First, some context and a recollection of my own memories… when I was a kid in primary school I loathed reading. My mother who was then an English HOD in a primary school has an equally loathsome way of instilling the love of reading in me. She would sit beside me as I read silently. An unconscious fidget, an oscillation of my body or an importune utterance would earn me a firm stare and a sharp rebuke. Half an hour of the dreadful time reading would pass like the changing of a season. After that it was not over. Next, I was tasked with writing down words I did not know from the book and I had to look in the dictionary for their meanings and to write down an example of a sentence of how the word is used. I did this for three to four times a week for months. If I even had an ounce of a love for reading, it was all destroyed by my Mom.
Then it happened… a few months down the road I started noticing that I was getting better marks and earning favourable comments from my English teacher for my essays, and I finally understood something – my Mom’s hardline method has worked. After that I was doing it diligently on my own accord and my Mom didn’t even need to sit beside me anymore. Of course I didn’t continue the routine for long. It was not needed since the love of reading and a love for the language are already in me. So it came as a huge surprise that I started doing it again recently.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon is my first book by him. I have known this author for quite a while and I even have his Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay sitting quietly on my shelf, crying out softly to be read. Moonglow is a hybrid memoir of Chabon’s grandfather, a debatable fictional multigenerational family history filled with anecdotes and stories from his heavily medicated cancer-ridden grandfather on his deathbed.
In the days following the publication of Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to California to sit by his dying grandfather, a typically taciturn and reserved man. But Dilaudid had loosened his tongue, and out came a torrent of remarkable stories of full of secrets, love, pain, sex, and regret. Chabon’s remarkable new “autobiographical novel” Moonglow is mined from, but not limited by, those conversations; as he states in his author’s note at the head of the book: “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrating purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken … the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.” The result is a sprawling, yet intensely personal, paean to his grandparents, their lives together and as individuals. World War II and its atrocities cast long shadows, as does the Space Race and the titular moon, which hangs over the story as a bright dream of escape and a dark reminder of failed aspiration… an intensely personal story uplifted by the shifting tectonic plates of truth and memory, floating atop his inimitably crafted, sometimes audacious, always original prose. –Jon Foro, The Amazon Book Review
Original prose is what this book has in spades. My mind was constantly engaged with the elegiac prose and vivid metaphors. I tried to memorise them or just plain trying to keep them in my head, but I knew I can’t and so I found myself doing something I have not done since I was a kid with my Mom sitting next to me. I started typing out the lovely sentences; this time on my iPad.
(He) introduced food into his mouth at mechanical intervals and stared at her without art or restraint.
She filled out the dress nicely but could not enliven it.
The absence of playfulness and flirtation in her manner brought out the languid solemnity of her feline face and eyes.
He felt that he needed, for the sake of clarity, to escape her gravity for a minute or two, for as long it would take to smoke a cigarette.
He saw her shudder once, a traveling wave that passed from her hips to her shoulders and then across her face in a ripple of dismay.
He was disappointed, and disappointment filled him with resolve.
An inner coaxial was cut, and his head filled with white noise, and then he passed out.
The girl was a labyrinth to him; only by chance and error did he ever stumble blindly into her heart.
(A bomb) jammed into a frozen pond like a cigar butt into the sand of an ashtray.
I see the hidden lovers, fates entangled like their bodies, waiting for release from the gravity that held them down all their lives.
Aren’t the phrases great and ever so playful? But I must confess the book is a huge pain to read in the beginning because it has not much of a plot holding the vignettes together. The stories also do not adhere to a chronological order, constantly going back and forth through the life memories of the unnamed grandfather. “After I’m gone, write it down,” the grandfather tells Michael at one point. “Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.” A mishmash this is, but what a beautiful mess this is. By presenting the episodes in a non-linear form, Chabon is perhaps questioning the authenticity of memoirs and film narratives with the adage “based on a true story” plastered across the screen. How can we be sure that the memoir is factual, free from any agenda? How much of the episodes are embellished to put the spotlight on heroic moments, while whitewashing others into obscurity?
“Everything you’ve been telling me is true, though, right?” Michael asks his grandfather at one point. “Well, it’s all the way I remember it happening,” the grandfather replies. “Beyond that, I make no guarantees.” To me, the truth isn’t that important anymore because I was kept entranced by the extraordinary life of an exceptional man who thinks he is unexceptional. He talks of life amounting to little, starting things but never finishing them, but what a colourful life he has lived, filled with V2 rockets, flying bombs, psychotic delusions, war-time espionage, prison life, sex and a late tender love affair with a neighbour involving a pussycat. Moonglow may not have a comforting spine of a plot to link all the non-linear rich bouts of memory recollections, but it does encompass all the episodes with a richness of imagination and a heart rending vibrancy of humour and warmth. One of the best novels I have ever read and one I will never forget in a long long time.