This is a novel written as a memoir about “Michael Chabon” memorializing his “grandfather.” In the last ten days of his life, his stoic grandfather unloads stories about his time in World War II, a stint in prison, how he met his wife, the “grandmother” of the novel, and the trauma of the family dealing with her mental illness. She is institutionalized for a couple of years in the early 1950s and a profound secret of hers is “buried” there only to be unearthed in the journal of her psychologist many years later by the grandson, the fictional Mike Chabon.
The stories of his different family members are beautifully told, as only the real Michael Chabon can write, deeply affecting even. But the use of his family name(s) for the narrator and certain other family members is a very unusual choice, one that ultimately left me scratching my head. While reading the book, I assumed Michael Chabon was writing about his real family and filtering their stories through his writerly hand, adding literary flourishes as he saw fit. He never gives the name of his grandfather or grandmother, while he uses his own name (he’s called Mike) as well as his uncle, paternal grandfather, and the like. But in an article in the back of the book reprinted from BuzzFeed, Chabon cops to the fact that the novel is completely fictional. He tells the reporter, “In a weird way, it’s a memoir of not my life, but my imaginative life…” Again, this led to more head scratching. Why use his own name? Without this article in the back of the book, a reader would assume, as I did, that there was some truth in this book. If there is no truth, then why not give all the characters their own unique, fictional names?
As a writer, this choice did lead to many questions. I did ponder things like: what constitutes a novel? What constitutes a memoir? Where does fact and fiction intersect if you’re looking for truth? What if truth doesn’t matter? And these are fun things for a writer to consider and definitely gets in “nerd alert” territory. But if there are more questions than answers, then does this hobble the book itself? Would I have been more satisfied if Chabon didn’t use his family name at all? Most definitely.
Another curious choice is some very explicit details of the sex life between the grandfather and grandmother, details so graphic that I highly doubt any grandson would recount to anyone in this way. Although it’s only a few paragraphs in the book, I cannot for the life of me figure out why “Chabon” would give these lurid details about his “grandparents” having sex. Very strange literary choice.
Ultimately, this isn’t my favorite Chabon novel. I did enjoy the stories of the grandfather in World War II and his time in prison. They’re beautifully told. But mostly, it just made me realize how much I enjoyed his other novels more than this one. I’d give this novel three and a half stars.