The Question of What We Do With Our Past

May 5, 2017
Title: Moonglow
Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: HarperCollins (Nov 22, 2016)
Pages: 448
Price: $14.99
ISBN: 006222557X, 9780062225573

Memories are eminently elusive, subject to the vicissitudes of time and well-honed prejudices. And yet, we build our worlds on the premise that memories are, in fact, shareable: truth commissions, courts of law, family reunions, Gospels. Upon closer look, it appears to be sheer lunacy that we do this so easily: our memories are not straight-forward, and our stories are not organized as folders in a Dropbox folder (assuming your Dropbox is better organized than mine). Memory collates according to tangent and accident, connections drawn according to time, space, associations that are intelligible even in the moment, and—only occasionally—unadulterated reason. Neurologists have shown us, for example, that it is not sight that creates the most potent memories, but smell, a curious basis for our most powerful cognitive gift. Researchers into Alzheimer’s point to the way in which the disease makes its sufferers exist in past moments inaccessible to the rest of us. Memory—and its attendant past—is slippery.

I bring up these mysteries of memory in order to offer praise to Michael Chabon’s most recent work, Moonglow. Told as the recollections of an unnamed grandfather to a fictionalized version of Chabon (the Grandson), the book traces the life of the Grandfather from childhood to death in a zig-zagging mélange of memory, story, and artifact. A caveat to the potential reader: do not read this book casually, for the authorial style is one which requires familiarity with the disparate threads of Grandfather’s life. Chapters casually begin where the narrative left off, though that particular thread may not have been the subject of Grandfather’s telling for four chapters. Should one put this book down for two weeks (as this reviewer unwisely did), you had best begin again, both to regain your footing in Grandfather’s world and to re-immerse yourself in Chabon’s style.

The particular style of writing Grandfather’s life, while hazardous to a casual reader, is what makes this book so compelling: it unfolds as our memories of our lives actually unfold, in fits and starts, partial recollections which are completely intelligible to the teller but an inviting mystery to the hearer. Grandfather’s meeting of his first wife in the aftermath of World War 2 is followed by his work some decades later in the aerospace industry, interrupted by descriptions of last week’s morphine drip, as Grandfather lies dying. Moonglow somehow captures the inner workings of actual memory in ways which humanize this fictional Grandfather as the linear celebrity tell-alls cannot do, for this very reason: Grandfather recounts his life as we actually recall our lives—in truthful half-starts and drawn out threads.

For several years now, this question of our pasts—both those we owned and those which own us—has been central to Chabon’s work. In his rightly celebrated Wonderboys, we are exposed to how past habits color and inhibit future opportunities. With his magnum opus, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the friendship of the protagonists is interwoven with the trauma of the Great Depression, as they work out their past lives over the course of decades in the comic book industry. And in his delightful collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, we are given a window into the ways in which Chabon’s own past works its ways into his novels. Even his under-appreciated Yiddish Policeman’s Union turns on this question of what value the past has for the present, and in what ways past faith lives on even in the lives of the presently agnostic.

Here in Moonglow, the question of what we do with our past emerges, as Grandfather and the fictional version of Chabon struggle with questions of Jewish identity and past failures, all while questioning to what degree these pasts are actually habitable now. Artifacts which the Grandfather retains throughout his life are emblems of this process—changing through the book, amplified and modified as they are needed in the present: spaceship models expand to fit a new generation’s vision of life in space (and Grandfather’s own understanding of the good life), and tools for building a home are repurposed for hunting animals for a new loved one. Certain aspects from the past are repurposed, intentionally brought across time and space, and other aspects (such as Grandfather’s Judaism) simply recede into the past.

The answer which Moonglow provides to how we retrieve the past is perhaps more interesting: the Grandfather provides his own life to Grandson as a jumble of interwoven stories, told under the influence of a morphine drip as Grandfather dies from cancer. But even in his lucid moments, Grandfather shows no interest in making sense of his life’s work and events, leaving that task to Grandson Chabon. This, I think, is the most powerful counter to not only the genre of memoirs, but to autobiographies, theological or otherwise: we are ultimately incapable of telling our own stories rightly. Moonglow does many things, but among these is broach this question which, for Christians, should be of deep concern: are we capable of offering adequate testimony to our lives apart from one another? Are our pasts deep wells which we alone are capable of emptying, or must we turn to others to tell our stories well, to those whose vision can see more than ours?

In the case of Grandfather—both because of emotional and physical wounds, and because of the lingering weight of sadness—we see one who has no real interest in binding together his past beyond a certain point, leaving it to the Grandson to write his story. Our past—as a culture and as individuals—is a thick jumble of influences, half-starts, and fragments. We can do so much with all of this. But it lies beyond our power, it seems, to turn the whole sack of dates and places into something which is usable beyond a certain point. It is in hope, then, that we tell our stories, that our vision of the past might find new light in someone else’s eye, that they would see fruit where we ourselves only saw fruitless toil and the gates of Eden barred.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

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