‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon – A Fabricated Memoir

‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon   (2016) – 430 pages


559766‘Moonglow’ purports to be a memoir of Michael Chabon’s  grandfather, but from the first author’s note Chabon lets us know that this story is made up all the way.

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”

In other words, don’t rely on any facts here at all.  This is fiction.

I have been much entertained by some of Chabon’s previous work, especially ‘The Wonder Boys’ and ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’.  These works showed a comic warmth that made them a pleasure to read.  ‘Moonglow’ is a more ambitious work covering the entire life of this man, Michael Chabon’s maternal grandfather.  It is a longer work and much more diffuse compared to his previous work, and therein lies the problem for me.

Perhaps a chronological organization would have helped.  As it is the book slips around to different timeframes and episodes in this man’s life from before World War II up to and including retirement and widowhood in Florida.  There are so many digressions and digressions of digressions along the way.  We get a discussion of the evolution of the Styrofoam coffee cup and its molded plastic lid which gives his grandfather an idea for his model rocket which might even be a benefit to real rockets.  Chabon can make even these offbeat subjects interesting with his prose style, but by then I had given up on any overriding force behind this novel beyond that this was one man’s life.

There is a poignant story about the grandfather’s wife and her daughter who is Chabon’s mother.  The Michael Chabon character in the book is actually not related at all to the man he calls his grandfather.

Rockets are a main interest in ‘Moonglow’ as well as of the grandfather.  During World War II the grandfather is in the US Army fighting in Germany in 1945.  He is in the Allied force that goes into the V2 rocket factory in Nordhausen directed by Wernher Von Braun.  Von Braun had worked on rockets for peaceful purposes before the war, but Hitler used the V2 rockets for bombing allied areas.  The allied troops found that mistreated slave labor was being used in the German rocket factory. From that point on the grandfather is absolutely disgusted with Von Braun, even after the United States brings Von Braun back here to build space rockets as part of Operation Paperclip.  As Von Braun becomes a hero of the American space program in the 1960s, the grandfather gets even more disgusted.

“Nobody wanted to hear that America’s ascent to the Moon had been made with a ladder of bones.”  

I was quite taken with the Von Braun story, and a well-structured 200-page novel centering around this story line would have been fine. Apparently ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ already deals with the Von Braun situation. However there were other story lines in ‘Moonglow’ that were of much less interest to me like my least favorite which was that of the grandfather trying to capture a snake that supposedly ate a girlfriend’s cat in a Florida retirement village.

I suppose Michael Chabon is making a valid point, that one’s life is not about only one straightforward thing, but is filled with diversions and dead-ends and lots of ambiguous stuff.  However shouldn’t a novel clear up some of this confusion?


Grade:    B       


10 responses to this post.

  1. It sounds more like a first novel, trying to include everything because that’s what first novelists tend to do…



    • Hi Lisa,
      This is one of those cases where it could have been me. I just felt so impatient while reading this long novel, I wasn’t sure it was the fault of the book or myself, so naturally I blamed the book.
      Michael Chabon is a veteran writer, but I felt that he was attempting to extend his talent beyond what he had done before.



  2. Sounds like a frustrating read that perhaps didn’t quite know where it was going or what it was doing!



  3. I loved Telegraph Avenue, my fave the year it was published but there are so many Chabon books for me to catch up on. I am tempted by this one, but may have to wait for the paperback.:)



  4. Thanks for this post. I’ve debated whether or not to give this a try but, with so many other on the TBR list, I think I’ll give it a pass. You’ve saved me a lot of time and decision making!!



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