Michael Chabon, Playing Himself

By Sanders I. BernsteinNovember 25, 2016

Michael Chabon, Playing Himself
WAS I ACTUALLY CALLING from Los Angeles? My area code indicated I was from New Jersey. Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, was gently, persistently inquisitive. When I assured him that I was indeed calling from Los Angeles, but that my cell number, like myself, hailed from the Garden State, Chabon wanted to know where, exactly. I told him I grew up near Morristown, in fact not five minutes away from the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, a site of some importance in his newest novel, Moonglow. To my surprise, he told me he had never been.

How appearance maps onto actuality is central to Moonglow. Chabon’s novel is preoccupied with the gap between the way things seem and how they are, with facticity and fictitiousness. It presents the story of an ailing man whose grandson seeks to fill in the gaps of his grandfather’s deathbed recollections. Deftly sliding between the grandfather’s deathbed and the grandfather’s life, the narrative, which repeatedly references its own reconstruction, invites its readers to query its veracity. Ambiguously tethered to Chabon’s experiences with his actual dying grandfather in 1989, after he had completed his MFA and published The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Moonglow, too, is narrated by a young novelist named Mike, who also has just completed his MFA and published a novel. It offers a history of the whole Chabon clan, seemingly the font from which his fictions spring. It is a rich history with an intimate focus, even as it ranges across the 20th century, encountering the Holocaust, the moon, space technology, mental illness, rage, assumed identities, cats, and snakes. With its melding of the historical with the fantastic, and the personal with the world-historical, it is a novel that causes one to believe that this is truly the author’s history. At least, it certainly fooled me.


SANDERS I. BERNSTEIN: You describe Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in great detail, though you’ve just admitted you’ve never visited. And you mention interviews, throughout the novel, but then totally disavow them in the endnote, when you reveal the interviewed characters to be total fictions. To what extent did you research this novel, to what extent is it composed of family stories, and to what extent did it spring fully formed from your mind?

MICHAEL CHABON: That’s the idea — you’re supposed to wonder that. The tension between so-called fact and fiction, and memory and invention, and the truth of family stories and the inevitable fictionalization over time even by the best-intentioned of family storytellers — all those things are the battery that I got a jolt off of and used to power this book. 

How long was this book gestating? Since 1989?

No, not at all. Here’s what happened: I read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which I just absolutely loved and have since reread a bunch of times. (It takes all of two hours to do so; it’s a lovely, slim work.) He takes a whole man’s life and covers it in a short amount of space. It’s not a radical literary experiment — it used to be very common and still happens a fair amount. I don’t know whether this is the case or not, and in fact, it probably isn’t, but there’s something about Train Dreams that feels as if Johnson is dealing in the material of his own family history.

I thought, “Maybe I want to do something like that, write about someone who essentially lives across the span of the 20th century.” And then I was at my computer, and I started thinking, if I was going to start with a story from my family’s history, what story would I start with? I immediately thought of this story I’ve heard a few times over the years about my grandfather’s brother, who was fired from his job because room had to be made on the payroll for [accused Soviet spy] Alger Hiss after he got out of prison. I just started with that and went from there.

I mean, it’s a novel. There was nothing in writing this book that was any different from my usual writing process. It was the same mixture of fact and fiction to the same end, which is to entertain and persuade the reader. You want to persuade the reader that this is all true, and at the same time entertain the reader who picks up a novel knowing full well that it is an invention. The thing that always happens when you finish a work of fiction is you realize even though you’ve made it all up — and the parts you didn’t make up you’ve altered and distorted in so many ways that they no longer could be said to be accurate representations of fact — somehow what you end up with is completely true. It’s true about what you, the writer, think of the world, and human beings, and love, and power, and sex, and family relations, and fate, and history, and all of the things that are wired most deeply in us. It’s a truer record than if you had sat down to write a nonfiction disquisition on any of those subjects.

With this book, the thing that really surprised me was to realize that in this completely false, invented fictional portrait of my nonexistent grandfather as related by a nonexistent version of myself, I had actually created, in a strange way, in a way that really only I can ever fully be aware of, a self-portrait, and a very true self-portrait — of me, and my life, and my experiences. The grandfather’s life across the 20th century, starting in the 1920s and ending in the late ’80s, encodes my own life in ways that were not deliberate. So in the end, I played myself. I punked myself.

You found yourself, hidden away, just like the grandfather in this novel hides his likeness in a moon garden in his miniature rocket models?

Exactly. You always do that to a certain degree. Sometimes I’ve done that overtly, in a sort of Alfred Hitchcock way. In the novel Wonder Boys, when Grady Tripp is taken to the hospital for observation, there is a short scene where a doctor comes in and sees him — and I’m the doctor. You get a brief description of him physically, and it is a description of how I looked at the time. There are other little moments where a version of myself makes a cameo, but this was something different. This was as if I had set out all along to write a memoir, not of a fictional grandfather, but of myself. But I didn’t set out to do that.

It’s interesting that you place your novel in conversation with literary memoir, because it was the novel’s confrontation with history that leapt out at me, particularly where the narrator, thinking about loss, recalls Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, only then to dismiss it, saying “my mother probably knew as much about the subject as Walter Benjamin.” Do you see your story as operating on two different scales — both specifically personal and world-historical — in a way that history or theory sometimes seems to have trouble doing?

Yes, I would argue that is the case. I feel fiction is the most powerful tool that we’ve ever devised for telling the truth.

