by Michael Chabon.
HarperCollins, 448 pp., £18.99, January 2017, 978 0 00 754891 0
Show More
Show More

Every​ now and then a novelist produces a book that has a novelist at its centre, bearing his actual name (the condition affects males disproportionately) and drawing on aspects of his life that are in the public domain, while also exercising the freedom to invent. This isn’t done because of a shortage of real-world material, let alone from self-importance – it’s an investigation into the instability of genre and the shifting nature of literary truth. That’s the excuse, anyway. For a while in the 1980s it looked as if Philip Roth would never recover from this syndrome, this affliction of the desk-bound and lionised, and J.M. Coetzee too showed signs of becoming a chronic case. Now Michael Chabon has produced Moonglow, supposedly based on conversations from 1989 between a writer called Michael Chabon and his dying grandfather, an engineer for whom space travel in general and rockets in particular were an obsession.

Though under normal circumstances ‘my grandfather and his emotions were never really on speaking terms,’ he was disinhibited by the knowledge that time was short, and also perhaps by the medication he was prescribed to dull the pain of his bone cancer. He more than made up for his earlier reticence: ‘I remember my mother telling me,’ the narrator says, ‘that 50 per cent of a person’s medical expenses are incurred in the last six months of life. My grandfather’s history of himself was distributed even more disproportionately: 90 per cent of everything he ever told me about his life, I heard during its final ten days.’

Readers can cope with contrivances that don’t quite hang together, as long as the story is strong and the level of self-congratulation low. A footnote casting doubt on something in the text can have an odd substantiating effect, as this one does: ‘When I was in graduate school I was startled to find this story’s source in The John Collier Reader, – or so I have always believed until this afternoon, when I first riffled, then paged carefully, front to back, back to front, through the local copy (Knopf, 1972) and discovered no trace of such a story anywhere in the book.’ But over the long haul of a weighty book, the constant simultaneous emphasis on factuality and fictional status becomes irritating. To describe in great detail the dress of an unnamed woman with no part to play in the story (‘a shapeless knit pullover top, black-and-orange poppies on a white ground’) both reinforces and undermines the illusion, by providing a vivid image that the narrator’s grandfather couldn’t possibly have had time to pass on, if he even remembered it. And whether it’s to be taken as an astounding feat of memory or a very ordinary piece of invention, it doesn’t make a real contribution to the novel.

An escalation of bluff and double-bluff along these lines threatens to bury the whole enterprise under an avalanche of dead irony: ‘I began to research and write this memoir, abandoning – repudiating – a novelistic approach to the material. Sometimes even lovers of fiction can be satisfied only by the truth. I felt like I needed to “get my story straight”, so to speak, in my mind and in my heart.’ At the end of the book Chabon is still having his uncontagious fun, with a note crediting various sources (Walter Gates Gill, for instance, collection manager for the health branch of the New Jersey State Archives) who would have been helpful to the project ‘if they existed’.

There was no genetic link between the narrator and the man he called grandfather, since the French grandmother of ‘Michael Chabon’ had already had her only child, a daughter, by the time she met her husband in America after the war. The couple seem to express between them the whole horror of Europe in the 20th century: the number tattooed on her left forearm is one of the narrator’s earliest memories of her, and he, though Philadelphia-born, saw unspeakable things while serving in the OSS (forerunner of the CIA), on a mission to intercept the secrets of Nazi rocket science before the Russians could get to them.

In writing about the narrator’s grandfather Chabon adopts the convention that an engineer experiences emotion in an unemotional register, with plenty of technical vocabulary. So his overinvestment of feeling in the launch of a space shuttle is no more than ‘a seal to stop his heart against a leak of sorrow’ and a cheeky comment made by an attractive woman is ‘not a question but a laminate of implication and sass’. The contrast between a supposed emotional withdrawal and an intermittently look-at-me literary style can often be awkward: ‘He had never come closer in his life to something he was prepared to call happiness. But at the moment there was one set of y co-ordinates keeping my grandfather asymptotically from intersecting with that untouchable x axis.’ Only occasionally do these formulas yield anything eloquent, this one describing the now widowed grandfather’s resistance to sexual involvement: ‘Her death had left everything, not just the bed, half empty. A Sandra Gladfelter with her undoubted charms and her clean L’Air du Temps smell of carnations would only make the hole seem larger, like a human figure placed alongside a Titan rocket in a diagram to give a sense of the rocket’s scale.’

