Late in his new novel, “Moonglow,” Michael Chabon describes the surreal, hastily-constructed lunar landscape of a play produced at a mental hospital. The set is clearly absurd – it’s mostly tinfoil – but it still exudes some sourceless magic. “And yet the foil shone in the subaqueous light,” Chabon writes. “The coat racks raising their jubilant arms and the bouquets of kitchen implements had the incongruous dignity of homely things.”
“Moonglow” is a novel of homely things. It starts and ends at a deathbed. Yes, it winds through the miraculous start of the space age, a Nazi hunt in World War II Germany, a genteel New York prison, an attempted bombing, and a Florida snake hunt. Still, those sequences primarily serve as accents to the book’s real substance: its protagonist’s relationships, which Chabon depicts with a wistful tenderness.
That particular intimacy marks, for Chabon, a quietly dramatic shift. It’s one that was intentional – more on that later – but still, for its author, surprising. “I realized that I had, completely inadvertently and in ways that are kind of cryptic – that would possibly only be apparent to me and maybe to my wife – written a kind of self-portrait,” he told me.
Chabon’s previous novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” have tended toward the gleefully ornate, their details almost larger than life. The musical preoccupations of 2012’s “Telegraph Avenue,” for instance, are as obsessive as detail comes, but in a way that feels slightly extra-human. The average person, and I’d guess, in fact, the average record-store owner, doesn’t know the record label and release date of every album that passes through his hands.
“There’s less of that sort of intoxication or drunkenness of other books,” Chabon said of “Moonglow,” not especially sheepishly. In language and image, the book reflects its protagonist, a man whose defining quality is, perhaps, restraint. Chabon’s language is still far from simple – see “subaqueous” – but the workaday detail of “Moonglow” is something new. Goodbye to the flash of comics and the crash bang of jazz; hello to an aging man sitting on hot asphalt, mourning the loss of his wife, examining the lid of a coffee cup.
“Moonglow” opens forcefully, as its central character, the narrator’s grandfather, attempts to strangle his boss, who has just fired him to open a job for alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss. It’s a remarkably vivid sequence, mostly because it’s executed with restraint. Released from the grandfather’s garrote, the almost-dead man gasps for air. “When his face had hit the floor, he’d bitten his lower lip, and now his teeth were dyed pink,” Chabon writes.
That striking detail helps introduce a question that guides the book: What is fact and what fiction? “Moonglow” is the story of the narrator’s grandfather’s life. Chabon tells it through what he calls a “double bottleneck,” as the narrator – named, by the way, Michael Chabon – retells the stories his grandfather told him in the week before his death.
We’re led to understand that Chabon the narrator is assembling his grandfather’s story many years after he heard it; the novel is sprinkled with footnotes and asides from the narrator’s own later research. Do we really believe the grandfather would either remember or mention that his intended victim’s teeth were dyed pink? Do we believe the grandson would remember this description, in its specificity? Maybe. Maybe not.
The vagaries of the “Moonglow” conceit – a novel billed as a memoir that, narrated by a man who shares the actual author’s name, tells the story of an entirely different man – clearly fills Chabon with glee.
“The battery driving this book is this very question of the relationship between truth and fiction,” he said.
“I started with this actual family story of an uncle, one of my grandfather’s brothers, who had supposedly and legendarily been fired from a job to make room for Alger Hiss,” Chabon said. He told me that he usually starts a novel after spending a long time mulling over its conceit, but “Moonglow” arrived with no premeditation. Chabon said he was interested in writing a book that covered a single life, and he decided to do so through the eyes of a narrator who wasn’t the protagonist – but was close to him.
“I very rapidly moved into another true life, factual element, which was the idea of the story of the book as the grandfather lying dying in a hospital bed in Oakland, California,” Chabon said. “That happened with me and my grandfather.”
In “Moonglow,” the narrator’s unnamed grandfather pours out the story of his life, which is extravagant enough to sound like the plot of another “Kavalier and Clay.” (See: Nazi hunt, snake hunt, attempted bombing.) Chabon said the two are “on the same branch of the family tree.” But where “Kavalier and Clay” pulses with the energy of young men, always on the cusp, “Moonglow” is an older writer’s book.
“I was trying to convey on some level, even through the narrator, the character and the personality and the taciturnity of the grandfather,” Chabon said. “I went for something that had this kind of mid-century modern quality to it, not devoid of color at all, just spare and lean and focused the way that this man, the grandfather, was his entire life.”
The extravagances Chabon does include in “Moonglow” have a notably close relationship with the book’s attention to the homely. The two often intermingle; the sequence of the Nazi hunt, for instance, revolves around a placid evening the grandfather spends eating soup and stargazing with an elderly German priest.
Notably, the grandfather’s adventures also tend to quietly taper off, falling just short of their expected climaxes. That’s not necessarily disappointing, but it does create a sense of narrative discomfort; surely, a clearer, more satisfying conclusion must be coming. Chabon encourages these often-thwarted expectations by shaping the narrative to wind between stories, revisiting them periodically. Spoiler alert: It takes the entire novel for the grandfather not to kill that snake.
It’s also assisted by the book’s preoccupation with rockets of all sizes and intentions: toys, weapons, space-bound mammoths, some that never launch, some that hit their target, some that explode short of their destination. The novel is the story of clearly imagined journeys that are then impeded. At some point, unconsciously, the reader learns not to expect completion.
That persistent incompleteness carries over to the objects of the novel that, as representatives of its protagonist’s life, are most prominent. The coffee-cup lid becomes the catalyst that marks the start, after months of mourning, of the grandfather’s new life without his wife. It is also an object set adrift from the companion that completes it.
Thus it goes with much of the imagery of “Moonglow.” The lid of the coffee cup tells little of its base, and less of the moon colony model of which it eventually becomes a part. The grandfather’s cigarette lighter is significant because it’s been separated from its original owner; a photo of the narrator’s mother gains meaning when the reader learns the identity of the person she’s glowering at in it; the grandfather assembles model rockets out of parts pillaged from various kits, separating pieces that were intended to fit exactly together.
These separations are natural, yet still they set the world askew. All stories worth telling are at their hearts mysteries, a search for missing pieces. This is true of both fact and fiction, a point the book deftly makes by the sly counterpoint of those categories. In “Moonglow,” Chabon has taken on that search with a quiet, cosmic playfulness. Once he starts the different narratives, they exist in a sort of antigravity, waiting patiently for him to find their other halves and pin them down. He floats from each to each, ending all, resolving only some.
When a rocket launches, it sheds parts to mediate its flight. When a life ends, it leaves behind its stories. At some point, they will all begin to sound like fiction. What Chabon sees in “Moonglow” is a certain beauty in that transition, the shedding of original context.
“It’s about what happens to information, to stories in families, and the stories that get told, and the way in which they get told,” he said, “the way they get codified and ossified over the years, the lies that are told in place of truths and then somehow become the truth.”