2016, pp. 449, $28.99
Snakes, Skulls and Corpses
by Emily Barton
Michael Chabon’s first published works, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and A Model World, were realist, lovely and a little dull with caution. Chabon himself describes his early work as “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew,” which sums up many of the short stories that descend from Raymond Carver’s working-class minimalism on one side and James Joyce’s knockout final images on the other. (Generations of writing students have similarly come up short when trying to generate an ending as good as that of Joyce’s short story, “The Dead.”) Wonder Boys was similar, if more madcap.
Then, two things happened: Chabon began writing about Jewish subject matter, and he admitted to his inner geekiness. When I first read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, I felt gobsmacked that anyone would so fearlessly revel in his interest in comics outside of a fan group, and even more so that he spoke openly about Jewish mysticism in the mainstream literary world (which, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick aside, I understood to be majority goyish). Unlike Chabon’s earlier books, Kavalier & Clay crackles with plot, small-scale revelation and operatic action. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union made Kavalier & Clay look almost staid by comparison. In the novel’s plot and the details of its world, you see Chabon taking both Judaism and what it means to write fiction with a 50/50 mix of utter seriousness and total, offhand delight. Telegraph Avenue reverted to a realist style, though its gleeful fascination with scenes like the jazz funeral seems to have benefited from the writer’s long diversion into the weird.
Chabon’s new novel, Moonglow, blends the two styles while departing from both. The book frames itself as a second-hand memoir: A World War II veteran grandfather keeps quiet about his lifetime of adventures but, on his deathbed and under the influence of Dilaudid, confesses them all to his grandson… who happens to be the novelist Michael Chabon, this book’s only named main character. Moonglow interweaves three stories: the deathbed confession and its aftermath, the elaboration of the grandfather’s tales and the narrator’s childhood memories of his grandparents.
All three narrative threads engage the reader, because Chabon loves to spin a good yarn and spares no expense doing so. As part of a rough South Philly childhood, the grandfather chucks a kitten out a window because of what he calls “curiosity,” stands up to a railyard bully and gets his first glimpse of a naked woman when he tries to save the bully’s consumptive, intersex girlfriend, who can take care of herself fine. These early experiences paint the grandfather as a P.T. Barnum-style Paul Bunyan. As a young man in the Army Corps of Engineers, he and a friend wire the Francis Scott Key Bridge with explosives to show their commanding officers how easily the Nazis might take Washington, DC. Later, as a working civilian, he tries to garrote his boss over an unfair firing, then does prison time at the legendarily genteel Wallkill Correctional Facility. Much later, in a Florida retirement community, he hunts a huge snake believed to have eaten a winsome neighbor’s cat. (When he first saw the woman, “She wore a pair of men’s pajamas, the kind that buttoned up the front, and duck boots coated in rubber the color of a New York taxi.” My kind of outfit, and just the thing to keep from reducing her to a stereotypical sex object.) Over the course of a lifetime, he builds a vast array of model rockets: “French Arianes, Japanese Mus, Chinese CZs, an Argentine Gamma Centauro… the Atlas, the Aerobee, the Titan.” This slow accretion of details gives a nuanced sense of the grandfather’s character, even as he remains, to his grandson, mythic.
Chabon lavishes detail on the grandfather’s grim experiences in World War II. Finding a German motorcyclist dead atop his machine, he describes the scene: “The right side of the officer’s skull and most of his face, apart from the staring eye, had been shot away. A spray of fine hair clung like dry grass to the blackened cliff of his parietal bone, fluttering in the breeze. His caked boots were planted solidly on either side of what appeared to be a nicely intact motorcycle, low-slung and painted an incongruous shade of khaki. He had a grown man’s build, broad shoulders drawn back to lend his posture a hint of defiance.” Such descriptive opulence characterizes Chabon’s prose—his sheer joy in it is one of the reasons I most enjoy reading him—and he makes World War II seem so lurid, it’s almost dreamlike, which comes in handy when the plot lines begin to converge around memories of the war toward the novel’s end.
Chabon also richly describes the narrator’s beautiful, troubled grandmother. He’s been told that “sometime after the fall of France my grandmother, unwed, not yet eighteen and pregnant with my mother, had been taken in by Carmelite nuns in the countryside outside of Lille, where her family were prominent Jewish dealers in horses and hides.” As a child, he notes that her fug of Chanel No. 5 sometimes makes him feel “pleasure, warmth, and comfort in that fragrance, and sometimes, when she dragged me onto her lap, her perfume dizzied me and brought on a headache. Sometimes her arms would be iron bands encircling my neck, and the scrape of her laughter sounded embittered and hungry, the laughter of a wolf in a cartoon.” One of her coworkers at a local TV station remarks, “Nice lady. Pretty lady. But she gives me a fantod. Meaning no offense.” Nightmarish imagery lets Chabon show us how the grandmother’s war experiences scarred her without forcing him to reveal specific events. When she is supposed to make a Pie puppet for her daughter’s Velvet Brown Halloween costume, the grandfather finds “something you might see in some old-fashioned mummer show, a pantomime horse to be worn around the hips. My grandfather had just formulated the thought I wonder what she planned to do for the head when he noticed the bucktoothed skull sitting on the typist’s table under the bulletin board. A bone zeppelin, bleached, splintery as driftwood. Formerly the property of a small horse or pony.”
The grandmother’s psychological damage houses the book’s most resonant secret. Seeking its answer sends Michael Chabon-the-protagonist on an Oedipa Maas-like quest into memory, archives, misinformation and disinformation. (We know author-Chabon is riffing on Thomas Pynchon because he quotes Gravity’s Rainbow vis-à-vis the grandfather’s rocket hobby.) But because Chabon’s topic here is the history of a Jewish family during and after World War II, the falsehoods add up to a conspiracy in some ways darker than the one Pynchon imagines in The Crying of Lot 49. What “Michael Chabon” learns about his grandmother, and about his family as a whole, is every bit as unsettling as the golem Michael Chabon claims to have seen in Flushing, NY, in 1968, in his piece, “Golems I Have Known.”
Back in 2005, when Chabon read “Golems I Have Known” as part of Nextbook’s (now Tablet’s) Writers’ Series, the piece caused an uproar for being a disrespectful hoax, for not taking the Holocaust seriously. But I know I wasn’t the only novelist who stood by his right to present the tale of the golem in his Uncle Jack’s basement as a form of nonfiction. Sometimes, when you write fiction, you have to sacrifice some little-t truths while paying fealty to the big-T Truth.
Times have changed since 2005—the same year A Million Little Pieces became a best seller and the American Dialect Society named Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” Word of the Year. I doubt that in our post-JT LeRoy world, in which we have become inured to the shock of false document fictions (which have been central to novel form at least since Robinson Crusoe anyway), readers will take offense at the sleight of hand Chabon employs here. Instead, they’ll enjoy his hijinks, complex characters and sense of humor about human beings in general and Jewish humans in particular. (Regarding a Sunday Purim carnival, he writes: “Technically, Purim had fallen on a Friday that year, but due to some Sabbath pettifoggery and the city of Baltimore not having been walled during the time of Joshua, it was to be celebrated today.”) Most of all, they’ll enjoy Moonglow’s grappling with moral ambiguity, even as it disturbs them. Characters in this novel may obfuscate the truth, yet the book itself wants to know what the truest version of the Truth might be, however difficult it is to uncover, and once uncovered, to bear.
Emily Barton is the author most recently of The Book of Esther. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.