Monday, June 8, 2009

review: Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps

Very rarely do I go into a book with high hopes. That sounds dispiriting and downright awful. Like a cynical rollercoaster engineer about to go to Cedar Rapids for the millionth time (they have a lot of good rollercoasters in Ohio), I always look for the bad without fully acknowledging the good.

Here's a book I had high hopes for. Joe Meno's Hairstyles of The Damned led me to a promised land that I always knew existed--that rock 'n roll and literature can find common ground, anywhere and somewhere. Near that time I also read Lipsyte's Homeland, so man that was a good month. And those two books basically sum up my preferences for contemporary fiction. Spontaneous. Humorous to the point of almost being awkward. Being awkward to the point of being sincere. Awkwardness for the sake of sincerity that delivers a point about life. All this is seriously awkward.

But with The Great Perhaps, Meno does not do any of those things really, yet still does them. His premise sounds like it should fall into the seriously awkward. Jonathan Casper has a problem with clouds. If he does not take his medication, seizures will begin upon the cloud's arrival. That is just one of the many hang-ups of the Casper family--a series of hang-ups that in many hands, including Meno's, could have become riotously and insanely funny, but instead he delivers something more difficult than easy laughs. Meno delivers a funny book with an endearing story. The Great Perhaps is about the quirks that we all have and the way that we all deal with them. But the Casper family is consumed by its anxieties almost to the point of paralysis and they do not fully overcome them, but learn to live with them.

Due to its clever use of metaphor and repeating theme, The Great Perhaps is a candidate for the White Noise of this decade. Meno is equally interested in the obsessions of the modern family, but instead of the characters just showing off their cold war anxieties like in White Noise, Meno's characters not only embody but obsess over their anxieties. Meno shows that we have progressed beyond just taking pills for our neuroses, we now obsess over the meaning of our neuroses. If the eighties were about self-medication, then now we're about self-obsession.

It's 2004 and the Caspers are an academic family. Jonathan and Madeline work in two different scientific fields at the University of Chicago, each plagued with their own type of nemesis. Johnathan is trying to outrun and outstudy a fellow French squid hunter and Madeline, an animal behaviorist cannot figure out why the pigeons keep raping one another. Their two highschool daughters, Thisbe and Amelia are stuck on their coming-of-age difficulties--Thisbe is very concerned with the supernatural and also concerned about how chorus and her budding sexuality go hand-in-hand. The older Amelia is a budding revolutionary who revolutionary treatises in the school newspaper make no difference. The family moves and surrounds these problems reluctantly--slowly pushing at the edges of their family comfort until they are forced to confront their own being, their own togetherness.

Also involved is Jonathan's father Henry, who is stuck in a nursing home, becoming more and more silent everyday. Meno's uses the older Casper to add historical weight to his novel with a deft tie-in of American internment camps in World War II. His metaphors and chapter arcs are very tight, each symbol and each clue is imbued with a curious weight that does not disappoint and perfectly illustrates that yes, all of the Caspers are indeed cowards, but being a coward does not necessarily mean disappointment.

But in this go-around, Meno develops a better descriptive voice than in his previous work--he is able to spend time with details and makes each of them count. It does not read as plain or simple as in some of his previous novels, this time a density of language is added to the sentences, which increases the emotional scenery of the novel and therefore increases emotional investment into the characters.

Just as DeLillo was concerned in describing the surroundings of his central family and repeating familiar sounds and words as part of the white noise, so does Meno with the clouds. Madeline chases them, and each mention of white fluffiness, foggy haze, or general "cloudiness" reinforces the confused anxiety-ridden nature of the family. But within that cloudiness is a peacefulness, a peacefulness that Meno gracefully ties together in the closing pages. The Great Perhaps is a work that goes beyond Meno's previous efforts, without disparaging or taking away from those works.

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