Of Truth and Schmaltziness: Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow”

December 8, 2016   •   By Menachem Kaiser


Michael Chabon

MOONGLOW IS LESS a family story than a story about a family trying to get its story straight. The unnamed protagonist — a tough, stoic, secretive, clenched-feelings engineer — is the grandfather of the narrator — a sensitive, emotive novelist named Michael Chabon. In order to avoid confusing the latter with the real-life Chabon, we will call him “Mike.”

Grandpa is on his deathbed. He’s still caustic and stubborn, even as he’s visibly expiring, but, at Mike’s prodding, he opens up about his life, his dreams, his regrets, and his loves. Doting Mike heats up soup, dispenses medication, sneaks him beer, teases, listens, and, presumably, takes notes. Their winding, multiday conversation is the novel’s framing device; it’s filled in by scenes of Grandpa’s life as imagined/written by Mike. For unclear reasons — maybe because he wants the book to feel familial; maybe because he is unconsciously a narcissist — Mike never refers to his grandfather by name, but only as “my grandfather.” (The other characters very helpfully go out of their way to avoid saying his name.) Grandpa has had a remarkable life — from a poor childhood in South Philadelphia to hunting Nazi scientists, doing a stint in prison, and inventing and manufacturing toy rockets — you can understand why Mike would feel compelled to get it all down; make a book out of it.

At the heart of Grandpa’s story is Mike’s (also unnamed) grandmother, a French Holocaust survivor who is tortured by visions of a demon-ish figure she calls the Skinless Horse. She begins to lose it in earnest — wanders off at night; burns down a tree — and has to be hospitalized. She dies, at the age of 52, from complications caused by her antipsychotic medication. We learn of Grandma’s demise early in the book; every subsequent scene she shows up in has a eulogistic undertone. Grandpa never gets over the loss, never moves on, until he meets Sally, a fellow resident in his retirement home in Florida. They date until Grandpa is too sick to care for himself and moves in with his stepdaughter, Mike’s (also unnamed) mother.

Moonglow’s sweet, sad emotional core is packed into a very busy narrative: Nazis, hermaphrodites, V-2 rockets, late-night public television, a buried telescope, a theater of the insane, homemade bombs, prison goons, Sputnik, half-baked plots to sabotage Washington, DC, snake hunts, super-secret family secrets (involving more Nazis), and so, so much more. There’s no shortage of metaphorical and literal explosions. With all this going on, the book could have been a mess, could have collapsed into a narrative muddle, but Chabon is very good at organizing stories. Despite the rapid timeline hopping (wartime Germany to deathbed to retirement home to deathbed to mental hospital to prison…), we’re never unanchored. In fact, the jumps offer a kind of pleasant literary jolt: you’re here and suddenly you’re here. The juxtaposed narratives bleed into one another, letting your sense of the characters extend across scenes, across decades.

But at times the unrelenting spectacle can be hard to take seriously, because the tone is set to a kind of softhearted slapstick, a wholesome if superficial silliness that feels like 1950s television. Corners are rounded, edges are dulled — there’s a grating piety even when bad words are used, even when the grown-ups fuck. This is a world where people don’t talk as much as quip. Malapropisms, particularly those uttered by non-native-English speakers, are hilarious. The dead friend’s Zippo lighter has literally unspeakable emotional resonances. Arrows are snatched out of the air, midflight. To get past a snarling guard dog, feed him sausage. Quiet men with hidden depths court eccentric, enigmatic women by draping tweed blazers over their lithe shoulders. Bouts of laughter are politely disguised by faked uncontrollable coughing spasms. “Ingrid Bergman” and “Katherine Hepburn” are used as adjectives. When a Nazi gets shot he falls from a balcony; and when a Nazi falls from a balcony he lies “twisted into a swastika under the bakery window.” If a male chest is worth mentioning, you can bet it’s barrel-shaped. Meaningful moments are marked by the characters looking skyward, preferably silently, preferably simultaneously, together or miles apart. Seemingly every few pages someone says something sweet and boring about the moon. Every scene closes with a punch line, a cymbal.

In broad strokes, then, the story is moving, engaging, even rollicking — Nazis! Rockets! Psychosis! Demons! Deathbed confessions! (“Existential adventure and the forces that work to destroy us,” says the promotional material.) But up close, it can feel schmaltzy and melodramatic.

In the opening scene, Grandpa, enraged that he’d been fired, strangles his boss with a telephone cord. He’s stopped only when the boss’s secretary stabs him in the shoulder with a letter opener. At some point in the tussle an intercom flies through the window, “beaning” a Czechoslovakian diplomat down below. The scene is funny, but weightless; it’s a cartoon. That Grandpa is attempting murder isn’t taken seriously by anyone — not by the narrator, certainly not by the reader. Even the Czech diplomat laughs it off.

