published (in the UK) 2017
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[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.’
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. ****
In 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…