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Michael Chabon Sees the Future

His new novel, ‘Moonglow,’ is an eerily timely meditation on the American experience

(Benjamin Tice Smith/Ringer illustration)
(Benjamin Tice Smith/Ringer illustration)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon came out in September 2000. A charismatic Democrat had presided over America for the last eight years, and a familiar Republican was gunning for the presidency. Kavalier & Clay was another entry in a booming year for books, joining a crowd of sensational titles from Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), Philip Roth (The Human Stain), and George R.R. Martin (A Storm of Swords). It all sounds pretty familiar, which, amid the turbulence of the last two weeks, is a comfort. For fans of Michael Chabon, the good news is that he is back this month with Moonglow, which is, in many ways, a companion to his previous epic.

Kavalier & Clay has a lot of interests. It explores Jewish folklore, World War II history, how hard it was to be gay in the middle of the 20th century, and, perhaps with the most gusto, comic books. Kavalier & Clay was released a year before calamity struck the U.S., but the book turned out to be a useful road map to understand the political and cultural ruptures that followed its release — in large part because of the importance of comics. Kavalier & Clay didn’t precipitate the Marvel and DC Comics movie bonanza, but it does work as a tidy entry point on the timeline of the superhero boom. Chabon couldn’t have known his formal interest, along with the attendant superheroes, would align with the primary framework that has defined Hollywood for the last 15 years. Looking back, the book is an indispensible guide to understanding the ways Americans processed both World War II and an eery prognostication of how our culture would address 9/11 and the wars that followed. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for its narrative achievements. Had there been an award for unwitting timeliness, it would have won that, too.

Now, after 16 years and another election wherein the popular vote winner will not assume the presidency, Chabon has gifted readers with a new guidebook. All masked and caped crusaders are gone, and the characters are more fixated on constructing both linear stories and rockets. The formal preoccupation this time is with memoir: A fictional character named Michael Chabon (we’ll call him the narrator) has written his own history by recording the life story of his dying grandfather. The elder was an intelligence officer in World War II who returned to the States after the war and married a Holocaust survivor. He went on to work in rocket engineering, and he also went to prison. Untangling the threads of the grandfather’s life functions as a history of American intelligence operations during the war, Jewish Baltimore in the ’50s, and retirement life in South Florida in the early ’90s. Whereas Josef Kavalier was changed by a detour to Antarctica, the grandfather of Moonglow looks to space for transformative power. (Given the prodigious number of space and sci-fi movies that have crowded the Oscar landscape in recent years, Chabon can’t be credited with any prescience this time around for his interest in the moon.)

The impulse with Kavalier & Clay, almost two decades after its release, is to use it as a tool for refraction. Of course the movie industry committed to superhero movies! Look at the significance of comics in escapism. The impulse with Moonglow is to extrapolate. It’s impossible to read it without imbuing meaning as it relates to the current changing political landscape. The work for readers is to decode our future.

“At what point in American history was immigration not an issue in some way or another?” Chabon asked me this question two days after the election, when I was supposed to be the one interrogating him about his new book. If you were wondering how Chabon feels about readers marrying his work to the current political discourse, he is not concerned. “I don’t think about theme at all. Not at all. I feel theme,” he says. Actually, he would probably welcome the comparison, hoping that his novel finds an audience for a long time. “You just sort of hope that certain themes will be perennial and perennially engaging, and that they’re ultimately going to speak to readers not just in this particular moment when it’s published, but hopefully 10 years from now they’ll continue to do so. Or 20 years from now. Or, God willing, 100 years from now.” There are plenty of themes to dissect, but on the day we spoke, Americanness was at the forefront.

He had more questions for me. “What is an American? Who gets to say what an American is and isn’t? How do you become an American? Those things are perennial themes in American literature. In fact, the articulation of an American identity is like the first project of American literature.”

Michael Chabon at The <em>New Yorker Festival in 2014. (Getty Images)</em>
Michael Chabon at The New Yorker Festival in 2014. (Getty Images)

That project carries on in Moonglow, though the focus is less macroscopic. Ideas about immigrant experience coalesce around the narrator’s grandmother, a French Jew who survived the Holocaust. We first encounter her as a grandmother caring for the narrator; she was a woman, he tells us, who often needed to “lay on the sofa or on her bed,” citing a “crise de foie” to her grandson. In this introduction, the French utterances slip out when she’s suffering from a bout of what are revealed as chronic mental health problems. Once we’ve met the older and relatively stable version of the grandmother, Chabon takes us back further in time to her initial relocation to Baltimore. It’s there that she encounters the grandfather outside of a synagogue in 1947. The congregation’s busy bodies hoped she’d hit it off with the grandfather’s rabbi brother.

