It seems that 2017 is the year my TBR jar decided to focus on Michael Chabon as it has chosen three of his books : Telegraph Avenue ,which I liked but found too Pynchonesque, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I found clever more than anything else and Moonglow, which could possibly be my favourite book of his after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
The plot itself is simple: Michael Chabon visits his cancer ridden grandfather during the last week of his life. As a final confession Michael’s grandfather, maternal side, tells him the major events of his life. This being a Chabon book though, nothing is straightforward.
What the reader gets is a non chronological series of events which interconnect through tiny details which reoccur throughout the narrative. As such each major event spreads over a three chapter arc, then moves on to another arc and then moves on to another memory and then Chabon returns to the memory and concludes it and then slyly referencing it in other chapters. The major events are The Grandfather’s childhood, his time as an engineer in the army, his marriage to Chabon’s mother and then his life in a retirement community. Along the way Chabon drops hints on what influenced his grandfather and shaped his destiny, the title in fact is about his grandfather’s fascination with space travel, something which was influential during his life as a wartime engineer.
It does sound complex but once the first few chapters are read, it’s really just a matter of connecting the dots and noticing details that were mentioned in previous chapters. It’s a fun playful read in that aspect. Saying that there is one aspect of the plot which takes this novel out from being just a stylistic exercise.
One section which dominates the novel, not only through an extensive arc, but is constantly referred to is the grandfather’s marriage to Chabon’s grandmother, who suffered from a mental illness. A lot of Moonglow goes into the roots of her illness, the breakdown, rehabilitation and the after effects it left on Chabon’s grandfather and mother. In the process Chabon reveals some secrets that come as a complete surprise. Whether this is true or not it is a harrowing part of Moonglow but it is also the highlight. Funnily enough I never knew Chabon could write about madness with such poignancy.
Without a doubt, out of the four Chabon novels I have read, Moonglow is the most human one. There are lots of touching moments, especially in the last few chapters when the grandfather finds love again. Personally this is an aspect I feel that Chabon should focus on more as he does it well AND at the same time manages to maintain the experimental feel that he is known for. I can’t say that Moonglow is a masterpiece due to the fact that it takes some time for the reader to get into it but it is pretty close to being one.