Moonglow, Michael Chabon’s new novel, finds its essence at the intersection between tiny moments of family history and the biggest global events of the 20th century. In weaving threads of his characters’ lives with threads of world history—the Holocaust, World War II, the Space Race—Chabon writes an enlightening book about humanity’s search for meaning.
Chabon’s imagination began churning with elements of his family’s past: conversations he had with his terminally ill grandfather more than 20 years ago; a great-uncle’s anecdote about getting fired from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss; and a mysterious 1950s advertisement for Chabon Scientific Co. model rockets. The result is that Moonglow unfolds as though it were a memoir, with the narrator listening to his grandfather’s life story. Throughout the text, Chabon draws subtle parallels between those intimate affairs and the internationally consequential events that occur almost in tandem.
“That point of tangency of the huge and the tiny was the initial thing for me,” he says in an interview with Paste. “The first impulse of this book was this family anecdote that I’d heard a couple times growing up, the intersection of this sad-sack, pathetic story of my great-uncle getting fired, with this huge arc of the Cold War and one of its most notorious figures. It popped into my head one day when I sat down to write something else. I found myself thinking of that anecdote, and that was my starting place.”
Chabon also knew that, on some level, he wanted Moonglow to be the history of a model rocket ad he discovered, carrying his family name but offering no further clues.
“That ad is real, and I have no explanation for it whatsoever,” he says. “So I decided to make one up. I coincided with the Space Race, more or less exactly, and was completely caught up with it as a kid.”
The model rockets, the Space Race, and the grandfather character’s World War II work as an intelligence officer all pointed Chabon in the direction of Wernher von Braun, the German aerospace engineer and inventor of the V-2 rocket who later immigrated to America. In much the same way that Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay uses Harry Houdini to introduce the central theme of escape, Chabon invokes a meditation on scientific discovery with von Braun, benefitting from an “At what cost?” hindsight.
“I remember my little kid’s view of Wernher von Braun, seeing him on Wonderful World of Disney, chatting about all these incredible orbiting space stations and colonies on mars and all these things we’d have when I grew up,” Chabon says. “That figure of von Braun was part of my imaginative landscape from a very young age, and then there was a gradual sense of disillusionment over the years, both with the ideals of the space program…and then the increasing consciousness of just how deeply von Braun was implicated in the Nazi slave labor structure.”
Chabon began writing about topics he’d taken an interest in his whole life, but as his continued research encountered some darker truths, that led to subtle shifts in his characters.
“The more my personal sense of outrage increased, that changed my character’s way of thinking,” he says. “For the grandfather, his outrage and his shame and his disappointment, too—because he believed so strongly in this vision of space flight to the moon—all of that became more important as far as motivating qualities of his character.”
The grandfather’s outlook reflects a larger view of the Space Race and the Cold War. On one hand, it began as a more optimistic response to the devastation of WWII and the Holocaust. On the other, it was completely tainted by the most devastating parts of the war.
Like in Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon’s latest work of fiction tackles World War II, the Holocaust and the world-altering aftermath. It’s a history that becomes more and more removed from each generations’ experiences, which motivates the otherwise reticent grandfather to speak in depth about his was past.
“The direct physical connection to the past is rapidly disappearing, and all we will have after that is our mediated experiences,” Chabon says. “When no living witnesses are left, then it’s all in the hands of the mythmakers. Everything will become mythologized in some way, no matter how faithfully documented it will have been. The grandfather is painfully aware of that.”
The grandfather develops an almost nihilistic worldview, wondering if there’s any meaning in life. But the grandson approaches the grandfather’s stories yearning for meaning amidst the family secrets.
“Storytelling in its essence is the imposition of pattern, the imposition of meaning on the materials of the real world,” Chabon says. “There’s an inherent human tendency to try to find meaning or patterns, whether through fortune telling cards, or whether it’s through looking up at the sky at night.”
But Chabon has avoided repetition throughout his writing career, publishing eight novels with diverse tones and styles. “Part of what I have to do with every book is invent a new dialect for it to be written in,” he says. “Sometimes that dialect is sharply distinct from other work of mine, sometimes it’s a more subtle distinction.”
“With [Moonglow], it was very different. But it was clear to me, almost from the first two days I was working on this book, that I was going to try to do it in the form of a memoir. I knew how those kinds of books came at memory and reflection and reporting of incidents from the past, so I adopted that tone and tried to import that approach into the style of what was always a novel.”
The memoir approach allows Chabon’s writing to leap through time, following the grandfather’s disjointed storytelling as he makes new connections between disparate events. The character’s revelations ultimately deliver a moving portrait of a life spanning the 20th century.