Art is hostage to its time. When I started Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, before Donald Trump was elected president, my reasons were simple: It was the new novel from an author whose work I’ve loved. I wanted to read it. But by the time I finished Moonglow, the world was different. I found myself finishing the book with the same pleas I’ve been applying to all the art I’ve been consuming this past week: Make things make more sense. Make the world a little less shitty.
An unfair demand? Totally. Except here’s the thing: At least for me, Moonglow did make things make more sense. At least for me, Moonglow did make the world less shitty.
Pitched at varying points in its promo copy and acknowledgments as “fictional nonfiction,” “an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir,” and a “pack of lies,” Moonglow is a sprawling thing, swooping around in time and place, veering from the broken, bloody ruins of WWII to a retirement village in Florida. The focus, though, is on “my grandfather,” a dying man in a Dilaudid haze who tells his bookish grandson, one Michael Chabon, of a life devoted to a complicated, inspiring, and frightening woman; of visits to prison and to Nordhausen; of a dimming dream that rockets could be built not to bring death but to launch exploration—that peace, perhaps, might finally be found on the Moon, where, “230,000 miles from the stench of history, there was no madness or memory of loss.”
As Moonglow weaves its ambitious, romantic tragedy, Chabon’s writing is, as expected, graceful and witty and laced with melancholy. And by freeing himself from the rigidity of linear plot—thanks to that Dilaudid, Moonglow fills in connections there, jumps ahead here—Chabon avoids the sometimes trying plotting that’s marked his previous novels. I can’t tell you if Moonglow’s specifics will resonate with you as strongly as they did for me (having lost a grandparent myself this year, Moonglow hit me significantly harder than I expected), but I can suggest that the story’s broad strokes are applicable to, well, everybody: Moonglow is about family and fate, and remembering and forgetting, and the vast, fluid sea of time. People we love came before us, and people we love will come after us, each enduring their own failures and apocalypses, each finding love and peace when and where they can. In hands like Chabon’s, that’s a powerful reminder. In a time like this, it’s a necessary one.