By Michael Chabon
All Posts Contain Spoilers
I am, essentially, an adult toddler. I sleep whenever and wherever I please (I am particularly prone to falling asleep in moving vehicles); if permitted, I wear pajamas almost exclusively, and I routinely eat Oreos for dinner.
There are very few areas of my life upon which I choose to exercise any amount of discipline at all, but my reading is one of them. And, like any disciplined person, I have goals which must be met, rules which must be followed. One of the most important rules is this: if I start a book, I finish it. It doesn’t matter how long the book is, or how much I hate it, or how bad I believe it to be – if I start reading a book, I must finish.
There are a number of reasons why I do this, why I believe that this makes me a better reader, but the most important is this: you just never know. Books are like people: they surprise you. Like people, some seem at first as though they are going to be your great and true friends, and then turn around one day and betray you with their badness. And, like people, some books make a poor first impression, but turn out on longer acquaintance to be wonderful.
Even allowing for this normal possibility, ‘Moonglow‘ is unusual. It is rare that it takes me 575 pages to discover that I love a book. But that was the case with this book, a book that I was only kind of enjoying until, on page 575, I was struck dumb with love, by a footnote of all things. Perhaps the best way to describe it is: this book ‘When Harry Met Sally’ed me. I thought we were just friends, and then, one day, on page 575, I discovered that I had loved it all along.
‘Moonglow‘ is a fictionalized memoir (it’s helpfully titled ‘Moonglow: A Novel’ to help you avoid confusion), an insipid genre which I usually avoid. I made an exception because, as a younger reader, I really enjoyed a few of Chabon’s novels (especially his most famous, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay‘, which I believe I read three times between the ages of 12 and 15). ‘Moonglow’ is the life story of the grandfather of a writer named Michael Chabon, revealed to the narrator in the last few weeks of his grandfather’s life and augmented by the narrator’s own memories and the reminiscences of his mother (oh, is that not clear? That’s part of what I object to about “fictionalized memoirs”, the fact that they force you to contort in strange ways, to say things like “the grandfather of a writer named Michael Chabon” instead of just saying “Michael Chabon’s grandfather”, because apparently the “Michael Chabon” who narrates this book only shares a strange and mysterious, ‘fictionalized’, resemblance with the “real” Michael Chabon, which is completely daft).
Lives aren’t really “about” anything, but memoirs are, and ‘Moonglow‘ is about love and horror and madness and war. It’s about Chabon’s grandmother, the faithful devotion of his grandfather to her and the psychosis which dogged her to her own death, and it is about his mother, the ways in which her upbringing hardened her. It’s about fear and insanity and the ways in which we can pass these along to each other, in our genes and in our love.
And then, sometimes, at its periphery or in strange, short bursts, it’s about Chabon (“Chabon”) himself.
It is during one of these moments that I realized that I loved this book. When his mother had a miscarriage, Chabon went to stay for a few days with his grandparents, whose house terrified him at night because of the presence, in a hatbox in the closet, of a set of French hand puppets. Chabon believed, apparently quite literally, that these puppets meant him harm, and their presence in the house oppressed him (I do not mean to deride this belief in any way – puppets are sinister and I wouldn’t sleep in a room with them now). Chabon is, nevertheless, quite funny on the point, even while he describes “the raucous voice”, in his imagination, of the puppet telling him that his mother has surely died.
Then, in a footnote, he says,
“I still hear that raucous voice; I hear a hatbox full of voices. They bubble up from a crack in my brain, dark mutterings, shouts, and low reproaches that fall just short of sense, intruding on my thoughts almost any time I’m alone in a quiet room, working on a task that requires a certain focus – when I’m drawing, cooking, soldering a circuit, assembling a toy. When I’m writing, I never hear the hatbox voices; I hear some other voice.” (p. 575)
And, when I read that, several things happened to me all at once.
- The four lives braided together in this book became, in an instant, one story, blended and coherent and moving, and convincing whether or not they are “true”.
- I connected with Chabon the narrator in a way which would not have been possible if he were entirely fictional. That’s a little convoluted, so let me put it another way: that foot-noted moment, that present-tense interjection, caused me to feel that I understood and cared about the person I believed was the author of this book, in the present, because I believed that he was a real person. And I believed that because I believed, in some fundamental way, that that footnote was true.
- I realized that this is why people like fictionalized memoirs, or faux-autobiographies, or whatever you want to call this kind of book: they allow you to connect with a human story as though it were real without troubling yourself about verifiable specifics. My heart could hurt for the mad grandson of a mad woman without needing to know whether Michael Chabon is that grandson, because madness is real and inheritance is real, too, and there is a madman somewhere to hurt for.
575 pages is, I am aware, quite an investment to make on faith. And I don’t mean to imply that ‘Moonglow‘ is boring up to page 575 – it isn’t at all. On the contrary, it is entertaining and absorbing, well-structured and unusual. This won’t surprise anyone who has read Chabon’s other books – he’s a very good storyteller, has a real knack for pacing and character. There was no reason he would not bring these skills to bear on his “memoir”.
If you had asked me on page 574, I would probably have recommended ‘Moonglow‘ in a yeah-why-not sort of way. I would have said that it was pretty good, not as good as ‘Kavalier & Clay‘ or ‘Wonder Boys‘, but not at all dull, worth the time.
But I wouldn’t have said that it was beautiful, or moving, and now, after page 575, I believe that it is those things. Or, at least, it is those things for me.