Thursday, September 27, 2018

Final Installment, Summer of Chabon: Moonglow

I chose Moonglow as the final novel for my summer of reading only books by Michael Chabon. Dutiful readers of this blog will recall that I took a break to cleanse my palette with some short stories somewhere in late August, but mostly, these four Chabon novels were the only fiction I’ve ingested for the past several months: Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Telegraph Avenue, and Moonglow.
To start. It’s amazing to me how different each of these books were, and how varied my reactions could be to writing by the same author. I suppose experiencing an author’s oeuvre, in broad view, is much like looking at a person’s life: a series of changing influences and expressions, many years divided into sections, one person seemingly many different people at different times.
So. How would you begin to tell the story of a life? What if that life was inextricably tied to yours, while you were growing and changing and becoming new versions of yourself all the time? What if you love the person, and that colors your perspective? What if you’re a writer of fiction by birth, and your world is further colored and texturized by your impulse to create and find meaning? What if the person whose story you want to tell is leaving you, and you must face the abyss that will follow your telling?
This seems to be the task Michael Chabon set for himself with Moonglow, after he spent a week with his dying grandfather, who, in his last days, told many anecdotes from his life. Spending these final moments with his grandfather became the spark for this novel, which reads in many ways like a memoir and which has inspired endless debate as to its genre. People want to know: Which parts are true? Why didn’t he just tell the story from his grandfather’s point of view? How could he possibly know or remember some of those details?
My book club was no different; they had questions. I chose this for our September read and we discussed it last night. Being a writer, I think I have more patience than perhaps others do for matters of genre. I’m usually content to let a book be whatever it is. I don’t really care what a book might be called, and while I was reading Moonglow, I didn’t really care what was true and what wasn’t. I was happy to follow along with whatever Chabon intended. It was full of tender, relatable moments and vivid details that resonated and in the end, it struck me as a work of incredible love, of conscientious reverence, of grudging and precocious creativity. And what memoir is entirely true anyway? We tell our own stories from the limits of our singular viewpoint, perspective and memory, and telling the story of someone else introduces more levels, more gaps, more subjective interpretation.
As for plot, Moonglow unfolds as a narrator, “Mike,” spends time with his grandfather near the end of the old man’s life. The grandfather tells about his time in the war and brushes with the law, his intellectual obsessions, and the complicated marriage he shared with the narrator’s grandmother. If anything, it’s an exercise of speculation, as the narrator expands the stories into realms he cannot have witnessed. The story has a timeline of sorts, but it jumps around in time and place. With this, the book club also took issue. Perhaps in this regard, the novel could be considered a bit messy. But again, I have more patience with that, I think. Life strikes me as a very messy business, not always lining up in an orderly queue of experiences. Even in this occasional haphazardness, I felt the deep chord of truth. What can I say? I got the feels from Moonglow and I found myself thinking about my relatives who have passed and the stories they told, and the pictures and memorabilia that remain, and the deep, deep grooves they left in the road of my life, my story. If I were to try to tell the story of any of them—of my recently-passed mother, say—I think it would be much like this: things she said, things I remember, things I make up in my head. It seems to me all fiction may fall into this very category, one universal genre, and I’ll be thinking about Michael Chabon’s contribution to it for a good, long while.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka