It took me a while to get into Michael Chabon’s new novel, but once I did, I was fully hooked. The opening chapters are rough—they move around in time, and the main character is merely called “my grandfather.” The book is structured as Michael Chabon’s record of his grandfather’s life, based on stories his grandfather told on his deathbed, mixed in with Chabon’s own recollections, research, and stories from others. (It’s not clear how much of this is artifice and how much is reality—and it doesn’t matter much to me either way. I think the structure is supposed to be profound and genre-bending, but I honestly don’t care. It’s billed as a novel, and I read it as one.)
The life at the center of the book is eventful, to put it mildly. The novel begins with the grandfather attacking his boss who has just fired him, apparently to make room in the business for Alger Hiss. Then, he’s a boy sneaking around a railyard, and then an old man, with memories of the space race. There’s also Chabon’s grandmother, an eccentric and sometimes moody storyteller, who uses cards to tell her grandson his fortune. It’s clear that these two have a complicated history, and it takes a while for the story to unwind.
I am increasingly impatient with books that play around with timelines for no clear reason, and I’m not convinced that the nonchronological timeline was necessary here. However, I found the two main characters—the grandfather and grandmother—so intriguing that I hung in there to see what made them tick. And they do prove to be fascinating, and the story of their relationship was terribly moving.
Chabon’s grandfather is a curious man and a lover of science who doesn’t mind a challenge. He wants to protect the vulnerable, but he can be violent when he’s angry. During his life, he’s an intelligence agent, a convict, an amateur engineer, and an avid model builder. He’s tender toward his daughter, but too consumed in his work. He loves his wife, no matter how hard it is.
Even more fascinating is Chabon’s grandmother, a young widow and refugee turned wife and TV host. However, she’s haunted by traumas from her past, and her eccentricities can turn troubling. She’s institutionalized for several years, and the nature of her past remains something of a mystery until the end. But I loved her for always striving to make a good life for her daughter, even if it meant leaving her behind for a while.
A lot of this book is about how the stories we know about people aren’t always the whole story. Identities shift over time, and it’s not always clear what the true essence of a person is. The book opens with Alger Hiss, the accused Soviet spy. And much of the grandfather’s story revolves around Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist brought to the U.S. as part of Operation Paperclip. These men were different people at different times, but were they different enough to erase the worst parts of their lives?
Chabon’s grandfather lives many different lives while remaining the same essential person. His grandmother makes even bigger changes, to the point that it’s not clear who she even is—except, perhaps, in the ways that matter. There are mysteries inside every life, and maybe it’s not important to unearth them all. But maybe, by unearthing those stories, we see strength we didn’t even know was there.