Sunday, 12 March 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Moonglow by Michael Chabon

 
published (in the UK) 2017





LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



 
 
Moonglow 2
 


[The young Michael unexpectedly goes to stay with his grandparents, because his mother is ill]

 
My father rang the doorbell. My grandmother opened the door. It was the middle of the afternoon, but she was still wearing her housecoat. This was a kind of slender tent with a Nehru collar that buttoned up the front and fell to her ankles, violently patterned with red and purple op-art. Today it would seem like the relic of an audacious moment in the history of mid-century design, but at the time I simply accepted it as routine loungewear for a grandmother.

‘Go in.’ The bangles on her wrists clinked as she waved me into the apartment. ‘Put your things in the cabinet in the bedroom. In the chest of drawers.’

My father handed me the valise. ‘It’s just a couple of days,’ he said. ‘Grandma will take you to buy a Matchbox car.’


 
moonglow 1Moonglow 3
 


commentary: In the usual disclaimer at the front of Moonglow, Michael Chabon says: ‘Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Scout’s honor.’

But we are not really expected to believe this: He is playing with the reader throughout. The book is narrated by Michael Chabon, and he is telling the long and complex story of his maternal grandparents. At the end of the book, and in the publicity for the book and reviews, we are told that this is partly fiction. Or a lot of fiction. Or a pack of lies. It is, apparently, up to the reader to decide what is true and what isn’t. This is extremely tiresome and pointless, but it seems to be quite a common trope in books these days.

I have loved some of Michael Chabon’s books very much: on the blog I have covered Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Telegraph Avenue, while his masterpiece (in my view) is Wonder Boys – two blog entries, an invented book for an April Fool’s entry, and high praise for the film and also the Bob Dylan video featuring footage from the film… ‘Truly Michael Chabon is a Wonder Boy’, I said. And there is also the marvellous Yiddish Policemen’s Union. (We have also featured his wife Ayelet Waldman and a couple of her books.)

So I’m putting off saying that I didn’t really like this book all that much. It was, of course, beautifully well-written, and funny at times, and there was an interesting story in there. But it was told at SUCH length, and in such a convoluted jumpy way, and with such long dull diversions – I couldn’t get on with it. We all have grandparents and they all have stories, but they don’t need to be told in such detail. I didn’t find it quirky and charming, I had to fight off that feeling of ‘How dare you assume I will be interested in this?’, and it is difficult. On it goes – not helped by his always referring to characters as ‘my grandfather’, ‘my grandmother’, ‘my mother’ – no names given. (One fact revealed early on in the book is that the grandfather is in fact no blood relation to Michael Chabon.)

I cannot emphasize enough how annoying is the whole business of its maybe being true, maybe not. I am truly not interested in any more novels like that.

ADDED LATER: **** My good friend Sergio takes me to task in the comments below for not saying why I didn’t like the true/false dichotomy. He is quite right to call me on this, and he forced me to think  about it harder, and I now would like to add this:


The book deals with a lot of very important real events of the mid-to-late 20th century, and features some of the worst crimes against humanity ever perpetrated. There is room for fiction about these events, and of course there is an obligation for there to be non-fiction accounts of these events. But to mix the two is, I think, wrong, pointless and dangerous – especially given that there are people who deny that some of these events happened. If the book describes some particularly awful war experience, am I supposed to believe in it or not? It is important to know whether this was something that really happened. ****


Moonglow 4In its favour: Chabon is very good at telling you what people are wearing. I particularly liked the grandfather in his shorts, polo shirts, and sandals and socks - ‘he looked like the retired director of a Zionist summer camp.’

And I loved the housecoat – which as it happens has been a subject much discussed on the Clothes in Books twitter timeline this week. Not this book, the whole idea of housecoats, along with that other great CiB favourite, bedjackets. So that is why I picked out this part of the book to illustrate.

Naturally on Twitter I was lecturing:
Housecoats can vary in formality and glamour, but the key element: no corset or stays underneath.
They have often featured on the blog –
‘the graceful full-skirted blue velvet housecoat’ in this 1950s book, the surprising orange one at a party here, and a splendid discussion of housecoats – and the original use of this picture to the right – in the blog entry on Margery Sharp’s blissful book The Innocents.

Michael Chabon once wrote a children’s book on baseball, Summerland, which is as close to unreadable as any book I have ever attempted, so I have hopes that yet again I can ignore one book and like his next…























33 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree more, Moira. That 'Is it true or not?' trope just doesn't work for me, either. And it sounds as though this is the sort of book that might have benefited from really tighter editing, so that the story could have been a little better-paced? Perhaps I'm being unfair. At any rate, I'm glad Chabon did the clothes parts well.

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    1. I do think that once an author reaches a certain level of success - well, everyone is too nervous to edit them. Yes, a shorter sharper book would have been better for me.

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  2. Yes to the fear of editing a successful author. I see it again and again in the later books of a writer who has published extensively. Either the writer missed deadline and the publisher believed the author's followers would buy anything with his/her name on it and so rushed to print, or the assigned editor is just too intimidated to point out the lapses. In either case, both the author and the reader have been ill-served.

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    1. Exactly. And it's why so many later books by successful authors are far, far too long. Drives me mad.

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  3. Dear Moira, Really there should be more housecoats in fiction. I realize this now. Thank you.

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    1. Sara: it's an important realization & I'm glad you have now got the point. Of course we need them in real life too - and also bedjackets. The case is clear.

