By Jon Cogburn
This is Part III on a set of textually inspired meditations on the connection between author and narrator. Part I defended Jack Kerouac's On the Road from common misreadings that wrongly conflate narrator and author. Part II showed how Ian McEwan disastrously conflates himself with his narrator in his recent Nutshell: A Novel. Here I will explore how the very structure of Michael Chagon's Moonglow: A Novel leads to an incoherent conflation. This is quite different from McEwan's failure, which involves having his narrator voice the author's own banal musings about contemporary politics. Rather, the manner in which Chabon uses the first person narrator has him fail along exactly the same metric that renders Kerouac's Sal Paradise (but not later narrators Ray Smith and Jay Duluoz) so effective. Kerouac the author very skillfully (it was the sixth time he'd written up the material, and contrary to the pernicious legend he himself later believed, the book was rewritten multiple times with his editor before publication) has Paradise display his moral and epistemic shortcomings throughout the novel. Moonglow's narrator, on the other hand, is both a character in the story and epistemically perfect in a gallingly incoherent way. Moreover, it's clear Chabon is aware of this, but his attempts to mitigate the problem don't work.
Let me first say that I hate having a negative reaction to a Michael Chabon novel. Wonder Boys: A Novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavlalier and Clay, and his short story collection Werewolves in their Youth: Stories put him (imho) in the very top rank of American novelists who can write non-gimmicky, accessible books that deserve critical scrutiny, imitation, and the kind of anxiety of influence writing-against that Harold Bloom so effectively describes. He is fully equal to America's best writers such as Zadie Smith, Francine Prose, Philip Roth, and Stephen King.*
Chabon doesn't just explore what it is to be Jewish, what it is to be gay, what it is to be American, and what it is to be a protagonist. When you read his books you also lose yourself while learning a great deal about history, the social milieus and norms that carve up, march across, constitute, and struggle against historical moments, as well as how people cope individually and together as history's agents and victims. Among much else, readers of Kavalier and Clay get insight into what it was like to be an Jewish immigrant comic artist at the beginning of the animation era. It's the kind of empathy-expanding insight that only novels really give us. We get to become imaginatively complicit with people who inhabit a world similar enough to ours that we understand (in the full sense of human understanding) people in our own world much better. And, as perhaps our only properly Hegelian writer (Stephen King has his non-trivial moments such as with his Kennedy assassination novel), Chabon realizes that you can't really understand what it's like to be an individual in history unless you understand a lot about the history itself.**
Interestingly, one of the often humorous tropes about the grandfather is that he was famously taciturn. So then how does his grandson get enough information to tell his story? Chabon gets around this by having the narrator nurse his grandfather for the nine days prior to his death from bone cancer, days in which Dilaudid has loosened his tongue considerably. The narrative problem solved by the deathbed scenes is not wholly solved by those scenes though, as the narrator and/or author of Moonlight: A Novel (they are eponymous) tells us the following in the opening "Author's Note:"
In preparing this memoir, I have struck to the facts except when facts refused to conform when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to underpants it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.
So the author's note of a book with "A Novel" in the title categorizes the same work as a memoir. There's not necessarily anything wrong with this. As the Northern European narratologists who study "unnatural narrative" have pretty conclusively established, narrative inconsistency is often to an important point. Gestures such as Chabon's opening have launched a thousand critical essays, not all of which are odious. Independent of calling the memoir/novel a novel in the very title, every memoirist should avail herself of something like Chabon's intro. A memoir that does a worse job describing actual events might do a much better job priming a reader to be epistemically sensitive to counterfactual states of the actual world, precisely because the writer does the kind of thing Chabon describes. But, unfortunately, it doesn't scan in Chabon's case.
Note that Chabon's narrator takes the liberties described in the author's note with respect to events not involving the narrator. Consider this passage, at once illustrative of so much of what is great about a Chabon novel, but also illustrative of Moonglow: A Novel's Achilles heel:
As he drove, he lit another cigarette with the flare of the lighter and his thoughts bound their way back to heuristics - algorithms that offered shortcuts to solutions of complex problems - and an article he had read in Scientific American about a problem in the mathematics of graphing.