True, schmaltziness isn’t always bad. When Grandpa meets Grandma for the first time, it’s at a synagogue’s casino night fundraiser — there are fake palm trees, ping-pong banter, a flamboyant rabbi, and an obnoxious sisterhood: this is good, goopy, rom-com material. Same is true of Grandpa and Sally’s twilight relationship: they “realize” they like each other upon their discovery that they both like Spencer Tracy and rum raisin ice cream. Things proceed awkwardly from there. Grandpa prematurely ejaculates. They bond over a phantom snake. Sally renews her long-dormant interest in painting. The banter might have you rolling your eyes, the oral sex might also have you rolling your eyes, but you’ll find yourself cheering for the geriatric couple. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s heartfelt or stirring, but it’s sweet.

But the tone has a much harder time when the story turns dark, volatile, or ominous. Because Moonglow is interested primarily in keeping us entertained and diverted, we’re never allowed to get uncomfortable. And it’s hard to get anywhere emotionally interesting without getting uncomfortable. When Grandma goes missing, on Halloween night, Grandpa drives the streets searching for her. He is afraid, battling hopelessness: “At the end of every block his heart would sink anew.” But, being the good masculine engineer he is, he girds himself: “He fought against the tears. They were nothing but tears of panic, and of all the emotions there was none more contemptible.” And that’s it — that’s as deep and introspective as we’re going to get regarding Grandpa’s fear and panic. Immediately we digress, we turn away from the fraught and traumatic and ease back into the playful and diversionary. There’s a long bit on the traveling salesman problem, then, waiting at the public television station where Grandma didn’t show up for work, Grandpa reads and considers a New Yorker profile of Wernher von Braun, followed by another confrontation involving a letter opener qua weapon (“Easy, now,” says the man being threatened).

Nazis and demons and murder and prison and mental hospitals can be, as literary devices, just as potent and scary and profound as they are in real life. But if they’re not fleshed out, not grounded, not real and thick, they’ll inevitably feel like B-movie set pieces.

In previous books Chabon solved the problem of cheesiness by embracing it. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was a kind of literary comic book; it wanted to dazzle you. The genius of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, with its self-conscious genre-ness, was that it could feed off its own silliness. Moonglow doesn’t recognize its silliness. It insistently asks big, honking literary questions of identity, truth, fiction, morality, family, etc. Not uninteresting questions, of course, even if they’re clumsily posed and unsatisfyingly explored — you could have a very lively discussion at your book club. But what the Chabonian mode, which mistakes frivolity for humor and ponderousness for depth, cannot at all access is the pain. Depicting trauma, suffering, loneliness, guilt, and regret is a subtle business. In Moonglow, little of the characters’ pain comes through, because they inhabit a world in which it’s pretty funny to strangle your boss with a telephone cord.

At times the extent of the tone deafness is startling. In prison, Grandpa kills (semi-accidentally?) a fellow inmate named Gorman. Neither Grandpa nor Mike seem to think this is a big deal. In the cartoon morality of Moonglow, Gorman had his grisly death coming to him because he’s a goon, because he’s a bully (though the violence is only ever implied), because he’s ugly, because he’s got a “cauliflower ear.” In a book in which the narrator spends half a page musing about the color, odor, and consistency of Prell shampoo, there is exactly one sentence of reflection concerning the murder his grandfather has committed: “The news about Hub Gorman had added an interesting wrinkle.” My Grandfather’s Wacky Adventures, LOL.

There is so much pain unarticulated, even unnoticed. When Grandpa goes to jail and Grandma is institutionalized, their daughter, Mike’s mother, moves in with Grandpa’s brother Rey, a flamboyant, sermonizing rabbi turned into a flamboyant womanizing atheist. Later, in the novel’s present timeline, Mike’s mother confesses to Mike that she and Rey had been intimate — in other words, that Uncle Rey had committed statutory rape. But Chabon can’t or won’t allow the characters or reader to face the ugly implications. Instead he reflexively deflates: “But I guess I must not have been too happy about it,” Mike’s mother says, “because the next day I shot [Rey] in the eye […] with a bow and arrow.” Then, mother and son, bonding over their mistreatment at the hands of Mike’s father, give each other a “soft high-five.”

Following a shortened sentence for good behavior (aside from that “invisible stain on his spotless record,” i.e., manslaughter), Grandpa picks up his daughter and the two of them go to the hospital to take Grandma home. Mike’s mother, who has transformed from “a girl who smelled of Lifebuoy and library paste” into “a young woman who smelled of cigarettes and Ban,” is too surly to express the pain of her abandonment; Grandpa, meanwhile, is too emotionally constipated to address it. The climax of the book — to the extent that a manic, achronological book can have a discernible climax — is the family reunion in the hospital. In a scene that represents well the strengths and weaknesses of the book as a whole, Chabon attempts to impart emotional truths — the heartache, resentment, longing — via spectacle: a fantastic, incoherent play put on by the inmates and written by Grandma. The moon figures prominently. “This was not the Moon at all. It was some other world — some other mother — uncharted and hitherto unknown.”

