dying days of the war, he becomes involved in the hunt for Nazi scientist and visionary Wernher von Braun. He had long idolised von Braun but now is brought face to face with the truth about his callous disregard for human life.