The grandmother becomes the avatar of mid-century Baltimore. Chabon is from Columbia, Maryland, about 30 minutes from Baltimore, but he didn’t know the city well. “It was always a little bit of a mysterious place to me. And then I might have made an arbitrary initial decision to … have Baltimore be a space in the book.” As other parts of Moonglow’s chronology came together, the Charm City became essential to the book, and he had to spend a substantial amount of time researching, or, as he puts it, “[confronting] Baltimore.” He relied on the work of Barry Levinson, personal accounts on the internet, and even some personal memories to draw his version of the city. He grew up watching Baltimore’s public television station, and that station was the grandmother’s employer.

Her early life in Europe remains present as well. She is a Holocaust survivor, and the madness that defines her is articulated as a fear of the “skinless horse,” a vague sexual threat that’s undoubtedly linked to her experience in the war. But her struggle in America is not because she’s an immigrant. Rather, it’d be more accurate to describe her as quite literally displaced. The fear of the skinless horse drives her out of her home in Baltimore, seeking refuge in a Carmelite monastery in Maryland. One pivotal night she goes missing, and the grandfather, too, has to confront Baltimore. He drives all over the city, searching for her in likely spots around their adopted city. She is not at any of them. All the cities she has lived in and the places she frequents are valuable data points in explaining who she is, but not they don’t actually map who she is.

Chabon has a demonstrated interest in maps — including his essay collection Maps and Legends. But Moonglow resists the supremacy of maps as a key to unlocking identity. The novel crisscrosses the country and roughly 50 years with its many narratives strands. There’s not a puzzle to solve, but Chabon masterfully weaves the competing stories in such a way that the pace picks up in concert. In writing a memoir, the narrator sorts out the information his grandfather gives him. But it’s more of an act of assembly than deduction, which constitutes a departure from the Chabon canon.

Yet, the biggest refutation to the idea that geography defines us is that the grandfather is far more isolated than his beleaguered wife. We first meet him as a trouble-seeking teenager in South Philadelphia. He’s a terse kid with an interest in saving women. The desire to be a savior proves to be a lifelong instinct. As a widower, he hunts a snake living near his South Florida “retirement community” after the reptile is assumed to have eaten the cat of his neighbor (who is also his lover). As an OSS officer in the Army, he (this is a mild spoiler) chooses to save his country over exacting personal vengeance. His pursuits, whether one chooses to classify them as noble or not, isolate him from his countrymen and anyone who could be considered a friend. She’s the refugee, but somehow he’s always adjacent to communities willing to embrace him. In some respects, it devalues the grandmother’s harrowing experiences to equate it with the grandfather’s self-imposed alienation — she escaped the Nazis and experienced mental illness! But he is far more tortured over his sense of place.

Even though Moonglow is framed as a memoir, it’s closer to a family saga that begs readers to consider what “family” even means. Just as geography cannot define or contain the book’s characters, Chabon also rejects the traditional definition of family. (The limits and joy of familial bonds are a central topic for Chabon at the moment. I highly, highly recommend this essay about attending men’s fashion week in Paris with his son.) The novel begins with a short chapter that lays out the primary relationships informing the narrator’s identity: with his grandfather, his grandmother, and his mother — the aforementioned young daughter that emigrated from France. We learn early on in the book that the father of the girl was killed by Nazis, and thus the grandfather is not a blood relative of the narrator. Of course the narrator has known his grandfather his whole life, but only through the exercise of hearing his deathbed stories does the narrator grasp the totality of who his grandfather was.

Moonglow is old fashioned in many ways. It’s invested in World War II, which is a war we’ve been hearing about for nearly two generations, and a seismic event that filmmakers still want to address. If you read The New York Review of Books, it’s a topic you reinterrogate every three weeks. There’s no mind-bending trick. There are no dragons, nor is there any real presence of technology (except for rockets; more on that shortly). The multiple timelines offer varying perspectives on the same characters, but there is no time travel. Still, this is a thoroughly modern meditation on the definition of self. The narrator is defining himself with each page of his supposed memoir, while his grandparents resisted the traditional bounds of borders and relationships. The resistance is subtle, and it’s an act of self-determination.