Moonglow starts with a dramatic incident from the 1950s (‘This is how I heard the story’) before explaining the deathbed-monologue premise, then flashes back to the grandfather’s childhood. There’s no linear organisation of the narrative: Chabon, uncharacteristically, plays around with chronology. It doesn’t suit him. He can’t find a structural substitute for sequence, and the tone wobbles wildly as a result. One story strand – concerning Sally Sichel, one of the grandfather’s neighbours in his Florida retirement village, and her missing cat, Ramon – is scattered across most of the book. It intersects nicely with the rockets-and-space-travel timeline, since the narrator’s grandfather hears Sally calling for her cat on the day of a space shuttle launch, the first since the Challenger disaster. Naturally the grandfather wants to witness this event, not merely watch it on television, and has packed his Buick LeSabre before dawn, ready for the trip to Cape Canaveral. There’s no shortage of detail, including the recipe for his favourite packed lunch of meat salad sandwiches.

Then he hears a voice calling ‘Ramon!’ and though the last thing he wants is any sort of hold-up (‘“God damn you, lady,” my grandfather said’), he can’t ignore her, stand-up guy that he is. A number of pets have gone missing, as it turns out, and a predator is suspected. In Florida an alligator is an obvious possibility, but Devaughn, the village’s night guard, dismisses the idea – ‘I know how a alligator bowel movement supposed to look.’ Devaughn thinks a boa constrictor is the most likely attacker, an exotic pet turned out into the wild and doing very well for itself. The grandfather misses the launch of Discovery, and his real discovery is Sally. The snake hunt is still going on 350 pages later, but these passages are an effort to read, not because they’re trivial and saccharine, though they are, but because they have nowhere to go. Twenty pages before Sally is introduced as a character the reader has been told that the grandfather had started an affair with a widowed artist before his illness was diagnosed, and that though sympathetic and concerned she wasn’t exactly eager to nurse him, having done her share of that with her husband. The snake hunt is essentially a shaggy-dog story, but even a shaggy-dog story – perhaps especially a shaggy-dog story – needs to hold out the promise of surprise.

The not-quite-grandfather of Moonglow makes a plea to his author: ‘I’m giving it [my life story] to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in a proper chronological order, not like this mish-mash I’m making you.’ He may only be a literary construct, but his instincts are sound. Postmodernism as Chabon practises it is a laminate of uncertainty and overconfidence, a formula for taking risks that is actually pretty safe. Think the jumbled chronology works? Great. Think it doesn’t? ‘My grandfather’ agrees with you. Win-win for the writer, not so much fun for the reader, whose doubts can’t be settled merely by their being anticipated.

The crucial event in the grandfather’s life was witnessing conditions at Nordhausen, where V-2s were built by a mainly Polish labour force conscripted from Buchenwald that was not only enslaved but worked to death. Before Nordhausen, he had visualised Wernher von Braun as a potential friend, ‘shy, professorial, wearing a cardigan’ perhaps, and as feeling sorry that his scientific breakthrough had been appropriated by the Nazis. He imagined them taking a motorcycle tour together around the autobahns of postwar Germany, ‘von Braun riding in the sidecar like a gentle-natured bear’. After seeing Nordhausen, and realising von Braun’s complicity in that atrocious project was total, he just wanted to kill him. Just hearing his grandfather mention the place is enough to alert the narrator to its significance: ‘At that moment I knew – knowing nothing – that it had been the worst place on earth. And a part of my nature that had lain dormant for a long time snapped open like an eye.’

Perhaps understandably, Chabon isn’t in a hurry for his narrative to get to the Ground Zero of Nordhausen, the place of devastation where meaning is destroyed. For scenes set in London and then Germany he adopts a tone of brittle comedy, perhaps approximating to the artificial high spirits of young men about to enter a war zone:

In the canteen at lunch today, in the maze of Great Cumberland Street where their mission was headquartered, the role of creamed kidneys had been played by something called neeps, seethed in a cornstarch slurry.

‘Best neeps yet, I thought,’ Aughenbaugh said.

‘The neeps were top-notch.’

‘I would have sworn those kidneys were unmock.’

‘Well, they use real urine,’ my grandfather said. ‘Gives it that tang.’

