Back in December of 2017, I had the opportunity of attending an event at UCLA featuring authors Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon. I had never read either of their novels, but I knew they were both very popular writers and I took the chance to get to know more about them.
The setup of the event was a relatively casual conversation between the two authors about a wide-ranging array of topics including reading, politics, writing (of course), the internet and human connection. They were both so articulate and insightful that it made me very excited to read the two books of theirs I purchased at the event – Swing Time and Moonglow – and that I was able to get signed afterwards.
Moonglow has made me a Chabon fan and I’m definitely planning on picking up The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay asap as a result. Swing Time was more on the miss side for me, but I’ve been told since that it’s one of Smith’s less popular novels and that I’ll likely still love White Teeth, so that’s on my radar next.
10 Things I Learned
About Michael Chabon And Zadie Smith
- This amazing quote from Michael Chabon at the event: “We live in a broken world and fiction is our attempt to mend it”.
- They’re not big fans of Trump. Chabon called him “the orange thing” while Smith referred to him as “a mutation of an entertainer”.
- Chabon and Smith both see the internet as problematic in how distracting it can be. Chabon went so far as to say that he kind of wishes there was no internet and had never been an internet.
- They both view reading as a means of escape from the latest news and political revelations. (Join the club).
- Smith reflected on the fact that reading is one of the only kinds of addiction where most people don’t judge you for it but it still provides a form of escapism. So like drugs but without the judgement.
- Chabon feels that books are a better form of escapism than the internet because books don’t want anything from you while the internet often includes some kind of call to action. He added that books are in fact trying to give you all sorts of compensation for your time. (I think we can all agree).
- Smith reflected on the increasing distance between people and shared that she’s greedy for a feeling of relationship and connection in the world, because human life is too short for there to be distance between people.
- Chabon talked about an experience he had working as part of a team to come up with movie concepts and said that TV or film writing is so different from novel writing because it often involves collaboration with multiple people pitching in opinions and ideas.
- When Smith is writing fiction, she says she thinks about what it would be like to be in a completely different body – a completely different being. This is what helps her write her characters in as realistic a way as possible.
- Talking about what it’s like to be an author, Smith said that she spends most of her time in PJs and binge-watching TV, and that she gives herself an out when she feels like a part of her novel might not make sense, thinking to herself that “no one will notice that”.
Publication Date: November 22nd 2016
Length in hardcover: 430 pages
Goodreads rating: 3.84
In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten.
Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week. A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional non-fiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his most daring, his most moving, his most Chabonesque.
Successfully executed premise. The point of the novel is that the author is playing between fact and fiction, between personal history and imagined history. I felt that the way in which Chabon toyed with the truth in the novel realistically portrayed the experience of having an elderly person retelling their life story. The plot points themselves often come across as exaggerated, slightly implausible or bombastic, but in the end that’s an accurate depiction of what time and illness can do to one’s recollections. The edges are blurred, one’s own role in the events inevitably rises in significance and even heroism, and childhood experiences or adult capers take on the scope and feel of legend. The plot has a fever dream quality to it, bouncing from decade to decade and seeming to encompass, with its historical context, more than just one man’s actual life – making the question of whether this is a true story honestly less than crucial.
Intricate, beautiful writing. Once I started reading Moonglow, I realized I would have to only do so when I could give the novel my complete attention. Chabon’s writing is extremely dense and detailed, with little historical and descriptive nuggets tucked in between every plot-driving word. I found that I had to go back over some passages because they were particularly poetic or because I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed any significant elements. The passage below gives you an example of how Chabon characterizes his fictional grandfather’s experience in Europe during World War II, and the elaborateness of his language here is representative of his writing throughout the novel.
“In his fitful eastward progress through Belgium and Germany that winter, my grandfather had shared all manner of billets: with dogfaces and officers, in misery and in comfort, in attack and in retreat, and pinned down by snow or German ordnance. He had bedded down under a bearskin in a schloss and in foxholes flecked pink with the tissue of previous occupants. If an hour’s sleep were to be had, he seized it, in the bedrooms or basements of elegant townhouses, in ravaged hotels, on clean straw and straw that crawled with vermin, on featherbeds and canvas webbing slung across the bed of a half-truck, on mud, sandbags, and raw pine planks. However wretched, accommodations were always better or no worse than those on the enemy side.”
