Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Great Perhaps: A Novel by Joe Meno

The Great Perhaps is about a family of people that aren’t doing so well not doing so well. At first one thinks that the book is going to focus on the sad sack father, Jonathan Casper, whose head is so far up the ocean’s butt with his obsessive study of the colossal squid that he can’t see that his family needs him. Then we discover that not only is he a giant nerd, but that he also has a terrible epilepsy, now treated, that is triggered by clouds. Straight away, this is not a character that I really like. He has too many “wacky” things in his basket for me to see beyond them, though Meno does try to humanize Jonathan by providing some episodes from his youth and the perspectives of the other characters.

It’s the perspective of so many other characters, interesting at first, which ultimately tears this book apart. Not only does Big Daddy J get a part, but so does his wife, Madeline, their two daughters Amelia and Thisbe as well as his father, Henry. I like Henry’s character the best, despite some quirkiness-tics by the author. He is in a nursing home, becoming increasingly more silent, and planning not only for his escape, but for his legacy—a group of letters explaining telling his story to himself. It was a great conceit, amply fleshed out in passages from Henry’s childhood, time in a German-American internment camp and young manhood. I’ve been digging on older characters recently, but, despite my current interest in seniors, I think I would always have wanted more of Henry.

There is a section of Amelia’s, big sister and high school radical wannabe who thinks that college will save her, that perfectly captures an occasion in many a young woman’s life—the sad blowjob. It is kind of perfect.

After Chapter Five, when everyone has had a chapter, there are sections titled Additional Remarks of a Historical Significance (and further permutations of that title), that tell tales of different ancestors of Jonathan--all male and all defeated. If this book had focused on Jonathan (or one of his antecedents or decedents or a relationship between two of them), these stories might have fit in better, but instead distract from the main narrative and don’t add anything to the characters. That said, the settings in these passages were lush, even if the characters aren’t, and perhaps all of them would have worked in a companion book of related short stories or something.

The strangest thing about this book is that, with some plot differences and characteristic swapping, I felt like I already read it. The Sleeping Father does the multigenerational family drama with a dash of fantasy thing better. TSF also is haunted by clouds, lame dads, religious daughters, angry wives, medical environments and many shades of sex. It was the echoes to Matthew Sharpe’s book that brought me the most pleasure, which is unfortunate but true.


Amanda said...

"sad sack" is an awesome and under-utilised epithet.

Carrie said...

sad sacks, i've known a few.

looka said...

I'll be graphic: NEAT COVER!