• Review
By – August 2, 2016

There are some writ­ers who painstak­ing­ly observe the present, who illu­mi­nate our moment with flares of inci­sive­ly observed details and the bright and sharp edge of social com­men­tary. These writ­ers often lean toward satire, if for no oth­er rea­son than that the micro­scope often reveals imper­fec­tions as well as wonder.

Then there are the tellers of sto­ries that still lie ahead of us. These are the prophets and futur­ists, who peek around the cor­ner to fan­ta­size where we might be head­ed. They con­jure forms that seem out­landish until we see their roots in our world, not yet come to pass but embed­ded right below our feet.

Michael Chabon is anoth­er kind of writer alto­geth­er, one whose con­sid­er­able skills are most acti­vat­ed by the back­wards glance. His aes­thet­ic and mode of cog­ni­tion is nos­tal­gic, a word that braids togeth­er the Greek for pain’ and home­com­ing’ but whose inflam­ma­tion is usu­al­ly felt on the tem­po­ral rather than spa­tial nerve. Moon­glow exquis­ite­ly titrates this pain, but also its atten­dant joys and over­ar­ch­ing wonder.

This novel’s unique quan­tum of inven­tive ener­gy makes the past glow with a kalei­do­scope of mean­ing. What is Moon­glow? It’s hard to say. A fic­tion­al mem­oir, a rol­lick­ing real­ist nov­el, a fab­ri­cat­ed research project, an enlight­en­ing inves­ti­ga­tion into PTSD, mod­el rock­etry, and the Jew­ish Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence. Like Philip Roth, Chabon is com­fort­able giv­ing his best work a braid­ed inher­i­tance of real­ist con­tent and shifti­ly post­mod­ern form; there is even some­thing Nabo­kov­ian about fake foot­notes and the tan­gle of fact and fic­tion. The nar­ra­tor, Michael Chabon, seeks to find out as much as pos­si­ble about his grand­par­ents dur­ing the final days of his grandfather’s life. This book is both the prod­uct of that search and the process of its conduct.

I hes­i­tate to reveal too much of the plot, but this sto­ry is orthog­o­nal to much of the received wis­dom about the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion. Here are the details and devo­tion of the rock­et indus­try, the lad­der of bones” that reached from Nazi weapon­ry to golf balls sail­ing over the lunar hori­zon. Also here are the picaresque putzes of the car­ni­val of mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry (Jew­ish) Amer­i­ca. Behind it and above it and sat­u­rat­ing it are the rav­ages of trau­ma, the delir­i­um of mad­ness, and love lost and found and rediscovered.

What is a read­er left with as the final glim­mer of Moon­glow dis­si­pates? The awe of stand­ing before an unex­plod­ed V‑2 rock­et cra­dled in the mid­dle of a dark wood in the dark, the hor­rid days of the end of World War II, car­ry­ing in its upturned sweep the long­ings of a Jew­ish infantry­man whose faith has gone up in smoke and an aged Catholic cler­ic who has seen the end of this world and fan­ta­sizes about vis­it­ing anoth­er one; the beau­ty of the author’s grand­moth­er per­form­ing on stage in an insane asy­lum, dance merg­ing with dancer in a trou­bled sol­vent of pain; a grand­fa­ther stand­ing over an old stove and fry­ing eggs on the day when his daugh­ter lost a child that might have extend­ed the narrator’s tiny and trou­bled family.

Most of all, we are left with the lives that Chabon lov­ing­ly res­ur­rects, can’t quite pro­tect, but pow­er­ful­ly cel­e­brates. To bor­row one of his phras­es, this book is busy with all the usu­al traf­fic in intel­li­gence and feel­ing,” and we are glad to be along for the ride.

Ari R. Hoff­man is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a Dex­ter Dis­ser­ta­tion Com­ple­tion Fellow.

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