In the canonical story of the 20th century, America rides triumphantly out of the darkness of World War II and into the light of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Enough time has passed now for that story to enter into the realm of myth.
Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, rides the wave of that myth. It hitches the intimacy of a family story to the universality of humanity’s dream of reaching outer space.
Narrated by a character who shares Chabon’s name and biography, the book is styled as a memoir based on the stories the narrator’s grandfather tells on his deathbed. Moonglow follows the man only ever known as “my grandfather” from his South Philadelphia childhood to his service in World War II to his retirement in Florida.
Like a self-aware, Jewish Forrest Gump, the grandfather has a knack for being in—if not the right place at the right time, let’s say the interesting place at the right time. A potentially treasonous prank during officer training leads him to a mission collecting Nazi scientists and technology in the wake of the Allied invasion of Germany. While serving time for an assault committed in the heat of anger, the grandfather is allowed enough freedom to tinker with radios and model rockets, which lands him a career and as a modeler of spacecraft.
At the heart of Moonglow is a love story between the narrator’s grandfather and his grandmother, a French Jewish war refugee with a dark past. In her traditional role as the beautiful but damaged object of the hero’s affection, the grandmother is charming, mysterious, and harrowing: “She was a vessel built to hold the pain of her history, but it had cracked her, and radiant darkness leaked out through the crack.” Tormented by a hallucination known as the “Skinless Horse,” she is believable as a person but also emblematic of the way Chabon’s characters are haunted by the specter of war.
Moonglow is also about the romance of space and the human imagination. Like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, it finds wonder and awe in science amidst the brutality of war. The night sky, to the narrator’s analytical grandfather, is “an archipelago of atomic furnaces in a vacuum sea… as unperturbed by mechanized mass slaughter on a global scale as by the death of one individual.” Ironically, the moon landing itself—the most evocative image of this marriage of science and the human spirit—barely makes an appearance in the novel. And this is fitting. The novel’s hero is neither an astronaut nor a NASA engineer. He is, instead, a sort of everyman, a failed entrepreneur/salesman/convict/builder who happens to have a lifelong love for space flight, just like many of us.
Chabon braids his narrative together in nonlinear fashion: the grandfather’s war and his hunt for the onetime-Nazi and future Space Race hero Wernher von Braun; the grandparents’ meeting and marriage; the grandmother’s bouts with mental illness; the grandfather’s relationship with his daughter, the narrator’s mother; the grandfather’s widowerhood in Florida; and his final days in the company of his grandson. As the book progresses, it picks up steam. Images and anecdotes recur in different places, and it’s easy to get swept up in its flow. The energy of the novel takes the shape of a parabola of flight. It reaches its emotional high points halfway through and then gradually glides toward a soft landing. Reading it feels like listening to someone tell you about their life.
The writing is magical—less manic, perhaps, than other books by Chabon. Its sentences are matter-of-fact but full of the gut-punch metaphors he’s famous for. Unsurprisingly, he takes a special interest in the sky at night: “over my grandfather’s head the circuitry of heaven was printed in bright joints of solder.”
As his memories double back on themselves, as the grandfather grows older and more reflective, and as the narrator turns up more facts loosened by the stories, Moonglow reveals itself to be a novel about faith. Jewishness is important to these characters, and Catholicism accompanies some of the more poignant encounters of the book. (A drop of holy oil “smelled the way the word sacrament sounded.”) But more than that, the grandfather’s story is about faith in science, the future, industry—whatever it is in human nature that drives us to build space ships. The V-2 rocket, though ultimately used as an instrument of death and destruction, is for him “at once a prayer sent heavenward and the answer to that prayer.”
The publisher calls Moonglow “an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir.” But the less said about its genre, the better. What matters is that it’s utterly enchanting. Chabon makes you believe, even as you know you’re being pulled along by the romance of a good story. Moonglow is a novel about faith in storytelling itself.