Realistic characters. It was easy to feel for Chabon’s characters in Moonglow, as they were realistically portrayed, often in an exploration of their human weaknesses. From falling in love, dealing with unhappy marriages, mental illness, violence, transitioning into old age, loneliness and terrible parenting, the characters in Moonglow really span every personal failing out there through the decades which the plot encompasses. Even when describing his fictional grandfather’s role as a soldier/engineer in World War II, Chabon touches on the complexity of the human experience both on the Allied and German side during the war. There was certainly depravity and cruelty, but often masking nothing more than despair, confusion and anger. The muddled nature of human experience, occurring between misunderstandings and around uncontrollable historical events, is very accurately captured.A little confusing at times. This was really the only element of the novel that detracted some from my enjoyment of it. The plot jumps from one place and time to the next, spanning nearly a century and unapologetically (and I think purposefully) giving the reader little or nothing to grasp onto between these shifts. I definitely could have done with more queues at the beginning of each chapter about where we were in the story (just a place and date below the chapter number would have been great). I understand, however, that Chabon was using that confusion as a further way of mimicking the experience of hearing someone’s life story from a deathbed as a haphazard set of recollections. I get the literary utility of the lack of reference points, but as a reader it became irritating here and there.
A rich novel with a borderline outlandish plot blurring fact and fiction while still getting at the essence of human experience and the nature of memory.
by Zadie Smith
Publication Date: November 15th 2016
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length in hardcover: 416 pages
Goodreads rating: 3.58
Two brown girls dream of being dancers but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live. An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty.
The female relationships. Though I didn’t love some of the Smith’s individual characters in Swing Time (more on that below), I did find that her portrayal of the relationships and interactions between the female characters felt authentic and relatable. In particular, I found the relationships between the unnamed narrator and her childhood best-friend Tracey provided an accurate and nostalgic look at a young friendship, in which the power-dynamics are shifting and being redefined, and each participant is learning about control over others and over themselves. Smith explores female themes in the book in a way that felt very relevant, including the meaning of being single or married for women, of being attractive or ‘unattractive’ and of motherhood’s role in a woman’s sense of self.
Writing style. Smith’s writing style is fresh, uncomplicated and modern – very different from my experience of Chabon’s so far. Sometimes it strays into feeling a bit too chick-lit reminiscent for my taste, but in general it succeeds at walking the line between immediacy and substance. I picked a passage to represent this that ties back into some of the female themes which were emphasized in the novel.
“… all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her–especially in the last, painful years of her life–for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself.”
Some characters fell flat. There were too main reasons why Swing Time did not really work for me. The first was that the main character and some of the secondary characters felt hard to connect for and root for as well. I didn’t like the unnamed narrator at the center of the story – feeling she was often selfish, petulant and weak-willed. I certainly don’t expect all characters to be likable or without moral failings – far from it – but Swing Time‘s main character in particular just felt frustrating to me. Once I got to superstar Aimee’s part of the plot, Smith really lost me. Aimee’s character felt extremely caricatured and overdone – there was nothing nuanced or believable about her, and I think this caused much of what Smith was trying to say through Aimee about modern culture, Western imperialism and motherhood to fall flat.
Tried to accomplish too much at once. Once I finished the novel I thought back to what could have made it a more successful reading experience for me. What I settled on is that it would have been more interesting for Smith to stay within the bounds of the beginning of the novel – which explores Tracey and the unnamed narrator’s childhood friendship. I didn’t really get the entire second half of the book that threw in an improbable foreign superstar and an entire additional plot line in Africa with a whole set of certainly worthwhile but superficially explored themes about cultural imperialism and racial discrimination. I would have liked to see a more nuanced and in-depth exploration of Tracey and the narrator’s shift into adulthood within the same location as the first part of the novel, still separated by very different experiences but proceeding more in parallel and within reach of each other.
A disjointed novel that tries to accomplish a lot but in doing so skirts the surface of what was the most interesting part of its story – the female friendship at its center.
Have you read Moonglow or Swing Time? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, historical fiction novels Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict and The Last Days Of Night by Graham Moore, In The Midst Of Winter by Isabel Allende, and The Rules Of Magic by Alice Hoffman.
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