You were a traveling salesman whose territory obliged you to cover n cities, with your heavy sample case and your fallen arches and your weariness of diner food and hotel beds. Because you missed your wife and your daughter, you wanted to visit each city in your territory only once and then return home, having traveled the shortest distance in the least amount of time. There were (n - 1) possible routes, and if n wasn't too big, say five towns, you could sit down with your map and your distance table and your pencil and your incipient case of heartburn and add it all up and see which of the twenty-four possible routs was the shortest. But once n got up into even the low to digits, the job of calculating the distances for each possible route, even if you were superhumanly quick with a sum, might take hundreds of thousands of years. With only fifteen cities, there were a trillion possible routes, What you wanted, poor wanderer and footsore salesman, was some kind of algorithm, an operational shortcut that would let you find the most efficient route without doing a thousand years of math.
So far, it turned out, there was no such algorithm. But my grandfather had read that a cash prize was being offered by the RAND Corporation of Santa Monica to the first person who came up with a workable heuristic that would solve the Traveling Salesman Problem. Its solution, RAND felt, would open up all kinds of possibilities in the burgeoning field of operations research, a field that, as it happened, overlapped with the work he and Winblatt were doing. He felt the faint stirring of an idea then, an approach to internal navigation systems that would involve the heuristics of topological algorithms. It was a marvelous idea, and he backed away from it, giving it space; you could blow on a fire to stoke it, but if you blew on a little flame, it would go out (210-211)
The combination of what it was like to live in that place at that time (the poor salesman's feet, poor drivers before GPS), the abstract and concrete problems that helped define the age (computing heuristics and their applications), how people caught up in these problems cope (the phenomenology of mathematical creativity) is so flawlessly executed that you don't really notice what Chabon is doing and, during the reading, just lose yourself in the story.
But at the same time, an astute reader wonders if the narrator could really know all of the minutiae about exactly how the big idea about heuristics ultimately failed to come to his grandfather while his grandfather dealt with his fifteen year old daughter's panic over her mother's nervous breakdown. There's no indication that even Dilaudid would allow the grandfather to remember all of this at this level of detail. And this becomes most galling in the descriptions of the grandfather's fighting in World War II. If the grandfather himself (who was in the scenes) was the narrator it still wouldn't scan as something he could remember. Here's an entirely representative passage:
He shook hands with the old people in turn. He put two cartons of Chesterfields and a cigar of unknown provenance into the old priest's hands. The priest kissed my grandfather on the cheek and blessed his journey in rapid Latin. Fräulein Judit received two cans of sweetened condensed milk, a box of saltines, and the February 7, 1944, issue of Life, which had mysteriously appearead in my grandfather's rucksack the day after he and Aughenbaugh followed the 104th Infantry into Köln. The cover was a picture of George Bernard Shaw. In return my grandfather received a cold stare, a granite handshake, and a small, dusty wheel of cheese.
"What the hell?" Diddens said. "Where are you going?" He had woken feeling tender and green at the gills but, having thrown up a few times in the pigsty, polished off the last bottle of wine, and had a tramp through the woods to see the magnificent beast of legend, he seemed back to his old querulous self (233).
Again, this level of narrative omniscience wouldn't scan in a first-person narration if the narrator were present at the time. Would one really remember the exact foodstuffs, the issue date of the magazine and mystery of its provenance, and the exact speech of other people in the scene? But in any case the narrator is not at the scene, all of this is (in the novel) supposed to have been filtered through the nine days of Dilaudid conversations with the grandfather. More damningly, many of those very conversations are portrayed in the novel, and there is absolutely no indication either that the grandfather has superhuman powers of memory or that the narrator is recording them so as to preserve that level of detail. And this problem crops up on the overwhelming majority of the four hundred plus pages of Moonglow: A Novel.
Note that Chabon (the author, not the fictitious narrator of the same name) is, as far as I can tell, entirely aware of this. This is precisely why in the "author's note" a book with "A Novel" in the title is referred to as a memoir. This is a key that the author of the author's note is the narrator not the author. But it doesn't work, because we don't just have a normal case of the fabulist narrator's shaping the story towards a more interesting set of morals, which is what one would expect from the author's note. Instead we have the narrator retelling the fictional history from the God's eye perspective of a third person narrator, all the while writing in first person. Here the narrator is wrong to call the text a memoir; fabulist memoirs don't even do this. And Chabon is at some level well aware that the author's note gambit doesn't work, because the text itself is peppered with half-hearted footnotes that seek to gain the narrator the epistemic right to the level of description he is employing. But a set of footnotes sufficient to do this would be longer than the book and themselves tell a story far, far less plausible than the already fantastic account of the narrator's maternal grandparents.
