Deathbed Fictions: On Reading Moonglow and Tinkers

This week I read Michael Chabon’s fictional family memoir Moonglow—the short version of this post would be to simply recommend it. I adore Chabon’s writing—like Salinger, his line-by-line is so precise and haunting that whole sentences stick in my mind apparently permanently—and this book has the special superpower he gains when he’s writing about his passions. Moonglow is driven by obsession with history (familial and global, alternate and actual), science fiction, and the Jewish Diaspora. As always when he’s at his best, Chabon’s characters are all overwhelmed with their own theories about legacy and narrative, all thoughtful—if flawed in their thinking—and compellingly tender in their own ways. I’ve written more than once about novels of expertise—Chabon is a master of the form; he’s always writing about hobbyists and devotees, about fans and obsessives. Amateurs, as he’d call them, and experts. Moonglow is delightful.

It also reminded me, sideways, of another book I love—Paul Harding’s Tinkers. The two have in common only their nominal concepts, which are nearly identical—both purport to be genre-bending novel-memoirs based on family stories, written on the occasion of a grandfather’s death. Each traces the outline of a shared experience—old New England, mid-century Jewish-American—through one family line. (Incidentally, they are also novels of expertise in the same vein, the delicate, miniature construction of worlds—Tinkers is organized around metaphors of clock repair, Moonglow around model rocketry.) Aside from the blaring and unanswerable question of how much is “true” in each—always best to assume less than you’d think, though Moonglow makes greater claims to biography and I’m guessing has less in it—the two books execute their concepts in wildly different ways. Harding sinks narrative perspective into the grandfather figure and his ancestors in turn, his book a short and lyrical collage of altered states. The narrative morphs through dreams, foggy memories, and epileptic fits. Chabon’s own (semi-)fictional avatar is always present in his book—his grandfather is only ever “my grandfather”, even in scenes set decades before “Michael Chabon’s” birth. He’s a scientist, not a poet, and the book’s structure and prose reflect that—as Chabon writes, narrating his grandfather analyzing an evening with his future wife, “when an engineer encounters his destiny or doom, it always takes the form of a puzzle.”

I love both these books individually, but held against one another they chime an encouraging message about originality. For two such theoretically similar works to feel so different in form and content—I have friends who couldn’t bring themselves to finish one who I’m confident will love the other—makes me feel energized about the plurality of narratives, the ongoing worth of telling new and old stories.