A problem of tone is really, once you bear down, a problem of language; it’s difficult to sustain a sense of tenderness and vulnerability with imprecise or sophomoric prose. “He wanted badly, wanted only, to be worthy of that trust, although apparently his penis, stirring, had its own ideas on the subject.” Or: “He was an oenophile of air-conditioning.” I believe that this means that the subject of the sentence has a learned opinion when it comes to varieties of air conditioners. The metaphor — the implicit claim that one can somehow be a wine-like connoisseur of air conditioning — is stretched to the end of the sentence: “… [A]nd had already given top marks to the Beth Isaac vintage.” And there are so many nonsensical math metaphors (because, you see, Grandpa is an engineer): “He […] got my grandfather so drunk that he was able to directly experience some of the unlikelier effects on time and space called for by Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity.” Another: “But at the moment there was one set of y coordinates keeping my grandfather asymptotically from intersecting with that untouchable x axis.”

In a similar fashion, Chabon loves to spray his scenes with Jewish imagery/symbolism, in an attempt to give everything a nice insta-ethnic feel. Mostly it’s harmless. Sometimes it even adds a little flavor. But then there are tossed-out phrases like, “‘He isn’t lost,’ Uncle Rey said, issuing the finding that ultimately prevailed in the family Talmud.” I get what Chabon is going for: the family argues a lot, the Talmud is like totally this book that has people arguing in it, and also something about authority. But it’s such a convoluted and imprecise description, an attempt to exploit the exoticness of the concept “Talmud” without putting in any of the necessary lyrical work. Too often, Chabon’s prose suggests beauty, profundity, and depth without being beautiful, profound, or deep. Once you lean in, look a little closer, the metaphors start popping off like overstrained buttons.

There are lots of nice metaphors, too — sharp descriptions, neat turns of phrases. Poppy seeds are described as “glowing lustrous as a spoonful of little black pearls.” That’s an image that snaps instantly into focus. But there are far too many groaners.

Imprecise, lazy writing can have icky consequences — for instance, when it comes to describing women. Sally has “commendable breasts”; Frau Herzog, a tough German housewife, has a “remarkable bosom”; in his grandmother’s “bust, with its loft and scale and defiance of gravity, there was something cathedral-like that moved [his grandfather]”; his grandfather’s mother has a “bosom so large it might have housed turbines”; of a random woman glimpsed during the war, Grandpa still remembers “the swell of her breasts under her shirt.” There’s plenty to say here about objectification, about permitting characters and even narrators (as opposed to authors) to creepily objectify women, but at present I’m interested less in making a moral argument than an aesthetic one — it’s all so boring. These repeated descriptions of women via their breasts indicate an unimaginative, unengaged, uncurious sensibility.

One final note about the book’s formal properties. Given that Moonglow by Michael Chabon is a “memoir” written by “Michael Chabon,” the namelessness of “my grandfather” and “my grandmother” and “my mother” never let you forget about real-life Michael Chabon. You’re encouraged to guess what’s true, what’s imagined, what’s adapted. The truth/fiction blurring extends even to the paratext. Mike has an author’s note, wherein he admits to making shit up when it’s convenient, followed by a fake 1958 advertisement for Chabon Scientific Co. The marketing copy refers to Moonglow as a “speculative autobiography.” Though the term happens to apply to every novel written in the first person, here it’s used to underscore the fact that this novel, even if it’s not factual, is as much about Michael Chabon as it is about his grandfather, real or otherwise.

The novelist has the right, of course, to invent and to steal (not plagiarize). Everything and anything — family history, personal history, world history — is fair game. But ultimately a novel’s factuality is irrelevant; we read the novel as a novel, as a cultivated, curated, aestheticized narrative. I have no idea what’s true in Moonglow, and I don’t care. (If you’re reading novels in order to learn facts and biographies then you shouldn’t be reading novels.) But Chabon and/or his publisher’s marketing department are pushing this book’s trueness, implicitly asking us to read Moonglow as a novel that’s not quite fiction. On one hand, this is fun, playful, and teasing. Chabon’s a celebrity — it feels like an interesting move to exploit that. On the other hand, it’s an exasperating dodge of the book’s most pointed flaw — its cartoonish implausibility. The trueness “redeems” the schmaltz, allows the slapstick to be passed off as genuinely dramatic.


Menachem Kaiser is a writer based in Detroit, Michigan.