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by Marty Roth
Discussed in this essay: Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. HarperCollins, 2016, 431 pages.
MICHAEL CHABON’S latest novel, Moonglow, is a terrific achievement, an assured and dazzling re-encounter with the familiar contours of (Jewish) America in the 20th century. It is also a moving love story, and a valentine to his grandparents.
Only the narrator is named, as Mike Chabon. The other main characters are grandfather, grandmother, mother (but on p. 323 the name Sarah leaks out. Or is it Liliane, p. 354?). Memoir or fiction, the contents spill out of the grandfather in the week before his death.
Grandfather and grandmother are rich and complex characters. He is a child of the American city grown into a man of “preposterous idealisms and unfettered violence,” a devotee of popular science and a builder of small models and machines. She is a European Jew, possibly a concentration camp survivor (ruined by the war, in any case), an actress and teller of Tarot stories, sunk in the secrets of her early life in Nazi-occupied Europe, and swept by madness.
Moonglow moves in a seemingly haphazard fashion through the history of the 20th century, mainly its warfare and technology, replicated at a more comfortable level as a Popular Mechanics world (like the comic-book world of Kavalier and Klay): a world of gimmicks, models, and practical jokes (ink-squirting boutonnieres) found on the back pages of 1930s and ’40s pulp magazines.
At the core of the book is the displacement of rocket energy from Wernher von Braun’s original dream of creating a moon rocket to the long-range ballistic missiles of World War II, and the ironic reversal of that trajectory: von Braun “became a prisoner of the 44th Infantry division. In less than a quarter century this uncharacteristic act of submission would lead -- as von Braun alone had always known that it must -- to the imprinting of a human footprint in the soft dark dust of the Moon. . . . But nobody wanted to hear that America’s ascent to the Moon had been made with a ladder of bone.” These concerns evoke Thomas Pynchon, whom Chabon acknowledges as one of his sources: “‘You want to know what happened at Nordhausen?’ his grandfather said. ‘Look it up.’” So Mike goes to the Oakland library for a long session of reading, beginning with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
ROCKETS AND MOONS keep reappearing in all forms and sizes: V-2s raining on London, the NASA space program, Cape Canaveral launches, the Challenger disaster (“He sat without moving, without blinking or breathing, as a flower of fire bloomed on a stem of vapor. In that and subsequent replays he watched fragments of the disintegrated spacecraft snake across the sky, wandering, doubling back, as if blindly searching for one another in the blue”), Glenn Miller’s “Moonglow,” and the half-moons of fingernails. A German priest writes to the Curia to inquire if the “papal doctrine of discovery” applies to the Moon “as it did to the Indies in the time of Columbus.” Grandfather and Mike daydream of taking rockets to the moon to rescue beautiful lunar princesses. The “Author’s Note” ends with a (real) advertisement from the October, 1958, issue of Esquire, showing a toy rocket manufactured by the Chabon Scientific Co. After grandmother’s death, grandfather spends years building a scale-model lunar outpost.
Horses are the grandmother’s motif as her sanity ebbs and flows with her menstrual cycle. She is haunted by the image of a Skinless Horse that speaks through her with a voice of self-hatred and disgust, a tortured echo of her early life near a tannery at Lille, kept at bay by the sound of bagpipes. In one memorable episode, the skinless horse crosses paths with Pie of National Velvet.
Grandmother and grandfather are broken people, and the century and the glorious republic, throw up repeated stories of breakage and loss. Grandmother is “emptied out. She had been pregnant and she had miscarried and then the voice or the thoughts or the memory that tormented her had returned: her hidden history of loss, loss upon loss unending.” Mike’s mother suffers from “an unbreakable habit of loss.” But after listing a litany of their woes, he decides that they were happy -- “in the cracks.”
“When we were sent to the ovens,” grandfather says, “God sat with His outstretched thumb up His mighty ass and let us burn.” Although the book is very Jewish, it is scathingly anti-religious. Grandfather thinks religion is a racket -- “He had always believed that the only real satisfaction offered by the experience of attending synagogue lay in the knowledge that church would be worse” -- although he ends the novel saying kaddish for his dead wife throughout South Florida -- “we’re good at death . . . . Tear a ribbon, cover the mirror. Sit around for a week. Grow your beard for a month . . . ”
Pynchon and J.D. Salinger (another acknowledged influence) aside, the main entry in my genealogy for Chabon’s novel would be a robust narrative like Saul Bellow’s American picaresque, The Adventures of Augie March. Chabon’s dialogue is often in the wisecracking tradition of Yiddish humor (the laconic style of Milt Gross rather than the rococo of S. J. Perelman -- e.g., the rabbi was “a fast-talking dandy who could not even raise a decent five o’clock shadow”; “In the canteen the role of creamed kidneys had been played by something called neeps, seethed in a cornstarch slurry.”
Moonglow is also the story of the making of a novelist, implicit throughout the narrative but tracked only very narrowly as Mike inherits his grandmother’s “legacy of voices.” It also pokes at the vexing question of fiction’s relationship to autobiography and to memoir. My only complaint is that Chabon’s America doesn’t display any colors: Chabon doesn’t see an America of color, perhaps as a recoil from his near-misstep into “Jewish blackness” in Telegraph Avenue.
Among the glories of Chabon’s fiction are the light touch of his writing, a vivid, soft surrealism -- “He remembered a shudder that she repressed, a smile that hung too long from the hooks of her face” -- the wild mix of his invention, and an honest, almost childlike admiration for his characters and their pain.
Marty Roth, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a retired American academic living in Vancouver. For the last ten years he has written for and helped to edit Canada’s Jewish Outlook. His most recent article for us was a review of Leon Barkan’s Berlin for Jews.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.