Michael Chabon packs everything into his new novel: war, mental illness, family, love, death, grief, science, the space race. And yet by the end I was left wondering: just what was the point of all that?
It’s a book overstuffed not just with topics but detail too – as if Chabon did years of research and couldn’t bring himself to leave any of it out – but there’s a strange emptiness at its core.
The book seeks to blur the lines between memoir and historical fiction, as the narrator – a guy named Mike Chabon – listens to the surprising life-story of his dying grandfather. It jumps backwards and forwards in time as the grandfather – never actually named – fights the Nazis, becomes an engineer, struggles in his marriage to a woman stalked by an imaginary demon she calls the Skinless Horse, goes to prison and eventually finds some small measure of peace.
It’s grand in scope and sweep, admirable for its ambition, and Chabon is as capable as ever of some truly dazzling writing: there is perhaps no living writer who can imbue a single sentence with as much power, meaning and wit. But here it’s all pyrotechnic style over substance.
There’s no plot to speak of, no real narrative propulsion at all. Moonglow is more a collection of (sometimes loosely) connected vignettes of a life – a forgivable flaw of many a memoir, I suppose. But this is not a memoir, it’s a novel – one that’s unfocused, disjointed and more than a little pointless.
It’s cold too, emotionally remote. Perhaps it’s partly because we never even learn the names of the two central characters, an odd stylistic choice for Chabon, who’s usually so good at bringing characters to life.
I’m a big fan of Chabon and loved his last novel, Telegraph Avenue, even though it seemed to leave a lot of critics underwhelmed. A paean to nerd culture, it was messy too but it had drive, a reason for being.
This time I’m on the opposite side of the ledger: every critic under the sun is raving about Moonglow but I’m sorely disappointed.
See you in five years Mr Chabon.