Joe Meno’s new novel, The Great Perhaps, is a revelation. It is capital “L” literature that arrived fully formed, seemingly (to me) from nowhere. But, of course, that’s not the case. Meno’s first book Hairstyles of the Damned was a “pitch perfect…coming of age story about finding your own identity that has the ring of truth and awkwardness.” (My mini-review of hairstyles is here.)
In retrospect, I should have been put on notice to find the rest of Meno’s books with a quickness. The author next appeared on my radar when The New York Times’ Paper Cuts blog cheekily asked “Joe who?” in a post about last year’s Story Prize finalists: Jhumpa Lahari, Tobias Wolff, and Joe Meno. Joe was nominated for his short story collection Demons in the Spring. After reading the article, I believe that I actually said aloud – “Damn, I’ve got to check that out.” But didn’t. When I saw that Mr. Meno had a new novel out, the stars finally aligned, and The Great Perhaps made it atop my to be read pile.
The Great Perhaps is the story of a modern Chicago family, each struggling with their own demons. Clouds, literal and figurative, dark and light, hang over the characters lives. The use of clouds in the novel reminded me of the looming chemical cloud of Don Delillo’s “airborne toxic event” in White Noise – a symbol of mortality and the threat of modern life that lurked constantly on the horizon. This connection had me keeping my eye out for other literary antecedents in the book.
Jonathan Casper, the center of the novel, is a modern-day Ahab (and family man). He is a paleontologist obsessed with finding evidence of a long-believed-to-be -extinct giant squid. His obsession with his work is also his refuge – from his teaching duties, from his elderly father’s illness and erratic behavior, from the needs of his immediate family, and, ultimately, from the world at large. Where Ahab was a man of action chasing his obsession, Jonathan stalks his leviathan from a fortress that he withdraws to constructed of blankets in the family’s living room.
Amelia, Jonathan’s oldest daughter, seems a less sure version of the Swede’s daughter Merry from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Angry at the world, Amelia begins researching pipe bomb manufacture on the internet when not actively ignoring her sister of firing off angry editorials in the school paper. She fancies herself an anti-capitalist revolutionary, but she has a difficult time getting anyone to care.
Thesbe, the youngest daughter, is named after Ovid’s star crossed-lover. Like her namesake, the modern Thesbe experiences a budding romance that is “forbidden”. Thesbe’s rebellion takes the form imagining herself a deeply religious person in a deeply secular home. Her attempts to pray for herself and her family (having never been shown how) are heartbreaking.
The mother, Madeline Casper, is an experimental psychologist (no literary precursor comes immediately to mind). Her work involves social experiments conducted on pigeons. As her world and reality slowly come unglued, it appears that Madeline’s pigeons hold some of the secrets of human nature. The expression “her head was in the clouds” takes on a nearly literal
Henry, Jonathan’s father, lives a life of decreasing consequence at a nearby nursing home. He has decided to remove his connections to this world by giving away all of his possessions and reducing the number of words he will say each day over time. In the meantime, he is determined to flee the nursing home and catch a plane to Tokyo from O’Hare. His reasons for wanting to visit Tokyo are slowly revealed. (I can’t come up with an antecedent for Grandpa Henry either.)
And, of course, the surname name “Casper” brings to mind the friendly ghost of the comics. These are not bad people. They want to find the solutions to their problems. They are each damaged in some way and are in full retreat from the challenges of daily life. They lack the courage or moral fiber to engage the world and its inherent dangers. Madeline’s studies suggest that this helplessness may be learned and may be even inherited. Which brings us back to Grandpa Henry’s story and its effects on his family that has come to live a ghost existence.
The Great Perhaps is a terrific novel. It is not as bleak as it may sound from my literary name dropping. It’s a novel of warmth and humor. It’s also a novel of substance. I expect to find this novel on many year-end “best of” lists, and it seems inevitable that the days of people asking “Joe who?” may well be over for the author.
We are such big fans of the novel and the author here at BGB, that Russ Marshalek, our man in New York, set out to interview Joe Meno about his work. Be sure to come back tomorrow for that.
Throughout the book, Amelia shows her disdain for American life by listening solely to French music. One song mentioned by name is Marie Laforêt’s Marie Douceur Marie Colère. In Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes, Joe Meno says that the song is “a French cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” and it is one of the most terrifying songs you’ll ever hear.” I had to hunt it down:
Marie Laforêt – Marie Douceur Marie Colère