Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Great Perhaps is Perhaps Great The

Ha! Palindromes, hilarious. Cracks me up, as always. But sorry about the title of this post. Or actually I'm not because as already indicated: I love palindromes, even crappy, poorly-conceived ones! I suppose then the only thing to be actually sorry about is, in a weirdly forced palindrome-escence way, suggesting that Joe Meno's novel "The Great Perhaps" is only perhaps great. It's mostly great, in actual fact. I thought so. I've decided it's best described as a cross between "The Corrections" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" with a smidgen of something from Noah Baumbach's 2005 film, "The Squid and the Whale." I liked to lesser or greater extent all of those stories, and so it's probably no surprise then that "The Great Perhaps" won me over very sweepingly and easily. It takes place primarily in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, home to the University of Chicago -- which is a very good place to set a story, if you're asking me.

It's probably also no suprise, given the novels I likened his to, that I would consider Joe Meno belonging to a group that I see as having a similar sort of impetus in writing, which includes Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen, naturally, but also Jonathan Lethem, Jeffery Eugenides, and Joshua Ferris. (Lots of "J"-beginning first names there.) Except different from the others save Ferris (hahaha, oh, I couldn't resist making an allusion to that band, ya know, "Save Ferris," and also it's the truth), Joe Meno is the only one who uses Chicago as his setting / backdrop of choice. It's always New York City this or wherever Eugenides sets his stories (i.e. Michigan, as far as I know) that with the rest of them. Well, Chicago's a perfectly good setting likewise, and that's the last I'll say of it. (Sorry, but I'm a bit of a homer.)

Er, and enough categorization and compartmentalization already. Sarah Vowell makes a great case for why we do that (in her case concerning coincidences of history, however minute, that allow us to see events as paralleling one another and thus seeming more related in our human brains) and why it's probably better to abandon looking for patterns every once in a while. I think she makes that argument, anyway. And if she doesn't I'm going to: it's best for your sanity to avoid searching for patterns, at least every once in a while. So I'll stop with trying to fit Joe Meno amongst other contemporary authors . . . for now.

The story itself is worthy of mention (imagine that!). It concerns the Caspers, a family of four: the parents, two professors working at the University of Chicago, and their two teenaged daughters in high school. Tangentially, the grandfather figures in as an occupant of a nearby nursing home whom the family periodically visits, especially as it becomes increasingly viewed that he is not long for this world / his condition begins to degrade rapidly.

Jonathan Casper, the father, has an odd disorder: seeing any image of a cloud, real or reproduced in some manner, forces him into a fit of seizure. He takes medication to alleviate this response, which has the inadvertent effect of instilling him with the view that science is a powerful answer to most -- if not all -- of life's problems. His wife, Madeline, is wearied by her role as familial glue, frustrated by Jonathan's failure to understand or attempt to understand the day-to-day affairs that allow their family to function. For that and a general feeling of dissatisfaction or ennui Madeline is brought to the brink of divorce, of escape, of leaving the restraints of a marriage that feels too maternal and one-sided, as if she were the lone guardian.

Amelia is the oldest daughter, aged 17. She would have been a caricature of any leftist teen looking for a niche if Meno wasn't so deft at adding conflict and dimension via growth to her as the novel progresses. Her values are challenged, and as an intelligent young person she eventually rises to meet them, all things considered. She's also a raging bitch for much of the novel, which I can imagine being abrasive to some -- but I felt it was necessary to her character and for her eventual maturation. Thisbe at age 13 is the youngest, another who might have been a caricature if not for good writing. And Thisbe inexplicably given her family's general agnosticism, has at the start of the story become a devotee of the Christian faith. But it also quickly becomes clear she's looking for the same affirmation that her existence is meaningful as that of most thinking people her age, trying to determine where they fit in the grand scheme.

I could delve into the plot some, but rehashing stories like that is beginning to feel like an attempt at providing synopses on wikipedia pages, which is not where my real interest lies. Of course I appreciate the plot, which is why I read, or in part why I read, but it's also the way the lives of these manufactured individuals begin to play out in both ways you might predict and ways the author misdirects you. I'm very pleased to say these elements of character are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the world in which they reside. I was very pleased with the kind of imaginative catharsis involved in each character's understanding of their circumstances. Coming realistically to terms with the challenges we all are faced with. It's a neat thing to see these ideas so nicely executed, which is why I must recommend "The Great Perhaps."

To conclude, and return to categorization once again, I would like to lump Joe Meno in with my other favorite young Chicago authors, Patrick Somerville and Adam Levin. Good writers, all three.

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