The effect of such passages is eerily like Gravity’s Rainbow rewritten by J.D. Salinger, and Pynchon and Salinger both haunt Moonglow. The strange prominence in a novel of pretended self-revelation of the two postwar writers who most insisted on keeping their lives private doesn’t seem to be making any particular point. Writers violated their own privacy long before Princess Diana thought of doing so, but now it seems they have no real alternative. It’s more practical to surround the facts with factoids, the news with fake news, than to try keeping information out of the public domain altogether.

Salinger features first as a totem rather than a text, with the narrator (having recommended ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ to his daughter) looking for his copy of Nine Stories, on the inside cover of which he had made a list of the James Bond-style gadgets his grandfather had developed before being deployed in Europe. The book is there but the inside cover is blank, the tiny mystery solved when he works out that he and his first wife both had a copy of the book, and had inadvertently swapped copies when they divided up their effects at the end of the marriage: ‘I had lost to estrangement and carelessness the only document I possessed of the week I am trying to reconstruct.’ He has to rely on memory to retrieve such inventions as magnetic paint and ‘whizzite’, a compound that will destroy a vehicle’s fuel tank once activated by an agent’s urine.

Two hundred pages later, the book reappears, with the added information of a link between Sergeant X, the protagonist of ‘For Esmé’, often assumed to be a self-portrait of Salinger, and the narrator’s grandfather: ‘I had never thought of my grandfather as a man suffering from lingering effects of the condition his generation called “combat fatigue”. And yet Salinger’s story seemed to offer an explanation for something about my grandfather that must have felt to me, always, like it needed to be explained.’ Salinger not only saw action (on Utah Beach and in the Battle of the Bulge), he also entered a newly liberated concentration camp.

There is cuteness in Salinger but it’s disguised rather than paraded. It’s not easy to say the same about Chabon’s section set in Germany:

Sometimes they would roll into a town or village so hard on the heels of the armour and infantry that they encountered people uninstructed on the difference between liberation and surrender. An old man in a clock tower with a deer rifle, say, or five murderous Boy Scouts sharing a burp gun, or the last joker in town with a death’s-head on his hatband, insisting with tedious punctilio on standing them to a round of pointless slaughter. Lives and time would be lost trying to clarify the matter.

One such diehard shoots an American in the foot with a bow and arrow. The grandfather works out which window he’s firing from and waits for him to try again, then shoots. The archer tumbles onto the cobblestones, where he lies twisted ‘into a swastika’.

A priest appears and gives the dying man the last rites. The grandfather is strangely touched: ‘Watching the old priest comfort the dying man in low, musical Latin, my grandfather felt some inner tether come unleashed. His cheeks burned. His eyes stung. For the first and only time in his life, he felt the beauty that inhered in the idea of Jesus Christ, in the message of comfort that had managed to survive, reasonably intact, despite having been so thoroughly corrupted and profaned over the past two thousand years by Christians.’ The priest offers the American party hospitality. When it’s pointed out to him that they are still enemies, he replies that ‘a priest could not have enemies any more than a hog butcher could be a vegetarian,’ a rather baffling attempt at epigram that contains both cuteness and schmaltz.

Unable to sleep, the grandfather finds Father Nickel star-watching. The affinities between the two men come crowding in. They have both seen and been stirred by Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Frau im Mond. Father Nickel even wrote to the Curia asking for doctrinal clarification of the spiritual status of extraterrestrial beings: ‘When we speak of Rex mundi or Salvator mundi, is it to be made explicit, or is it already implied, that we intend to say Salvator mundorum?’ He admits to his new friend that he wasn’t acting in good faith when he sought a ruling about dogma. ‘My calling to the priesthood came only in my twenties. A trip to the moon is something I have longed for all my life!’ The grandfather laughs, in a way that the priest takes as mocking until he learns better. ‘My grandfather saw moonlight welling in the old priest’s eyes. He put a hand on Father Nickel’s shoulder. “The only difference between you and me, Father,” my grandfather said, “is that I never wrote it all down.”’

When the priest offers to share a treasure with the grandfather, an intact V-2, Chabon can express what may be for him the heart of the book:

In children’s drawings, all houses have chimneys, all monkeys eat bananas, and every rocket is a V-2 … By the time I became conscious of rockets – and I grew up at the height of the space race, surrounded by … photographs and drawings of Saturns and Atlases and Aerobees and Titans – they had progressed well beyond von Braun’s early masterwork, in design as in power, size and capacity. But it was a V-2 that would carry me into the outer space of a fairground ride, that labelled the spines of the public library’s science fiction collection. A V-2 was the ‘weenie’ or visual anchor of Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland. In the V-2, form and purpose were united, as with a knife, a hammer, or some other fundamental human tool. You understood what it could do. As soon as you saw a V-2, you knew what it was for. It was a tool for defeating gravity, for escaping the confines of earth.

