Moonglow by Michael Chabon – Review

Book Cover - Moonglow

“On a clear night in blacked-out countryside, in between bomber runs, when the tracer fire ceased and the searchlights went dark, the stars did not fill the sky so much as coat it like hoarfrost on a windowpane. You looked up and saw The Starry Night, he told me; you realized that Van Gogh was a realist painter.”

When Michael Chabon explores a character, he doesn’t just wander across the surface of their minds: he goes spelunking, exploring nooks and crannies of their psyches that most wouldn’t think to poke inside. The result is a collection of richly drawn people who are unlike anyone you’ve known yet are intimately familiar.

In ‘Moonglow’, Chabon tells the deathbed confessions of his grandfather. Well, sort of. Most of these confessions are fabrications. The opening epigraph clues the reader in, if they are paying attention, that they are being toyed with: “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.” This is attributed to Wernher Von Braun, the aerospace engineer and Nazi who was instrumental in launching the United States to the moon – it’s actually a Pink Floyd quote.

Stubbornness in the face of horror: spitting in the eye of the world and living in spite of it.

Chabon doesn’t construct his novel’s characters with cold Freudian logic – there isn’t a simple explanation for why Michael’s grandfather is so stubborn, for example, such as truculence stemming from childhood abuse; nor is there an easy answer for why this same grandfather dropped a kitten out of a window as a child. He had an instinct and followed it with disastrous consequences like most of us have at some moment or another. His past has impacted him, but not in the ways that might be intuitive. This is one of the reason’s Mike’s grandmother is the most fascinating character in the book:

She was a vessel built to hold the pain of her history, but it had cracked her, and radiant darkness leaked out through the crack.

She’s a haunted woman. Something happened to her during World War 2, as she proclaimed Jewish heritage and the numbers tattooed on her skin signify, but we are never sure exactly what. We hear stories, but, as with much of this book, the narrator is deeply unreliable. After all, she’s mad; however, it’s a madness borne of survival, a way to navigate a world which never gave her coherence or stability anyway. As a result, she is an enigma with a grasp on the truth which is fluid; lies must seem a small sin compared to what she saw as a young woman.

While the world’s tragedies sometimes almost cause him to break, he remains fundamentally himself: curious, stoic, and unyielding over what he believes is best. If you met this man on the street he would be a difficult person to appreciate, but Chabon’s gift lies in sifting through the detritus of human minds and finding the pearls – moments of compassion, frustration, joy – which can make you love someone even if they are, to put it politely, imperfect. You may not have made the same decisions as Mike’s grandfather during World War 2, but you damn well understand why he made them.

Chabon’s sentences are a pleasing blend of poetic and straightforward, performing a balancing act that would have toppled many other novels into either pretentiousness or boredom. He uses around nine-hundred metaphors a page (this is an estimate), but this never feels stilted or unnatural as they use grounded concepts often related to engineering. This ties both the writing and the action of the book back to space travel again and again, and instills you with a sense of wonder at the idea of traveling to another world — after all, you’ve been reading about it even when it wasn’t obvious.

At one point, Mike’s grandfather has made a terrible decision that might ruin his life. He was, put simply, reckless, but not unsympathetically so, and thus still has a reader’s sympathy when he begs for forgiveness. The answer he receives, from a hardened military officer who’s quickly figured out his penchant for self-destruction, is blunt:

Mike’s grandfather is a fatalist, yet one that can’t help dream of a better world. He’s given up on this planet and is more aware than most that the moon is a lifeless desert, yet can’t help but romanticize it. He wants somewhere to fly away to.

The novel is heavily influenced by Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in terms of subject matter, although it averts the cold nihilism its predecessor often dwelt in. While rocketry was a symbol of whirring death for Pynchon, humanity at its most destructive, Chabon is more preoccupied with technology’s capacity to inspire hope, even when it’s used for horrific purposes. That’s not to say he doesn’t acknowledge and wrestle with the darker motives behind the development of the space age – a significant plot point revolves around America’s space program’s founding on Nazi research, after all – but he wants readers to be able to dream, and remember the joy the stars can inspire.

