If you grew up watching the original episodes of Saturday Night Live, as I did, you might remember a bit that actually ended up on the first SNL album—a commercial for a product called “Shimmer” that was both a floor wax and a dessert topping.
I couldn’t help think of that while reading Michael Chabon’s latest book, “Moonglow”. It’s described as a “novel” on the title page, only to be referred to by the narrator later as a “memoir” (a narrator who just happens to be a guy named Michael), and still later labeled as a “a pack of lies”.
At one point, Michael’s grandfather calls it a mishmash. He should know, as the story we are told in “Moonglow” is that of his life, and the life of his beloved and troubled wife.
“Anyway, it’s a pretty good story,” I said. “You have to admit.”
“Yeah?” He crumpled up the Kleenex, having dispatched the solitary tear. “You can have it. I’m giving it to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not this mishmash I’m making you. Start with the night I was born. March second, 1915. There was a lunar eclipse that night, you know what that is?”
“When the earth’s shadow falls across the Moon.”
“Very significant. I’m sure it’s a perfect metaphor for something. Start with that.”
“Kind of trite,” I said.
He threw the Kleenex at my head.
“Make it mean something.” For all the playfulness and sleight of hand around the issue of fiction vs. real life in “Moonglow”, I think Chabon is quite content to present his grandfather’s story as a mishmash, for the very reason it is a meaningful mishmash. One that involves the likes of Wild Bill Donovan and Wernher von Braun. One that brings some degree of clarity and understanding to a family that lived with secrets and silences.
The fact is life doesn’t always make sense. Things don’t always come about in our lives as the result of a natural order. Sometimes in life, a mishmash is what we get. Being able to recognize that, celebrate it, and make art of it is the gift Chabon has given us with this wonderful book.