There’s more than enough here for an instructive blog post, but it’s hopelessly lacking as the power source for a substantial novel.

Having​ proposed the experience as breaking its main character’s whole life in two, Chabon’s big book can hardly avoid describing Nordhausen, and yet it does. The grandfather says nothing about it, because ‘when it came to things that needed to be said, speech was always preferable to silence, but it was of no use at all in the presence of the unspeakable.’ Yet Moonglow has trafficked freely in what people of the previous generations regarded as unspeakable, such as the details of the grandfather’s sex life, starting with a hermaphrodite encountered in his youth: ‘She hoisted the hem of the tartan robe, opened her legs, and spread them wide. The pale band of belly, the shock of dark fur, the pink of her labia would endure in his memory, flying like a flag, until he died.’ This unspeakability can be made or allowed to speak, though its explicitness makes no actual contribution to the book. Nordhausen is in another category.

There’s any amount of debate about whether detailed descriptions of atrocity have a searing (and necessary) effect, or whether they produce only numbness and despair. Perhaps they even contaminate. That’s the argument of ‘Lesson 6: The Problem of Evil’, part of Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a book that is probably easiest to categorise as non-non-fiction. This is the other side of the postmodernist coin (the coin that calls all value into question). As well as writing novels that contain a character sharing some of the author’s characteristics, such as his initials and some circumstances – in Diary of a Bad Year – or his full name and large tracts of his life in Summertime, Coetzee writes combative essays in the persona of a fictional novelist very different from him: Elizabeth Costello. This second procedure seems as liberating for the reader as the first (the method of Moonglow) is essentially claustrophobic. It’s hard to accept the existence of a conviction separate from a personality, so the best way to have an argument properly scrutinised is not to put the explicit weight of your personality behind it, but to disembody then re-embody what you want to say.

Elizabeth Costello’s argument addresses Paul West’s 1980 novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, which left her feeling tainted, ‘the obscene touch of West’s book was still rank upon her … Obscene: not just the deeds of Hitler’s executioners, not just the deeds of the blockman, but the pages of Paul West’s black book too. Scenes that do not belong in the light of day, that the eyes of maidens and children deserve to be shielded from.’ The deliberate off-note of ‘maidens and children’, perhaps obliquely connected to the ‘wives and servants’ who should be protected from literary soiling according to the prosecution in the Lady Chatterley trial, shows the sophistication of this literary performance.

Costello found West’s book too powerful, too convincing in its immediacy: ‘Where could West have got his information? Could there really have been witnesses who went home that night and, before they forgot, before memory, to save itself, went blank, wrote down, in words that must have scorched the page, an account of what they had seen, down to the words the hangman spoke to the souls consigned to his hands?’ It wasn’t perversity, necessarily, that led me to read West’s novel on Coetzee’s anti-recommendation – it seemed fair enough to test the argument on the example given. Though I found The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg remarkable and even magnificent, I didn’t register this as a refutation of Coetzee or Costello, whose argument amounts less to a manifesto about the representation of evil than to a very sharp examination of attitudes. It seemed to me that the objections to West’s novel had not merely been defensively anticipated, à la Moonglow, as part of a formal game that only mimics reflexiveness, but had been met in advance. Coetzee-Costello’s paraphrase of the execution scene is actually more unbearable to read than the original.

West created a small but sufficient space for the reader’s psychological survival by choosing to narrate from the point of view of Count von Stauffenberg, and continuing to do so after the count’s death, right on to the end of the book:

Students in sunglasses, with notepads and cameras, invade the courtyard, eyeing the plaque which commemorates those shot here soon after midnight on 20 July. I had a lovely office here, with French windows and a parquet floor … Out go the students, disappointed, into the street I haunt. ‘He was only in his forties,’ babbles one, having read something somewhere. I was not even 37. Away they go. These too are among the deaths a hero dies. There is nothing to see, whereas over at Plötzensee the death shed stands, a shrine, near which the bereaved gather once a year to dream the heroic agony anew.

