Michael Chabon doesn’t hate memoir—he wants to be clear about that. During his latest promotional tour he’s told The Millions that he counts Stop Time and This Boy’s Life among his favorite books, and even told Boston’s WBUR that he believes we’re living in an era of “creative nonfiction renaissance and the ascendancy of the literary memoir.” So, as he recently explained during a December Q&A at the University of Pittsburgh, his knock against the genre is not the memoirs themselves, but instead the fuel behind their ascendancy: the “misguided” reading public.
“There’s this emphasis on ‘truth’ now that, as a novelist, makes me very anxious. Readers want the truth, and think they’re getting the truth when they read memoir.”
He points to James Frey as an example of out-and-out fraudulence, but truth comes with toxic considerations for even the most well-intentioned memoirist. Any attempt to faithfully retell past events is inevitably an ersatz production, Chabon’s thinking goes, as the writer “could be lying and not even know it”—misremembering, misinterpreting, contradicting the memories of others, etc. This renders all memoirists as deceptive in some way or another, and thus the veneer of truth that drapes the genre is not a hallowed principle, but a narrative tool to be exploited.
From this theorizing emerges Chabon’s 13th book, Moonglow. Just what type of book it is depends on who you ask: the front cover says “novel,” the narrator says “memoir,” and the publisher says “fictionalized memoir.” Narrated by one “Mike Chabon,” Moonglow centers on Mike’s time providing hospice care for his cancer-riddled grandfather, feeding him and listening to stories of the dying man’s life—an experience mirroring one the real-life Chabon had in the later 80s. The point in all this postmodern smoke and mirrors?
“I wanted to remind readers of the power of the novel—that it’s capable of telling a truth that nothing else can.”
Whether or not Chabon accomplishes this abstract goal is debatable, but what can’t be argued is that Moonglow is a joy. Anyone scared of the deathbed confessional structure and WWII-heavy plot should rest easy. Far from being elegiac or maudlin, the book’s best scenes border magical realism: a play set on the lunar crust, performed by an unusually demented psych ward; a housecat who triumphs in battle over a 10 foot python; a sexual encounter with a bearded lady. Chabon, who for decades now has been quietly writing some of the better sex scenes in contemporary literature, isn’t struck shy in chronicling the exploits of fictionalized family members. He excels in making you catch your breath in anticipation, “He could feel the turmoil in his cheeks, throat, rib cage, loins,” and then punching it all out with a perfect metaphor, “(they) forgave each other with the pragmatism of lovers in a plummeting airplane.” His vision of war is in the tradition of Heller, Celine, and Orwell—farcical, absurd, and tinged with humor even through a stop at the Nordhausen forced labor camp.
But for all the scene-by-scene theatrics, Chabon really has his fun with the structure. He careen and caroms into and out of memories across a 70-year span without any clear objective. We are given the punchlines to jokes we don’t understand until hundreds of pages later. Aughenbaugh, a side character as delightful as his name, exists on the page for half a chapter before taking a Nazi bullet, but haunts the narrative through constant, peripheral references. In a book that openly plays with believability and reality, this elliptical, almost delirious progression is actually its greatest source of verisimilitude; anyone who has spent time listening to stories of the dying might recognize the opiate-induced patterns. It’s the grandfather who is said to be floating in a “palliative cloud” of Dilaudid, but Chabon is similarly buoyed across 450-odd pages.
There are times when the playfulness veers into petulance, however. When it comes to the peripatetic nature of truth and memory, Chabon winks at the reader so frequently it might as well be blinking. Reminders come from dialogue (“What is reality?”), metaphor (a photo album with all the pictures gone missing), and plot (Mike eventually discovers that a whole quarter of his family history, down to his ethnic heritage, was invented by his grandmother). Even the boilerplate legal disclaimer can’t escape without some coy editorializing: “Any resemblance to actual events, locales… is entirely coincidental. Scout’s honor.”
The most egregious example occurs early into the book. During childhood sessions of “playing with the story cards,” Mike sat enraptured as his grandmother used tarot cards to improvise fantastic tales. None of these stories are retold verbatim, because “to claim or represent that I retain an exact or even approximate recollection of what anyone said so long ago would be to commit the memoirist’s greatest sin,” but the snippets he does provide speak glowingly of their power. Her stories conjured visions of djinn, witches, and wolves, intoxicating and terrifying in their vividity and lasting impression—some, he claims, still influence his work 50 years later. There’s no attempt at subtlety; in this scene Chabon’s doppelganger isn’t just ceding greater artistic legitimacy to fiction, he’s prostrating himself before its magical altar. While its memoirists who take flak for supposedly using their work to bury hatchets and demonize enemies, here’s a novelist using his platform for contrived vindication.
This take on memoir might have made sense at the turn of the millennia, when Frey was igniting controversy and Augusten Burroughs was getting sued for libel, but a decade and a half later it feels a little dusty—almost reactionary. In employing certain techniques (historical personages utilized as characters, footnotes, even the ‘memoir-as-disguise’ trick) Chabon has pragmatically entered a literary tradition of experimentation; at Pitt he mentioned Ragtime as an inspiration, though Pale Fire and Underworld also come to mind. Far from being innovative, however, the criticism aimed at memoir’s claims to truth comes off as dated.
Take, for instance, Molly Brodak’s Bandit, the 2016 memoir centered on Brodak’s pathological liar and bank robber of a father. Far from being beguiled by her own capacity to err, she acknowledges and transforms her fallibility into intimacy; the reader is not passively receiving a half-truth warped by time and bitterness, but instead accompanies Brodak as she wades through different versions of reality, before finally settling on one she can embrace. And Brodak isn’t alone. In My Father Before Me, another 2016 memoir, Chris Forhan admits his memories could be wrong on the first page and then adjusts them occasionally throughout the text. And in Winter Journal, Paul Auster uses his body, temporal and unambiguous, to open up memories—the interactions that caused his literal scars. There are still plenty of memoirists playing fast and loose with the truth, sure, but the most exciting work is coming from those who have heard the criticisms, internalized and adapted to them, ultimately producing innovation. By that metric, the ongoing “ascendancy” of literary memoir making Chabon so nervous won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Moonglow is an excellent, often gorgeous book, which should come as no surprise to fans of Chabon—he’s an unambiguous literary genius and comfortably one of our greatest living authors. Frankly, finding blemishes is work, but the most pronounced flaw is Chabon’s misguided critical take on memoir—one that is unnecessary in conception and unseemly in execution. No doubt Moonglow is worth reading, but 2016 has produced a number of “real” memoirs every bit as deserving of attention.