Michael Chabon’s Moonglow
is a New York Times bestseller and highly acclaimed novel. It tells the winding story of a man’s deathbed confessions. From the perspective of the dying man’s grandson, we learn of love, suffering, and the impact of lies all set in the twentieth century. Published in 2016, Chabon’s novel is best described as a fictional nonfiction autobiography: true events wrapped in a fabricated narrative to shed light on the intricacies of human emotion and action. The events are told in a non-linear anecdotal fashion, so structurally it can be hard to follow.Moonglow
opens with the narrator visiting his grandfather on his deathbed in 1989. The entirety of the novel takes place in just one week. His grandfather is dying of bone cancer and his painkillers are making him unusually talkative. What the narrator learns is that his grandfather was born in 1920 in South Philadelphia in Jewish slums. He gets an engineering degree from Drexel Tech and enlists in the United States Army Corps of Engineers. During this time, the world is in the throes of WWII, and the grandfather is selected to be a spy. Once trained in espionage, he goes to Europe to serve as a soldier and spy. What he learns there is that the German engineer Wernher Von Braun has been aiding the Nazis in missile technologies. In the real nonfictional world, Von Braun goes on to join the U.S. and helps NASA send men to the moon in 1969. This is just one of many instances where Chabon’s fictional world seems to bleed into the world in which we all live.
After the war, the grandfather returns to the United States and falls in love with a French immigrant in Baltimore, Maryland. The woman already has a four-year-old daughter, this is the narrator’s mother (making the French immigrant the narrator’s grandmother). This is when we learn that the narrator and the grandfather share no blood relation. Eventually the grandfather and the French immigrant marry. The grandfather opens an aerospace engineering firm, but is forced to leave it behind to care for his wife. She suffers from intense mental anguish from living in France during WWII. Being surrounded by war permanently damaged her psyche. The grandfather becomes a salesman in order to deal with mounting medical expenses. In a heightened state, his wife burns down a tree in their yard, and just by chance, the grandfather is let go from his job. In an overwhelming fit of rage, he physically attacks the president of his company, and this leads to the grandfather serving over a year in prison.
When the grandfather is in prison, his brother Reynard looks after his adopted daughter. Once the grandfather is out of prison, he builds a working model rocket which in turn he is able to sell to a toy company. Not too long thereafter, in 1975, his wife dies of cancer. Left with no one to care for (his daughter is old enough to be on her own), the grandfather moves to a retirement home near Cape Canaveral, Florida to be close to the NASA spaceship launches. Here he becomes romantically involved with Sally Sichel, another retiree. There are not too many stories told in Cape Canaveral, because once the grandfather is diagnosed with bone cancer, he leaves Sally to go live with his daughter in San Francisco for the remainder of his days.
Through the grandfather’s stories, his love of aerospace technologies (space travel and rockets) are fascinating to him, but they’re forever tainted by the Nazis’ involvement. He struggles where to stand on this. If it weren’t for the Nazis, space travel as we know it wouldn’t be the same. But the Nazis were responsible for a mass genocide of his people. It’s an ethical dilemma with no correct moral stance.
There are other stories told in Moonglow
, specifically from the narrator’s personal life or things his mother has told him. Through an interspersed telling, we learn that the narrator’s mother was sexually involved with her step-uncle, Reynard, when she was only a teen. After some time, he rejects her, and she permanently blinds him. When she’s older, she marries a doctor in Flushing, Queens in New York City. This is pre-1975, when both of her parents are still alive. This is when the narrator is born. Reynard and the doctor (the narrator’s father) get involved in organized crime based out of Philadelphia. Eventually the ring is busted, and out of fear of legal persecution, the doctor vanishes. This leaves the narrator’s mother and grandparents to sort through the legal ramifications. Although it is costly and taxing on the family, no one is penalized for the doctor’s actions.
The final story told in the novel is at the grandfather’s funeral. The narrator and his mother admire the grandfather’s things. They find a small model spaceship he built. Inside are small figures of the grandfather, his wife, his daughter, and his grandson. Even though he was a man of few words, it’s clear that the love he felt for his family was immense. Moonglow
is a story of mental illness, love, morality, the Holocaust, and aerospace engineering. It’s a story meant to depict how interwoven every aspect of this world is; we cannot have good without bad, everything is a delicate balance. Chabon tells the challenge of being proud of your life, no matter the events.