The idea that taking a life is to extinguish an entire world isn’t a new one and definitely has some basis in logic and reality. While it might seem that people can be divided into large groups based on their many common experiences, the deeper you look into anyone’s life, the more it becomes apparent that the things they’ve lived through, their order and timing are all so unique that finding two people who have literally nothing to teach each other would be an extraordinary coincidence. While countless such worlds have and will be lost in time, we still persevere in preserving them any way we can, if only for their exclusivity.
How the Michael Chabon Story Began
In 1989 the author Michael Chabon was sitting at his dying grandfather’s bedside, and with his mind loosened by his impending death (and the medication) he proceeded to recount to his grandson many incredible stories that he had never heard. Thankfully, he decided to record this conversation, and now many years later he felt it was time to novelize the incredible life his grandfather has lived.
The story doesn’t take very long to get started as the narrator introduces us to the grandfather, whom he never refers to by name. We see that he doesn’t have very long left to live, and before we know it we jump back in time a few decades to when the old man was just a little boy. We follow him through his formative years and see the kinds of events that shaped him, we go to fight the enemy during the Second World War right alongside him, we see what married life is like, how prison was back in the older days, and so on and so forth. Basically, we go through all the events that marked his life and turned it into a convoluted web of secrets and deceit.
What “Moonglow” Brings to the Table; Myth and Reality
The structure of the story is pretty straightforward and doesn’t leave all that much room for incredible plot twists and surprises, though we do jump back and forth in time on a few occasions. We simply spend most of our time following the grandfather’s life in chronological order without any huge and dramatic moments that feel invented or tacked on. That’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of this partially-fictional memoir: we just don’t know what’s true and what isn’t.
It stands to reason that Chabon embellished some aspects of his grandpa’s life, because if he didn’t he would have probably released this as a non-fiction book. Whatever it is he invented himself though, he managed to fit it all in perfectly with the true details and make it all seem equally real. It comes to a point where you pretty much feel obligated to believe everything he says because you can’t tell where the lies are, even if you know they are there. Unless the author himself one day decides to enlighten us all, I’d imagine that we’ll just have to assume his grandfather lived one of the most unlikely-accomplished and adventurous lives possible… which is something I’m perfectly fine with. As a matter of fact, I can only hope that one day my biography will be so skillfully embellished.
While walking us through his grandfather’s stories, the narrator is also trying to reconcile and resolve his own personal issues that have plagued him. For instance, he uses his grandpa’s stories to learn the truth about his father who he only knew very briefly and to understand his mentally-ill grandmother whose behavior confused him more than anything. The people we meet on this journey are all immensely complex and will likely remind you of a few characters in your own life; you can’t really judge or define them in terms of black and white, but rather you can only seek to understand them and what drives their actions. Chances are that you won’t exactly root for many people in this story but instead focus on studying them as human beings.
Final Thoughts and Why Your Perception Matters
While Chabon certainly wants his grandfather to be remembered in the best light possible, he doesn’t sacrifice the truth to bring us joy and comfort. Even though he does take fictional liberties, his grandfather’s story is one that takes many sad and tragic turns, the kind that deeply impact a person and will leave you pitying him more than anything. There is, of course, also a lot of beauty and majesty to be found here. Make no mistake: this book can be a depressing or an uplifting experience, and that entirely depends on your outlook on life. This is the kind of literature you can come back to in many years and interpret in a completely different light.
To cap it all off, I believe that Moonglow is a strong contender for being Michael Chabon’s best book, or at least his most powerful one in terms of emotional impact. This partly-fictionalized memoir is sometimes horrifying, other times graceful and charming, but always utterly fascinating. Once again, I have to praise the author on his ability to seamlessly fuse facts with fiction to create a very memorable life story that keeps you guessing as to just how grandiose the narrator’s grandfather really was. If you enjoy family sagas and memoirs, then I very highly recommend you buy this book as it offers an experience like very few others out there.