There is always some added exaggeration in a good story. There is a touch of absurdity here or a dash of ridiculousness there; nothing is entirely facts and figures. Michael Chabon’s latest novel is filled with such exaggeration in stories featuring his grandfather. When I say that I mean that the entirety of the content of this memoir is apocryphal. Interestingly enough, despite the fabrication of the story, it feels too absurd to be made up.
The book is inspired by a final meeting with his cancer-ridden grandfather in Oakland, California, Chabon took notes on their semi-lucid discussions about the past. “His mind wandered…,” he mentions in an NPR article, “…and it wandered into the past.” Using this interaction as a guideline, Chabon created the entire fake-memoir storyline to act as the plot.
Throughout the novel, Chabon investigates several stories of his fictitious grandfather with no discernable order or linearity. Despite its structure, each snippet is personal and moving and even has a hint of humor to coincide with the harsh events that are transpiring. The stories begin with the grandfather (who is never given a proper name throughout the novel) assaulting his boss with a phone line. Other stories involving the first encounter with grandmother, his time during World War II and his quest to kill Werner von Braun, his obsessive need to murder a snake in Florida which may or may not be real, his time in prison where he accidentally blows up an inmate, and various other tidbits to fuse the stories together. It deviates and winds through his life, jumping back and forth through time but never becomes too difficult to comprehend which part of the story is being told.
It is not the events that happen to the unnamed grandfather that make the story an interesting read, rather it is how he reacts to the hardships and struggles that have plagued his life. Seeing the inner machinations of his mind, the motivations, and mindsets that he must live by to not become crushed beneath the bullshit: that is what makes this book intriguing. His priority to protect his family often conflicts with his ability to be a good person while in Wallkill Prison or during the War in Germany. After the suffering hits full force, the reader sees how the grandfather coped. He takes his mind off of things by killing made-up snakes or building model rockets.
Chabon excels in creating an atmosphere that the reader can ease into. Using explicit and vibrant language to describe emotions and environments, Chabon makes the hard cuts between chapters and stories manageable and even enjoyable. It is lifelike, personal, and real, despite it being none of those things. If anything can be taken away from this feigned reality that Chabon has created, it is that everyone has an interesting story to tell. Even if it isn’t the least bit true.
Reviewed by Nicholas Ni