Fan­tasy and facts blend in rich ‘pack of lies’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Michael Chabon

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