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 no 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 romanticise 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 avers 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 intertwines 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.

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