It turns out that there are many ways of negotiating the demands of the unspeakable, of trying to represent it, failing to, refusing to, but Chabon chooses one of the strangest, by delegating the depiction of atrocity to another novel. He provides only a brief summary of conditions at Nordhausen (‘Discipline was severe and the guards bestial’) with a few literary touches added: ‘The dead ranged in corduroy roads to the vanishing point, bone-men slumped and staring.’ When the narrator presses his grandfather for a first-hand account he doesn’t get very far. ‘“You want to know what happened at Nordhausen?” he said in his regular rasp. “Look it up.”’ Textually he’s not referring to Gravity’s Rainbow, a book the narrator is fairly certain his grandfather never opened, but really that’s exactly what he’s doing. Look it up. Read Pynchon: for his account of Nordhausen, seen from both the German and American points of view; for his wilder and more demanding brand of postmodernism. As ‘Michael Chabon’ says of his own researches, ‘beyond the Pynchon there was not a lot.’

Chabon’s feeling about Salinger seems straightforward admiration, his relationship with Pynchon much more conflicted. The narrator of Moonglow first read Gravity’s Rainbow as part of a seminar at UC Irvine on the modern novel, and returns to the book after his grandfather’s revelations. He praises the accuracy of Pynchon’s research but gives no literary assessment of the novel, either from the first-reading perspective of a graduate student or the published novelist who returns to it. Yet he can’t leave it alone, referring to the book’s epigraph without quoting it, as if to send his readers to it despite himself. The epigraph is from a short piece by Wernher von Braun that was published in 1962: ‘Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.’ In later life von Braun became increasingly religious and would pray for the success of rocket launches.

The epigraph of Moonglow is also supposedly from Wernher von Braun: ‘There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.’ The accredited source of the quotation is actually the track ‘Eclipse’ at the end of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, released in 1973 – Gravity’s Rainbow’s year of publication. Von Braun himself appears in a low-key scene towards the end of Moonglow, at the Twelfth Space Congress, held in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where he is given the first Saturn Medal (‘for significant contribution by an individual who has helped mankind to aim for the stars’). When he heard of the proposed award, the narrator’s grandfather began an open letter to the bulletin of the Space Congress, providing ‘an account of the things he had witnessed at Nordhausen’, but abandoned the attempt, not because it was unbearable to remember or impossible to express the unspeakable but because there was no point. Von Braun’s Nazi past wasn’t a secret by 1975, and ‘nobody wanted to hear that America’s ascent to the Moon had been made with a ladder of bones.’ The grandfather boycotts the prizegiving, volunteering to mind the displays in the deserted exhibition hall next door, separated from the banquet room only by ‘an accordion wall of carpeted beige panels’. He thinks depressed thoughts about the implications of the award, concluding that ‘in a fundamental way both proved and exemplified by the spectacular postwar ascent of Wernher von Braun, Nazi Germany had won the war.’ At this point von Braun enters the exhibition hall by way of a door in the carpeted wall, in need of a bathroom break, and urinates in a terracotta pot holding a ficus plant. Only afterwards does he notice the narrator’s grandfather. Stiffly at first, the two men begin to talk.

It may be that this scene is influenced by the famous one in Michael Mann’s Heat, set in a coffee shop, where Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, policeman and gangster respectively, take a break from their total war and find some conversational common ground. Von Braun admires the model rockets and lunar capsules made by the narrator’s grandfather. Yet Chabon, having set up the scene, keeps intervening to manipulate the reader. Before the two men start talking, he tips the balance strongly against von Braun, describing him appraising the exhibits ‘as though he intended to loot them or have them demolished’. He is mocked for the thin urine stream he produces from his ‘pallid old nozzle’, even though the narrator’s grandfather is described, one elderly man witnessing the weakness of another, as experiencing an automatic pity. Having set up his muffled drama, Chabon doesn’t let it play out. Von Braun’s ability to get involved in a conversation about scale models is held against him: ‘He seemed to have forgotten that only two minutes before, my grandfather had caught him pissing into a potted ficus. He was a past master, after all, in the art of expedient forgetting.’ But von Braun isn’t the only one. Chabon has his narrator’s grandfather conclude that ‘there was no getting away from the fact that, thanks to von Braun’s unrelenting ambition, only one nation in the whole of human history had left its flag, not to mention a pair of golf balls, on the Moon.’ This passage comes two pages after the flat assertion that ‘he disdained patriotism,’ three after the comment about the ladder of bones. It turns out that a ladder of bones is as good as any other.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences