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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Great Perhaps: Joe Meno's Dysfunctional Family

Tolstoy was right — no unhappy family has every been unhappy in the ways the Caspers are. This Chicago family of four (plus Grandpa Henry), the stars of Joe Meno's insightful, but melancholic novel The Great Perhaps, has a world of problems. And the only way to solve them will be to face them head on. It makes for a fascinating, fun-to-read (in kind of a "thank God that's not my family" way) story, and it's told with timeliness and urgency. I loved it!

Father Jonathan, a scientist and professor at the University of Chicago, can't find the giant squid he's spent his career looking for, and he's afraid his annoying French nemesis is going to beat him to the punch. Mother Madeleine's own scientific career is also going off the rails — she's studying the mating habits of pigeons, and they keep killing each other. Also, she's worried she's fallen out of love with her husband, and she's become obsessed with chasing a mysterious cloud all over the city. (More on this in a second.)

Seventeen-year-old daughter Amelia has decided she's a communist and constantly rails against the evils of capitalism. Fourteen-year-old daughter Thisbe has discovered religion, and to the unending consternation of her liberal, not-religious parents, constantly prays. (Thisbe's prayers are one the more delightful aspects of this novel. They're just so earnest.) And finally, poor old patriarch Henry has been relegated to a nursing home, where he sends letters to himself with one-line memories of his life.

Believe it or not, and I know it may be difficult, this novel's not slapstick. In fact, it's not really funny at all. It's immensely sad — worse and worse things keep happening, and the family uses each bit of drama as an excuse to insulate themselves from each other. The girls are constantly worried the parents are divorcing, all the while sniping at each other at every chance. And the parents aren't altogether sure that a divorce isn't the best solution.

There's even an Haruki Murakami-like element of odd to the storytelling here  — the clouds. Throughout, clouds are symbols of challenges or fears that must be faced. Jonathan has a strange form of epilepsy — now under control with medication (when he remembers to take it) — which causes him to seizure if he even sees a cloud. And Madeleine really begins to lose it when she first sees the "sparkly cloud" in a tree outside the family's house. She becomes obsessed with it, and follows it everywhere. Her family has no idea where she is, thinking she's left permanently.

The story's told from the rotating points of view of each family member. And, with a few exceptions each section is as interesting as the others. Sometimes, when an author uses this narrative technique, there's one or two you're interested in, and you read quickly through the others to get back to the characters' stories that grabbed you.

So, four out of five stars for The Great Perhaps. And I can't wait for Meno's new novel Office Girl due out in July.

7 comments:

  1. Sounds like a bit of magical realism might be in play here with the whole cloud thing. Have you read any other of Meno's novels?

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    1. I haven't - but I've read a few of his short stories, though it was awhile ago. Have you?

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    2. Not yet. Would like to read this one for sure.

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  2. Until you got to the melancholy part I thought this sounded like a Jonathan Tropper kind of story. (Except for the main character not being a writer of some kind.)

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    1. Yeah, just on the surface, it sounds like it should be hilarious. It's out there, for sure - but it's rarely (if it all) funny. Still, it's very good!

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  3. I'm glad you clarified that this is not, in fact, a funny book - the premise certainly sounds like it could be. Not that that's a bad thing, just interesting. I'd actually never heard of Meno before your review, but I'm intrigued. Plus I want to find out what a "sparkly cloud" is.

    By the way, looking forward to seeing your thoughts on State of Wonder.

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    1. It certainly has all the elements of slapstack, but they never come together as such. I think that's one of the reasons I liked it so much - slapstick would've been the easy way out. But Meno made this believable (even with the magical realism - or whatever that sparkly cloud plotline counts as). Meno's kind of an under-the-radar writer, I think - but he's well known in Chicago. He teaches at a small college here.

      SOW = so far, so awesome!

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