Afamily can be a riddle that takes whole lifetimes to solve. That's certainly the case in "Moonglow," Michael Chabon's heady quasi-autobiographical new novel, a picaresque yet sobering tale that unfolds on two continents and encompasses close to a century of family legend and lore. With gusto, it takes on wartime trauma, mental illness, business boondoggles, Space Age obsessions, and hungry Florida wildlife. It examines the ties and barriers between parent, child, grandparent and grandchild, scrutinizing the social pressures that shape them.
The result is the Pulitzer Prize winner's most probing and substantial book yet.
Chabon ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," "The Yiddish Policemen's Union") takes his inspiration from his grandfather and great uncle who, at the end of their lives, revealed some of their personal history to him. In a recent interview, Chabon was guarded about how much of the book is fact and how much is fiction. But the distinction between the two scarcely matters. More important is Chabon's understanding of how family histories can be caught in the pincers of greater historical events.
"Moonglow" has a narrator, a young novelist named "Mike Chabon," but he keeps a low profile through most of the book. The novel is a far cry from the self-conscious did-he-or-didn't-he games that Paul Theroux and Martin Amis sometimes play in their fiction. Instead, Mike is a guileless and sometimes clumsy soul trying to parse the "patrimony of secrets" his family has bequeathed him. His source for most of his information is his heavily medicated grandfather who, on his deathbed, lets his grandson in on "his misadventures, his ambiguous luck, his feats and failures of timing and nerve."
The man has led quite a life. It includes military service during World War II, both on the home front (where he and a pal cooked up a scheme to show how vulnerable Washington, D.C., was to attack) and in Europe (where one of his missions, as he moved through the ruins of Nazi Germany, was to capture rocket technologist Wernher von Braun before the Russians could recruit him to their side in the arms race). "Grandfather" — he's never given a name — has also done jail time for an assault in the workplace when he was about to be fired. In later life, he becomes a valuable asset to NASA for the fantastically intricate models of rockets and moon colonies he makes.
As vivid a character as he is, he's not the main focus of inquiry in "Moonglow." That role belongs to his wife, a beautiful Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied France whom he married a few years after the war. Mike's grandmother is an actress and storyteller/fortuneteller subject to periodic mental breakdowns that land her in psychiatric wards. She's a mercurial soul haunted by a specter she calls the "Skinless Horse." For her husband, she calls into question the very notion of coherent personality.
"Maybe 'self' was a free variable with no bounded value," Mike's grandfather reflects early in their courtship. "Maybe every time you met her, she would be somebody else."
While their love isn't in doubt, their psychological make-ups couldn't be more different.
"My grandfather and his emotions," Mike notes, "were never really on speaking terms." That could be why, in marrying this woman and taking responsibility for her young daughter (Mike's future mother), he believes he can "mend what the war had broken."
Pivoting off the grandfather's tales, the book jumps back and forth in time, ranging from the Great Depression to the present day, with many stops in between. Chabon's maximalist prose style occasionally feels like overkill (not to mention a Yiddish vocabulary tutorial), but more often is integral to the rich fabric of the book. His descriptions have a fanciful flair, whether he's evoking war bomb sites ("Smoke had left the eye sockets of houses with black eyebrows of astonishment") or the 95-degree swelter of a Florida retirement community ("[A] million insects played a one-note tone poem entitled 'Heat' ").
Mike, although he's a fiction writer, tells us that in researching and writing this "memoir," he is "abandoning — repudiating — a novelistic approach to the material." He likes to use footnotes to offer corrections or updates to the episodes on the page above. His childhood memories of his parents and grandparents offer a boy's perspective on the later events his grandfather recounts.
"I was aware," Mike tells us, "that in some remote age, my grandmother had been a source of fire, madness, and poetry, but those days were misty legend; one could only infer them from traces in the geological record. In my family, in my lifetime, we preferred to leave the business of feeling, and talking about feeling, to people with nothing better to do."
The grown-up Mike naturally rebels against this. "I believed that a secret was like a malignancy," he declares, "and confession a knife." But as the book progresses, he comes to recognize that his grandfather has his own notions of when it's best to leave the full story in the shadows.
Uncomfortable truths haunt the history of this family and their world. This is where von Braun, who was instrumental in building both Germany's lethal V2 rockets and NASA's moon-bound rocket ships, enters the picture. "Nobody wanted to hear," Mike remarks on the Nazi bomb factories's slave-labor conditions, "that America's ascent to the Moon had been made with a ladder of bones."
Throughout the book the moon, in all its phases, shines down on the action or withholds its light. It even provides a soundtrack in the form of Glenn Miller's "Moonglow," with Miller making a cameo appearance in wartime London.
As Mike confronts his family's secrets, trying to sort fiction from real-life nightmare, Chabon nails the essence of how memory and denial can be intimately interwoven. Sometimes, he concedes, choosing not to know all the facts may be the only viable way to keep moving through life.
By Michael Chabon
Harper, 430 pp., $28.99
Novelist Michael Upchurch ("Passive Intruder") is the former Seattle Times book critic.