Friday, July 28, 2017

Michael Chabon - Moonglow (4th Estate, 2016) ****

Every new Michael Chabon novel is one to look out for, as was this one. He is without a doubt one of the best stylists in American literature, with a wonderful sense of humour, greatly influenced by comic book and other adventures in novels such as "The Yiddish Policemen's Union", "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", and the incredible "Gentlemen Of The Road".

With Moonglow, he moves into new territory for him, namely the life of his grandparents, as told by his grandfather on his deathbed, and at the same time the story of the weight of being jewish.

His grandfather was a rocket engineer and one of the first people to have entered Nordhausen at the end of the Second World War, the place where the V-2 rockets were being produced. Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" comes to mind, and is even mentioned several times in the novel, but apart from the historical context, there is no other comparison. Chabon's prose is direct, precise, unusually without any demonstration of stylistic prowess, almost as the chronicler of events, even if once in a while you can read wonderful sentences such as "got his grandfather so drunk that he was able to directly experience, if not communicate, some of the unlikelier effects on time and space called for by Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity"

Yet he goes further, much further, actually reconstructing the lives of his grandparents - and parents - by adding a strong dose of fiction of their daily lives, the conversations, the details of clothing, behaviour and thoughts that no person could ever remember, let alone fully recount during the last days of one's lives. This creates an almost obscene intimacy, by putting yourself in the position of these people you probably knew so well, including the sexual longing and sexual acts.

The book is as much about the grandfather's fight and moral concerns about German rocket scientist Werner von Braun and his gang, who participated in the US space programmes, and even more about his grandmother, a French jewish refugee, an actress with a great joie-de-vivre, and independent thoughts and action, who increasingly becomes the victim of schizophrenia. It is about his grandfather's attempt to build a new relationship after his grandmother has died.

Both grandparents are damaged goods, yet they try to live together as almost totally opposing forces: he is the principled engineer with a strong sense of ethics, who even spends a year in prison for an impulsive physical attack on his employer, she is the artist, the beautiful woman who lives in a world of fantasy and fear, using tarot cards with her grandson. Despite the differences between them, there is love and deep respect, even if they are fully aware of each other's shortcomings.

The whole novel is pieced together in a very non-chronological form, with memories, pictures and additional detail provided by his mother as elements to reconstruct something that will always be a little less than what it was, yet paradoxically, it's the novelists fictitious additions that make the people come to live, and maybe even make it bigger and more moving than it actually was.

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