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Review: In Moonglow, Michael Chabon once again looks to the past

Michael Chabon

As we move forward in a new millennium, Michael Chabon continues to look to the past. His work has almost always offered an investigation into Jewish identity, specifically the experience and aftermath of the Holocaust; it was the unexpected interleaving of this history with the rise of the comics industry that made his strongest novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, feel weighty and particular.

In Moonglow, Chabon's latest novel, this journey into the past is deeply, directly personal. You could call it autofiction – the blurring of autobiography and fiction, memoir and novel, that's experiencing a surge in popularity. (Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard are among the writers who have published books in which the protagonists seem purposefully confusable with the authors and in which events feel less narrated than transcribed from life.)

Chabon's autofiction steeps the reader in family history. As a young man, having recently published his first book, a character named Michael Chabon sits at the bedside of his grandfather. The grandfather has never talked much about himself; "while he was a family man and loved us all in his wordless way, he was also, to the core, a solitary." Now, with death on the horizon, he opens up and shares his stories at last.

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To what extent these stories are true – and to what extent it matters – is left to the reader to judge. Moonglow opens with what looks like a real ad published in Esquire magazine in 1958 for a child's toy rocket, "The Missile You Can Fly!" The rocket is made by "Chabon Scientific," a company referenced later in the book, and the character named for Chabon shares all the known details of his life. But the novel also carries a disclaimer about the freedoms that have been taken with its material: "I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it."

The slippery intersection between truth and memory lies at the centre of the novel, which treats storytelling as a mechanism of healing – at times an inadequate one – from trauma. That trauma is personified by Chabon's grandmother, who lived through terrible events and did not emerge unscathed. As an adult, she traffics in magic, from reading tarot cards to sewing Halloween costumes to appearing as a witch on a local TV show. Beautiful and damaged, an unreliable narrator of her own experience, she's an emblem of the need for secrets and lies – in other words, stories – to help grapple with the hard realities of the world.

Her pain is important to Moonglow, but the novel's heart belongs to its hero, the grandfather. He's brusque, stoic and humorously deadpan, an everyman who is also larger than life. His marriage to Chabon's grandmother is passionate and enduring: "She was always threatening rain;" Chabon writes, "he had been born with an umbrella in his hand." The best sections of the book follow him (named only as "my grandfather") from his childhood in the slums of Philadelphia into the army and then to Europe during the war. A stint in prison is a vivid set piece, in which Chabon's trademark strengths – his ability to sketch indelible side characters who matter instantly, and to present dramatic scenes that are also quirky and emotive – are on full display.

Chabon's prose never falters, but the momentum of the book does. Moonglow devotes as many pages to the grandfather's old age as it does to his youth. A widower, he dates a little; he sort of hunts a snake. It's sweet, just not that interesting. Similarly, conversations between the young Chabon and his mother about family memory feel universal in a boring way, like looking at pictures of somebody else's vacation. There's a leaden earnestness to these sections, a quality of due diligence, that not even beautiful writing can overcome. Add to these the scenes of Chabon sitting by his grandfather's deathbed, eating soup, and the novel's pace slips into stasis.

A more satisfying narrative thread involves the V-2 rocket. The grandfather's fascination with space travel, and his wartime search for Wernher von Braun, become a moving and sorrowful meditation on the connection between scientific ambition and violence. "It turned out," Chabon discovers, "that the V-2 was not a means to liberate the human spirit from the chains of gravity; it was only a pretext for further enchainment." The idealized possibilities of technology, refracted through the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp and later, the Challenger explosion, turn dark.

Chabon's skill as a novelist has always been to sustain the charm of his characters even as he renders their tragic circumstances in detail; a winsome lightness in his books cuts through even the greatest calamities. In Moonglow, that light is burnished with nostalgia. Reading it is like looking at old magazine advertisements for once new-fangled gadgets. Now we can see how antique they are, how quaint, those items that gleamed with promise for the future to come.

Alix Ohlin's most recent books are the novel Inside, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the story collection Signs and Wonders.

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