Michael Chabon is one of those fictional masters of the middle way who can tell a story with plenty of honeyed charm and narrative invention while going some distance to persuading the reader that he is a craftsman of language, loving, artful and myriad-minded.
Moonglow takes the form of a deathbed confession bequeathed to the narrator (who seems to share the suggestion of a profile with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, the author of the much-adored The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys) by his grandfather who is – with great tinkling bells on – a Character.
At the book’s opening we learn how the grandfather – Jewish, whimsical and, one comes to dread, irresistible – tried to garrotte the boss who fired him. He didn’t succeed and by the grace of a God in whom he resolutely refuses to believe he gets only 20 months in a model prison, all Gothic architecture and occluded light, like a cartoon university designed by FDR when he was governor of New York. This is in the 1950s and coincidentally we learn much later by way of revelation something about his mentally disturbed wife.
She is a French woman who tells the terrible story of her life as a Jewish woman in a Nazi concentration camp and who also confesses to her grandson that she used to be a witch and that she’s making her way with a wicked pack of cards. She also has an episode where she aspires to take the veil and this is accompanied by – it must be admitted – a formidably credible portrait of a mother superior who is tending the mentally afflicted.
Chabon is one of those writers who likes to bring his realism, his undulating command of setting and tempo and verisimilitude, to the rescue of his magic, which can be tricksy, whimsical and not so much black as a bit slimy.
He is not remotely a magical realist in the high-and-mighty sense that this might be said of Márquez and co or the Rushdie of Midnight’s Children or even in the revisionist sense of Bolaño. But he is a high-and-mighty fiddler with tall tales and true in a way that has a family resemblance to, say, John Irving.
The tall tales and true and the shadow of the legendary past in Moonglow take the form of the hero’s obsession with Wernher von Braun, Hitler’s rocket scientist, the master of the V2, who eventually settled postwar in America, where he worked – we hear and do in part believe it – on the moon program and became a familiar voice of ghostly benevolence on the television version of Disneyland.
Moonglow is concerned less with apocalyptic intimations of Disney’s space sphere Tomorrowland than with the protagonist’s obsession with the V2 and with von Braun in particular.
There is an engaging section when as a GI in Germany in the last days of the war the hero meets an old Catholic priest from Pressburg (from where his own Jewish family hails) with whom he discovers a shared passion for the contemplation of the stars and the contraptions that might project us towards them.
There is plenty of nasty detail about the relationship between Nazi science and the camps, with graphic snippets of group hangings, and there is also a dramatic epiphanic meeting between the Jewish space nut and the German rocket fueller. Looney grandfather actually asks if the Jews have a future on the moon and von Braun replies that it would be just the place for them.
It’s a good line as far as it goes, though the queasiness the smart-arsery engenders is some index of what happens when neo-subfabulistic writing starts to melt and its encoded politics gets as conventional as schmaltz.
None of which is to deny that Moonglow is an artful piece of wind-weaving, which will yield plenty of readerly satisfaction to anyone who wants to speed through it for its unsteady but never less than inventive combo of jokes and contrivances and world historical suggestions of an abyss that the comic quipster is forced to look into when he contemplates the archaeology of that much-visited terrain, the family romance of the Jewish-American variety.
Chabon knows how to craft a handsome middle-length novel that will drip with all sorts of poignancies while constantly interrupting them with wisecracking chutzpah. And it’s undeniable that the knowledge of the world paraded in this excavation of the mind and heart of a man who went through World War II is impressive. There are all kinds of references to actors and performers of the period, to Leslie Howard, for instance (Higgins in Pygmalion and the Scarlet Pimpernel, quite apart from Ashley in Gone with the Wind) to C. Aubrey Smith, to Glenn Miller and his band.
In all sorts of ways Moonglow is a testament via its retrieval to the world that’s been lost except in its afterglow in the minds of baby boomers who listen to the stories of their parents and/or grandparents who remember the war with Hitler.
And there is plenty of artfulness, too, in the way the detail of the remembered icons functions. Leslie Howard and Glenn Miller were both in planes that went down during the war. Wernher von Braun is the quasi-comical face of the way the dreaming America of the 1950s – never mind the nightmare of McCarthyism and the Cold War – offered a haven to people touched by Hitler’s mass murders so long as they would conspire to mass murder communists as well.
Chabon’s novel also includes – by way of a sophisticated grace note, a literary credential – a discussion of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the most improbable literary homage ever paid to the mad spirit of rocketry.
But this is a dispassionate novel that demonstrates a certain breadth of mind. The vision that it offers of cats that battle with snakes, of hurt minds that invent worse pasts, is in its way a forgiving vision and we can hardly blame Michael Chabon for the impassioned lamentation he gives, the Kaddish he sings for a proud America hungry for justice, which seems to be fading by the day. QSS
4th Estate, 448pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "Michael Chabon, Moonglow". Subscribe here.