Moonglows takes you through the lowest lows and the highest highs of a man’s life, which frequently intertwine into some of the most important moments of the twentieth century. Chabon’s grandfather was like a whip-smart, assholish Forrest Gump. It’s the small moments – dying gasps, hopes dashed, friendships sundered, brotherhood betrayed – which make this book feel far larger than the story of just one man, however: it’s a story about hope and despair, and the painful and beautiful consequences of both.

Horns by Joe Hill – Review

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“I guess Satan was the first superhero. In his first adventure, he took the form of a snake to free two prisoners being held naked in a Third World jungle prison by an all-powerful megalomaniac. At the same time, he broadened their diet and introduced them to their own sexuality.”

A young man named Ig is accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend; after a year of depression, one morning he wakes up with horns pricking out of his head, forced to hear everyone he meets confess their greatest sins. Snakes like him a lot, and he keeps wanting to wield a pitchfork.

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need

For a book with such a potentially goofy premise, it’s a relief that an unblinking fascination with the nature of sin fuels Joe Hill’s Horns, an unflinching view of human urges and morals. Its twisted sense of humour makes all of it a fuckload of fun, too.

Demons are often more fascinating than angels, and watching a good man turn very, very bad is deeply absorbing to read about. In our time of entertainment in the mainstream loving muddled-motives and monstrous acts by protagonists (think Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, and compare them to classic tv heroes) sympathy for the devil comes easier. I suppose that might have been true for centuries, though, ever since Milton cemented Lucifer as the ultimate anti-hero: a rebel who chose freedom and sin over paradise.

Hill is good at describing the inner workings that push humans along, the strange motivations that make us individuals. He moves the reader into a dirty territory, and makes you both wince and wonder simultaneously. Just how far can a good person be pushed? The line between sin and mistake, and what we can forgive, is presented by Hill as something inherently fluid; understanding the motives of the people around can create both empathy or anger, and which you choose to focus on will determine how clearly you view the world through the tinted lens of personal prejudices.

Put some Rolling Stones on in the background and pick up Horns, and be ready for a blazing-fun LSD-fueled car ride through the gates of hell.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – Review

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The appeal of a memoir is typically one of empathy, of plunging and swimming inside in the life of another, becoming fully submerged in experiences far outside your own. At least, that’s always been the appeal in picking them up for me. It’s strange, then, that most renowned memoirs tend to be about lives whose experiences would devastate readers who try to become immersed; tragedy is seen as something we can learn from, something that can be understood and therefore prepared for, in case such horrendous events ever happen to ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, however, Joan Didion accounts the first year of her life without her husband John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack at the beginning of 2004, and explains her feelings of numbness and the absurdity of trying to learn something from a black hole called death that’s left you far weaker than you ever would have been had it not appeared.

It’s a harrowing account, detailing the way grief erodes day-to-day experiences like an earthquake tearing apart the mantle of life. ‘I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world,’ Didion laments, and for a woman who values control as she does, this is truly damning.

As the book continues and you see her clinging to the pain like a limpet, as though to let go of it would be a betrayal to the man whose absence caused it. She explains how harrowing it can be to mourn in a society that values letting go, moving on, making the best of things. She didn’t want to make the best of things. She just wanted her husband back. I was reminded of a lyric from Mount Eerie about the passing of his wife, ending the song Death is Real:

It’s dumb
And I don’t want to learn anything from this
I love you
This isn’t a rational way of approaching things, I thought, but of course it isn’t; that’s why this book is so valuable: it shines a light on the irrational ways minds approach the world after tragedies, the strange thought-patterns that make sense to no one but yourself. Nothing about grief is rational, after all; it just is.
To those looking for a salve to spread over the wounds caused by the departure of someone beloved, The Year of Magical Thinking may not be what you had in mind. It’s an brutal account of grieving that eschews sentimentality and looks the rawness of death in the face. It isn’t, basically, a comforting read. It is a valuable one, though, and anyone who has experienced a tragedy knows the value in seeing the world from the eyes of someone who feels like you do, even if that feeling isn’t positive.