Once I got a sense of what kind of book this was turning out to be, I realized I had an opportunity to get at a truth I hadn’t been sure of when I started. (If I had been sure of it, I wouldn’t have written the book.) Writing a novel is always a process of finding out what you’re writing about and why. It’s always in the last weeks of completing a book that I actually realize what I’m writing about. And when I say “about,” I mean “About” with a capital A.

It seemed to me that I really had an opportunity, not just to invent a history of my family that might be able to explain the nature of my family better than the actual story could ever have done, but also to play a game with readers. We’re accustomed to this idea that it is history and family that shape the writer, and I had to provide the reader with a sense of that, to show how growing up in this family shaped the work of Michael Chabon. So throughout the book, there are passages where, if everything is working properly, the reader is going to say, “So that’s where that thing in Kavalier & Clay came from” — which is completely false.

So that was fun, but it also became necessary, because if I was going to be passing this off as my past, then any experienced reader was going to expect to find evidence of that past in what they might know about my books.

There is a scene early in the novel when the grandfather is playing around at the railroad tracks in Philadelphia and he encounters a hermaphrodite dying of tuberculosis in a small shack. It’s a moment that seems to call upon the interest in the blurring of gender and sexuality that occurs throughout your novels, but it doesn’t seem to operate as anything extraordinary for the grandfather — simply a momentary encounter, not to be reflected upon again. Were you gesturing toward the rest of your oeuvre when you wrote this scene? 

Yes; I think, though, that it is more of a key to what is to come for him than he realizes, maybe than he ever realizes. There is a callback to this moment later in the book, not in the sense of male and female, but the grandmother has those two halves of herself, always in tension with each other. She can never really reconcile them, consciously. In the most simplistic way of putting it, there is a dark side and a light side, and that takes you immediately to the moon. It becomes an image of these surprising true natures that we carry inside of us, often without knowing it, in a broader sense than just that of gender identity.

The grandfather’s life is structured as a series of quests: rescuing the hermaphrodite, killing the snake, searching for Wernher von Braun, and most symbolically, going to the moon. He fails at every turn, yet this novel doesn’t treat him as a failure.

No, and that is a result of the position of the narrator in the book — the pure admiration, even adoration, that the grandson has for his grandfather. This is partly because at a crucial moment in the grandson’s life when everything is falling apart for him and his mother, the grandfather kind of saddles up his horse and rides in, at great personal sacrifice and cost. Because of that, there is a limitless reservoir of forgiveness and pity and patience and understanding on the part of the grandson. The grandfather can almost say anything and not be in danger of losing his grandson’s love.

Is this a comment on the relationship between the “Greatest Generation” and the generations that follow?

Absolutely. And there’s no clearer way of figuring that than looking at World War II, which I seem to keep doing over and over again in my books.

The interplay of disillusionment and disappointment and admiration and reverence is an inevitable part of becoming an adult and experiencing failure — which hopefully enables us to be more forgiving when we look at the insufficiencies of the generations that preceded us. The passage of time forces us to reevaluate things that once seemed straightforward. That emotional process, or whatever it is — I guess we’re really talking about gaining wisdom — is writ as large as can possibly be, in the experience of my generation, in regard to World War II. (I was born in 1963.)

I came of age during the time when there was still a clear picture of what World War II was about — how it was fought, who were the good guys, who were the bad guys. It was as clear as it had been, more or less, since the end of the war itself. That’s not to say that there weren’t shadows over it; there always were questions, always obvious gaps. But they weren’t spoken of very much and they were sort of deliberately or unintentionally overlooked. And that changed, over time. It didn’t change completely, certainly; the basic narrative is still there: Hitler was evil; Japan was evil; we didn’t really want to do it, but we did; with the help of our British friends and subsequent most bitter enemy [Russia], we did the job.

You know, maybe that’s why this is such a great example of forgiveness. You’ve got to be able to hold the ugly truths right close to you. And not deny them, not look away from them, and not deny they’re there. And yet, because that narrative was so grand, it has been particularly challenging for us to come to terms with aspects that belie its grandness, whether it is the internment of the Japanese Americans on the West Coast, or the failure of the Roosevelt administration to do anything to stop the Holocaust. Or Operation Paperclip, which is detailed in the book, and the way in which the huge scientific-technological-military-industrial complex of the last half of the 20th century was branches of Nazi technology grafted onto American root stock.

This often went on to bear really evil flowers, the moon landing not among those. The moon landing, at least to me, is still a magnificent accomplishment. But in the fields of biological warfare, germ warfare, chemical warfare, psychological warfare, torture techniques, and so on, it’s all alive and well. It all survived, and we didn’t just let it happen; we embraced it. We encouraged it.

That process of trying to move toward acceptance plays out in different ways in the book. One of those ways is through the dawning discovery of the true history of Wernher von Braun and the American space program; what seemed like a shining moment of pure technological accomplishment was founded on bestiality and slave labor and death and killing in the most awful, industrialized, 20th-century way.

It is really brutal, and really horrible. Your novels seem to do this over and over again: they depict really horrible events, and yet there is this deep belief in the possibility of goodness. There is a sense of hope, in the face of this brutality that suffuses your work. How do you maintain this optimism?

It’s kind of like the moon, G, it’s like the moon.


Sanders I. Bernstein is a Provost’s PhD Fellow in English Literature at the University of Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Sanders I. Bernstein is a Provost's PhD Fellow in English Literature at the University of Southern California. Former editor of The Bad Version, his writing has also appeared in the Oxonian ReviewExplosion-Proof Literary MagazineLos Angeles Magazine's "Culture Files," and the NewYorker.com.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!