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  4. Ah, housecoats . . . I associate it very much with my mother's generation and the idea that when you left the house you had to dress smartly (and my mother NEVER went anywhere without her lipstick on) so it was luxurious to have something to relax in at home. Now that we all wear jeans all the time, no need for housecoats. But I do think the time is ripe for a revival of the bed-jacket.

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    1. I prefer the French term - "liseuse."

      It implies that you're reading, probably Proust, and not just huddled up throwing kleenex balls for the cat and watching reruns of the Hallmark channel.

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    2. Indeed. that previous generation not only had bedjackets and housecoats, but they had special untouched clean ones in a drawer, so that they'd be prepared if they ever went off to hospital. I think there's a lot to be said for bedjackets, I don't know why we let them go. And, as Shay says, it would raise our game for what we read while wearing them.

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  5. I have a terrible confession to make - I slob around in a nightdress and SHAWL.

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    1. Just add a multiple candlestick and you're ready for a trip up the staircase to terror, through the secret locked door, and into the room with something strange and dark in the corner...

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  6. These points about the housecoats are hilarious. I remember them. You seem to have captured the right one with a few photos of a red one with a Nehru collar and very arty design and falling to the floor.

    I remembers mothers of friends wearing housecoats. But I believe that there are cultural and class differences between wearers of housecoats and bed jackets. Bed jackets are more middle- and upper-class, more Grace Kelly in a bed scene.

    Housecoats were for every woman, including immigrant and working-class women, especially grandmothers in my day. Maybe friends' mothers, aunts, etc.

    And then there were bathrobes. My mother wore a bathrobe when not otherwise dressed.

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    1. Thanks Kathy - the Nehru collar certainly conjured up a certain image. And what fascinating points about class differences - of course not everyone can sit around in bed in a bedjacket. And bathrobes - a whole new subject..

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  7. I think my mother might have had that very McCalls pattern - or one very similar - she was a demon seamstress and made herself many house coats over the years (and did indeed have many un-used ones when she went doo-lally and we had to put her in a nursing home - she was the best dressed person there).

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    1. I'm always impressed by anyone who can sew that well. And intrigued by stories of women (and it is always women) who have collections of unworn clothes and underclothes and housecoats. Tucked away in a drawer against some future moment.

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    2. Meh -- Raglan sleeves are a snap. It's the set-in kind, particularly with puffs, that drive the home seamstress to drink.

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    3. Thanks for the extra info Shay!

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    4. Big ol' ditto on that from me, Shay!

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  8. Not read this yet and sorry you really didn't like it, though the whole "is it true or isn't it" would not really bother me that much frankly. Why did this trope bother you so much? I mean, if it only comes in at the beginning and the end, what about the stuff in the middle ... :) My personal favourite remains CAVALIER & CLAY

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    1. No, it's all the way through, and given that the narrator is called Michael Chabon I just kept thinking 'is this true or not?' and I found that unsettling. Cavalier and Clay is probably my least favourite of his books (apart from the unspeakable Summerland) so maybe that says something - I think he is a wonderful writer, and I did like C&C, but not as much as the others.

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    2. Sergio - your question was a very reasonable one, and force me to think about it more, and I have added another section to the blogpost explaining what I didn't like about the fiction/nonfiction mixture.

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    3. What did you make of his Sherlockian pastiche?

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    4. Thanks for the extra paragraph Moira - certainly, if discerning the author's intent becomes an obstacle in a book, then you've got problems!!!

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    5. Thanks for asking, because you did make me think about it more, and marshal my thoughts.
      I quite liked the Sherlock one, but expected more of it. I'm always complaining books are too long - perhaps that novella should have been longer...

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  9. I have this book as part of my Powell's book club membership (that, sadly, I've had to let lapse until I plow through at least 50% of what I have in my to-be-read piles). Now, I'm not sure if I want to read it. I had high school friends who were children of Holocaust survivors. I'm pretty sensitive on the issue -- especially if it's being treated lightly.

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    1. No - to be fair, it's not treated lightly - but in a way that I found strange. I'm sure many people will love it, but for me it didn't quite work.
      Oh Powell's, what a wonderful place.

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  10. I do love the housecoat, and the pattern. I had tons of those as did my mother and her mother. I swear one of us made a housecoat for me of a quilted material in a style similar to the ones above.

    Hard to tell whether I would like this or not, but I have only read one Chabon, and it is the Yiddish Policemen's Union, because it is a mystery. That one I could read again.

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    1. Quilted housecoats were quite the thing were they not? Perhaps we should just both read Yiddish Policeman again - what a great book that was.

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  11. This is bringing up memories of sewing crises (or phobia on my part.) I could not sew from a pattern. I can do basics, make a hem, sew on buttoms, repair a tear on a seam. That's it. Tried to sew something from a pattern in junior high school. Failed. Home economics and I were not meant to be together.

    Then my talented younger sister made a pink dotted Swiss floor-length bathrobe with pearlized buttons and lace at the collar and cuffs! This, while in high school. And she sewed several dresses, too.

    I discovered this was definitely an area in which I did not excel.

    I have not read books by Chabon, but I read two by Ayelet Waldman, light, but interesting. One funny, one not so much.
    I love her Twitter feed.

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    1. Oh Kathy I was just the same - I was hopeless at sewing, and in school lessons failed to make anything really, I got stuck on making a simple square sewing bag! Meanwhile my great friend, whom I sat next to, made dresses and blouses and skirts and eventually a coat. So I do empathize.

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