Michael Chabon’s latest is a quasi-memoir

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist's 'Moonglow' features a narrator that seems to be Chabon himself as his listens to his terminally ill grandfather's recollections.

click to enlarge In "Moonglow," Chabon sees himself in his late grandfather. - Photo: Benjamin Tice Smith
Photo: Benjamin Tice Smith
In "Moonglow," Chabon sees himself in his late grandfather.
Moonglow, the latest book by Michael Chabon, is a quasi-memoir. Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who will be discussing and signing his latest effort at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Saturday, calls it “a speculative portrait.” It features a narrator that seems to be Chabon himself, as he listens to his grandfather, ill and hazy from drugs while sitting in his deathbed, tell stories that range from mundane to fantastical to downright bizarre.

Relayed through the nonlinear perspective of these seemingly random memories, Moonglow is a fascinating family saga that spans much of the 20th century, jumping from World War II and the Holocaust to the book-opening anecdote about his grandfather’s connection to accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss. CityBeat spoke via phone with Chabon, also the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Telegraph Avenue, about the way this book weaves factual events and fictional slipperiness with dexterity and insight. 

CityBeatWhat was it like for you to look through your grandfather’s eyes and get into his headspace?

Michael Chabon: Very comfortable. The grandfather in the book is me in many ways that I wasn’t really aware of at the time. This fake memoir that I wrote, in which someone very much like me appears as a narrating secondary character, turns out to be a self-portrait. But that self-portrait is not (the book’s) secondary character, named Mike, who seems like me. It’s the grandfather. I felt this strong sense of connection to him. What I see now, looking back, is that the grandfather is an alternate version of myself in many ways. 

Why am I not more like the grandfather in the book? I think it has to do with the circumstances of my upbringing. At some very, very early point, it became important to me to be perceived as being a good boy by my parents and teachers. When I look at the grandfather in the book, that’s the thing he didn’t have. From his earliest childhood, he was the bad boy in the family, and I think that in a way this is almost like a speculative portrait of what I might have been like had I not had that one quality that the grandfather doesn’t.

CB: A lot of people are calling this your most intimate novel. What do you think about that sentiment?

MC: I do feel like this one is intimate and wouldn’t deny that, but I think there are large parts of Telegraph Avenue that are as intimate if not more intimate. I think if you compare it to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union or Kavalier & Clay, those feel like they are very far removed from the circumstances of my life, or what readers might imagine the circumstance of my life to be, and so might feel less intimate. 

CB: You’ve admitted that Moonglow was inspired by the stories your grandfather told you on his deathbedAt one point in the book, the grandfather tells his grandson, “After I’m gone, write it down.” Did your grandfather actually say something like that?

MC: He never said anything quite so specific and explicit as that, but he used to say all the time, even before my first book was published, “You can write this down someday” or “this is a good story for you to write down” or “put that in a book.” Or he would turn to the people in the room with us and say, “Look, I’m giving him plenty of material for his next book.” 

CB: What do you think he would say about the book had he been around to read it?

MC: I think he would have enjoyed it. I think he would have scratched his head a little bit about certain things and wonder where I ever got that idea, but he was a very intelligent, sophisticated reader. I think he would understand pretty quickly what the game was of this book. I would like to think, and I hope I’m not just flattering myself, that he would probably be pretty tickled about it. He had an impish quality that would have led him to appreciate it. 

MICHAEL CHABON will be discussing and signing Moonglow 7 p.m. Saturday at Cincinnati’s Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion. More info: josephbeth.com.