Look! Up in the sky! The heavenly bodies — and man-made rockets launched to explore them — both obsess and seemingly possess the main characters in Michael Chabon’s latest novel, “Moonglow.” Allusions to the stars, the moon and space travel abound in a story that revolves around the mostly dark and gruff and only occasionally sunny World War II veteran who finds his vocation in building elaborate toy spacecraft models, and his elusive wife, a Holocaust survivor who is so bewitched by Tarot cards and so haunted by her past that she makes a natural fit as the host of a television horror show. Their combustible personalities and volatile marriage propel a strikingly eerie multigenerational tale.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Chabon claims that this novel, his 14th, was inspired by the pain-killer-assisted, stream-of-conscious recollections his dying grandfather shared with him. In keeping with that frame, the story is recounted by a narrator named Mike who identifies himself as a novelist who does bear some resemblance to Chabon. But if you take these supposed memories at face value, the moon has cast its spell on you, too. As Chabon warns readers in a playful “Author’s Note” that prefaces the book, “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”
That speaks to Chabon’s larger point. We like to believe that the family narratives we pass from one generation to the next are based on facts. But as he shows us here, they are more likely spun from unreliably remembered bits and unsubstantiated pieces of handed-down memory, with inconvenient gaps filled in by wishful thinking, and uncomfortable subjects avoided or denied altogether. Such are the inherently untrustworthy family stories we weave for ourselves. And the fictionalized Chabon family stories presented here may therefore not be so different in their relation to the truth than our own fancifully embroidered family lore.
The book opens in 1957. In a memorable introductory scene, we meet Mike’s then- 30-something grandfather (who is never given a name other than “my grandfather”) in the midst of trying to strangle the boss who has just fired him. The crazed attack will send him to prison and further complicate his already upended family life: his wife has just been hospitalized after her latest psychotic break, and their emotionally shaken adolescent daughter is already feeling abandoned.
It will take the rest of the book to chronicle how, exactly, his grandfather arrived at that point, and why it also might have been the least likely but luckiest business break he ever had. Chabon does so by deftly jumping back and forth among the many story strands he has set in motion: the grandfather’s retelling of his adventures across the decades; Mike’s memories of enigmatic childhood encounters with his grandmother; and scenes in which Mike reflects on his quirky grandparents with his mother, who has also suffered from the turbulent flight paths of her parents. “My mother’s lack of attachment to the past and its material embodiments went deeper than principle, training or metaphor,” Chabon writes. “It was an unbreakable habit of loss.”
These different plot lines will also give Chabon the chance to show off his versatility as a writer, inventing scenes that could have been ripped from genres ranging from science fiction to World War II spy stories to exposés of life in prison and in mental institutions.
We learn that Mike’s grandfather had grown up as a tough troublemaker in a poor Jewish neighborhood of Philadelphia. After being drafted to fight in World War II, his swagger along with his knowledge of engineering and explosives lead him to join a top secret espionage unit. His mission: to track down the Nazi aerospace engineer and inventor of the V-2 rocket, Werhner von Braun. By the time he arrives at Mitellwerk, the underground factory where the V-2 and other weapons were built and assembled, von Braun has escaped. All that remained were the last dead or dying inhabitants of the Mittelbau-Dora slave labor camp.
The sickening scene he finds fuels in the grandfather an enduring hatred for von Braun, whose denial of responsibility for or knowledge of the brutal workings of the camp comes to stand for the grandfather’s disillusionment with what he had formerly held to be the utopian possibilities for science and space exploration. The hope that such pursuits could be nobly free of politics or ego, Chabon writes, were replaced with the realization that they were not “a means to liberate the human spirit from the chains of gravity,” but instead “only a pretext for further enchainment.”
In the post-war period, this new nihilism leaves the grandfather without purpose and casts him adrift professionally and personally. Yet his encounter with Nazi evil also predisposes him to sympathize with the horrors endured by the widowed camp survivor he later meets and marries. And in her troubled personality, he also finds a reason to continue.
Admirers of Chabon’s two best books, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” will recognize in “Moonglow” his characteristically energetic pacing, stylistic elegance and fondness for bravura action. What’s missing here is a deeper understanding of his character’s inner lives and motivations. For instance, the mysterious grandmother is at one level supposed to be inscrutable, a victim of her mental illness as much as of her Holocaust experience. But she remains essentially a cipher, as do Mike and his mother. In the end, though, it is Mike’s mother who best describes the grandfather’s character: “He needed to fight. To wrestle. Everything had to be a wrestling match. Jacob with the angel.” The rest of the novel is commentary.
Frequent contributor Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.” She writes for The Wall Street Journal, NPR online and The Psychotherapy Networker, where she is a contributing editor.