Monday, December 13, 2010

The Great Perhaps, by Joe Meno

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2009
414 pages
From $1.94 on eBay

Cloudy with a chance of ennui.

Two absent-minded professors--one a paleontologist chasing an elusive species of giant squid and the other an animal behaviorist lamenting the sexually-tinged murders of her research pigeons--become derailed and wonder whether they are really still in love. Jonathan suffers a rare form of epilepsy that causes him to seize at the sight of clouds, and Madeline suffers her husband's disorganization and the flirtations of her research staff. Their kids are frustrated individuals bookending the angst of teenage years: Amelia a senior in loathing with her upper-class suburb, building a pipe bomb in her bedroom; and Thisbe praying to God when she thinks no one is watching.

Character portrayal is the premise and boundary of Joe Meno's 2009 novel, The Great Perhaps. I got turned on to Meno's writing when I snagged The Boy Detective Fails at Moe's Books in Berkeley, California last year. The author has an indisputably brilliant style of incorporating the fantastic and absurd into serious dilemma, and The Great Perhaps follows this tradition with imaginative fireworks. Kneaded smoothly into the tale of malaise and anxiety are transcripts of sci-fi radio cliffhangers, alphabetically-sectioned chapters, declassified government telegrams, and illustrations of elephants, ears, and the above-mentioned seizure-inducing clouds. Investigating the roots of Jonathan's wishy-washiness, Meno stares into the regretful life history of the professor's father, once a child in a WWII internment camp for German-Americans, now an infirm man in a nursing home who reduces his own speech word by word, day by day, willing himself to disappear.

And there's more. The novel takes place in beginning days of GW Bush's Gulf War, in the final days of the 2004 election, setting a tone of wistfulness. There's good reason to feel concerned and down and even ashamed, and if you can identify with that then you know exactly how each of the characters in this book feels.

Meno quotes the Times on his author site when he says the book is about "the pros and cons of cowardice," but I just don't get it. I'm going to step out of my reviewer shoes and admit some low-browedness when I say I enjoyed reading this book very much, but felt lost in the emotional tides in this story. I love Meno's writing style, the crispness of his sentences and the truly sparkling imagery; few writers alive could create parallels between "the giant squid, a creature who, like Jonathan, favored the solitude of darkness to the unsafe spectacle of clouds above." But by the end of this read I couldn't determine whether his characters were any better or worse off than before, whether anyone had grown, whether anyone had changed, and so what was the point of this exercise?

Looking around, I got the sense that some critics might also have been fed up with the circus-spectacular parade of chimeras and nostalgia embedded in character tension and history. Eryn Loeb, writing in the LA Times, even said she thought Meno relied on gimmicks and seemed unable to tell the difference between them and genuine emotion. I wouldn't go nearly that far in criticizing the shallow faults of this book. I really enjoy Meno's ideas and his writing, and I'd gladly pick up his other novels, even if I wasn't head-over-heels with this one.

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