In an age of fake news, ‘alternative facts’ and political entrenchment, Michael Chabon’s quasi-biography is a welcome invitation to question the boundaries of truth and fiction. Ostensibly a biography of Chabon’s grandfather, who, just days before his death, tells his life story to his grandson, Moonglow becomes a peon to fiction itself, to the power of storytelling and memory.
Chabon prefaces the book with the following: ‘I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose or the truth as I prefer to understand it’ and acknowledges a wide range of texts, while absolving them from any responsibility for ‘this pack of lies.’ What follows is a rollicking story of family, secrets, lies, memory, loyalty, war, death, religion, a snake on the loose in a Florida retirement home and of, course, love. As well as this, it’s a story of coming to terms with your family story, with the fact that you will never know the whole truth and what that means for your own identity. As the grandfather says at one point in answer to Chabon’s question of whether he was telling him the truth, ‘well, it’s all the way I remember it happening, beyond that I can make no guarantees.’
Perhaps reflecting on the significance and construction of memory, this is a story that is not told in a linear fashion but is instead full of the pull of time, of moments that changed people, and moments that didn’t but that somehow are still remembered and passed on. In true Chabon-style, there are many different ideas and stories simultaneously being explored but as the prose is as economical as it is beautiful, it never feels heavy or preachy and is often lifted by a dark and compassionate humour.
In this way one of the most compelling sections of the book are those set just after the war where we follow the grandfather in his attempts to track down a German rocket scientist responsible for the V-2 rockets. This action packed section becomes a moving meditation on friendship, loyalty, morality and science which is not about truth in a literal sense but speaks to the true complex nature of what it means to be human with all of its desires, ambitions and flaws. This is what novels do best, and what makes Moonglow such an excellent antidote to the political climate we currently find ourselves in.