When Chabon decided to fictionalize himself, he introduced a new wrinkle to the world-building he routinely engages in. His most sweeping novels — Moonglow, Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Telegraph Avenue — manage to combine the painstaking detail of writers like George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien with the deep investigation of a historian. Research permeates every section of the book to varying degrees, but the breadth of his work is most audacious in the World War II section.

(Benjamin Tice Smith)
(Benjamin Tice Smith)

Chabon approaches historical fiction the way some people approach packing a suitcase: He has to make it all fit. He explains that when he hones in on the historical conceits, he becomes “trapped by what actually happened … You have to try as hard as you can to adhere to the facts and just sort of tuck your fiction in the cracks and fit your fiction within the bounds of what’s known.” The challenge in Moonglow was to make the grandfather’s role as an OSS intelligence office intersect with Wernher von Braun, who is credited with inventing V-2 rockets for the Nazis. As a result, the book delivers a mini seminar in early rocket technology, the harsh labor camps used to build the weapons, and the underground caves where Nazis set up factories. It also anchors the most persistent theme in the whole book: outer space, especially the moon.

In Germany 1945, the narrator’s grandfather comes across a V-2 rocket in a clearing, and he immediately recognizes it as a weapon: “Its manufacture had been ordained and carried out … to atomize and terrorize civilians.” But that recognition did not prevent him from lusting after it the way some people prize Legos or rare action figures: “It was at once a prayer sent heavenward and the answer to that prayer: Bear me away from this awful place.” The rocket has the capacity to defy the physical world while being wholly of it, which is a contradiction that follows the grandfather through every strand of the (fictional) Chabon family saga. It is both a symbol of escapism and a means to actually escape. Of course, the V-2 itself couldn’t accommodate a space mission in 1945, but in the early days of rocketry, it was close enough.

The grandfather remains interested in rockets and outer space for the rest of his life. The narrator fondly recalls the model rockets he built at home, and explains, “The moon was the only one you could see in enough detail to imagine living there … Naturally, my grandfather knew the moon was inhospitable to life.” Unlike the rocket, whose provenance is known and which was created by humans, the moon is a much more suitable symbol for the grandfather’s escapist fantasies. It’s familiar enough to operate in his imagination, and he never has to confront any attendant realities.

Not coincidentally, “the Escapist” is a superhero character that Chabon created in Kavalier & Clay. He is the comic version of Joe Kavalier, and that novel is populated with a lot of longing. If the Escapist was a device that spoke to the constant entrapment that the characters felt, the upward gaze in Moonglow, at both rockets and the moon, suggests an evolution of yearning. The grandfather doesn’t necessarily want to evade all he knows. After all, he believes that “the thing that made space flight difficult was the thing that … made it beautiful: To reach escape velocity … [you’d] be obliged to leave almost everything behind.”

Whether the grandfather is staring at the moon from his backyard, or contemplating man’s incredible power to harness physics in a clearing during war, his wildest dreams are now firmly checked by science. Escapism doesn’t acknowledge such earthly laws, and Moonglow won’t indulge that fantasy. Moonglow aptly recognizes space as a frontier that captures the collective imagination, but this version of escapism is checked by the earthly laws of science.

Hugely successful books — which I assume and hope Moonglow will be — follow a certain lifecycle. It begins with positive reviews and plum bookstore placement. Next comes second and third and fourth printings. The book moves from critics’ conversation to cultural zeitgeist. The crowning achievement is news of a screen adaptation, film or TV. In the case of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, the film rights are optioned before publication—all but guaranteeing a certain level of attention.

Chabon’s writing has worked its way through the cycle before. Wonder Boys was a warmly received movie, and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is also a movie, if not beloved. That’s further than Kavalier & Clay or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union ever got. The latter two were optioned by Scott Rudin, but neither made it into production. Kavalier & Clay reportedly ran into script problems because condensing the scope of the original work proved too challenging. I suspect Moonglow would likely run into the same problems.

The difficulty of maintaining structural integrity in Moonglow would be significant. An eight-part miniseries might be able to capture the depth of story; a really gifted screenwriter, or Chabon himself, might be able to replicate the deep humanity that fills every page of the book. But the power of Moonglow is how it harnesses the novel. Chabon stands apart from other great novelists because of a singular decency, and because of his masterful command of form. The narrator’s exercise of piecing together a cohesive account of his family and the broader themes that interest Chabon — immigrant experience, escapism, the outer reaches of existence — is as valuable as the story itself, and once again I’m wondering if Michael Chabon is an oracle. He’s back at the right moment to remind us that yes, the story matters, but so does how you deliver it.