I wish the kind of narrative incoherence on display in Moonglow: A Novel suggested some interesting post-modern meditations about the limits of this or that in the sense that theorists of unnatural narrative are skilled at raising or, more radically (and ultimately more interestingly) something along the lines of Priest, Zizek, Garcia, and Harman about reality itself. But I'm not seeing it at all. Rather,**** I think that if he'd written the thing in third person and had a proper author's note honestly giving us an indication of the limits of the source material he would have produced a book every bit as good and important as Kavalier and Clay. But instead we have one whose lack of sense doesn't (as far as I can tell) contribute at all to what the novel is trying to do.
Consider, by comparison one of Stephen King's late period classics, From a Buick 8. The main character is a kid who hangs out in the rural police station where his dead father had worked and the book chronicles the appearance of a horrific sort of multi-dimensional thing that the characters can only cognize as a Buick 8. The kid's inability to ever make sense of the Buick 8 mirrors his inability to make sense of his father's death and death generally. King does not hit you over the head with this and in fact comes nowhere close to saying it. But the confusing events in the novel all work towards coping with this realization. Here the incoherence is a key part of the book doing what it is supposed to be doing.
Or consider Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five: A Novel. Here both Vonnegut's Martian anthropologist narrator and the protagonist's becoming unmoored in time work to in part deliver the realization that the only true war book would be one where the author is standing behind the book firing a machine gun into a crowd that includes the reader. Vonnegut can't tell you about what he desperately needs to tell you about (the firebombing of Dresden) so he has the narration and structure of the book itself reflect this impossibility. His Martian anthropologist is funny precisely because she is so removed from the normative space that humans take for granted yet wants to nonetheless explain human behavior. Normally in Vonnegut this produces existentialist humor where the human norms seem silly in their contingency. But there's a tragic dimension too, where the Martian anthropologist's failure is to reflect tragic aspects of human failure as well, just as Vonnegut's narrator's time traveling illustrates how Vonnegut himself is trapped in early 1945 a story he can't tell, the inability of which is part of what traps him.*****
I desperately wanted to read Moonglow: A Novel in a manner which shows that Chabon is doing something similar with respect to his narrative incoherence and the narrator's grandfather's discovery of the Mittlebau-Dora (or Nordhausen-Dora) concentration camp. But I couldn't. And so I think the novel is a failure. Given the gravity of what is described by Chabon, the way past horrors seem to be creeping forward in our historical epoch, the fact that Chabon is perhaps our greatest living American novelist, and the fact that literature is important goddammit, this failure strikes me as tragic.
*Yes, Stephen King, whose posterior is just barely fit to be kissed by too often gimmicky critical darlings such as Cormac McCarthy, Don Delillo, and Thomas Pynchon (and, for that matter, before them the much less compromising William Gaddis, late era Gilbert Sorrentino, and Kathy Acker).
**Delillo and Pynchon get this point, but in that painful American way where we often do our worst while trying to do our best (here, compete with British literary authors) end up producing their worst, most gimmicky, books when trying to write to this norm. Not Chabon. You learn far more from Kavalier and Clay both in terms of getting a sense of what it was like and in terms of having a more removed appreciation of how things were and could be. You properly lose yourself in reading it, and then want to talk to your friends about it while not reading it. All literature should be this way, but most literature, even and especially that praised by theorists as difficult,*** isn't.
***On how difficulty of uptake as an aesthetic virtue is founded as a misreading of Kant, see Chapter II of Noel Carroll's A Philosophy of Mass Art. For some dark musings about how this ties to English professors' need to equate aesthetic goodness with ability of a text to yield critical publications by English professors, see my and Mark Silcox's "Computability Theory and Literary Competence."
****I realize how arrogant it is to make judgments of this sort. But to assiduously avoid them is to assiduously avoid thinking. If you consider the comparison I make to King and Vonnegut's efforts, I think it's clear both that I'm not under the delusion that I could do better and that the judgment has merit.
*****In the Introduction, he recounts how badly he wanted to kill his uncle who, upon meeting him for the first time after the war, grandly announced, "Well I guess you're a man now."]