V-2 into Space
- Moonglow by Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 448 pp, £18.99, January 2017, ISBN 978 0 00 754891 0
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.
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