Joe Meno broke onto the literary scene at the auspicious and tender age of 24 with the coming-of-age novel Tender As Hellfire. Now with the publication of The Great Perhaps, the Chicagoan’s fifth novel, published with Norton in 2009 his trajectory continues upward. Other earlier efforts did reasonably well, and Hairstyles of the Damned really launched him (and Akhasic Books), selling 80,000 copies. Yet Meno seems modest and realistic about his early breakthroughs.
Jonathan is a paleontologist who searches endlessly for a prehistoric giant squid. He falls into convulsions only if he starts staring at a cloud. Apparently, this is a true condition (Casper-Cerebrovascularitis). Madeline is an animal behaviorist who struggles when her experiment shows distressing signs that her original ideas are probably failing. Their oldest daughter, Amelia, is a disappointed teenage revolutionary going through identity issues and seeking attention. Youngest daughter, Thisbe, is on an earnest but frustrating search for God. Their grandfather plays an interesting part too, limiting his words by one each day until he will no longer say anything. Does it seem that the grandfather wants to disappear? That may or may not be a reach. He may have just wanted to escape his institution.
It’s pretty challenging to write about cloudiness. Thematic subjects like anxiety, murkiness, ambiguity can be hard to execute by the very nature of the subject. The way it works here is that we experience the narratives through distinctly different character perspectives, and each one is grounded in a current-day, ordinary suburban life realism. They are easy people to recognize, or identify with, in spite of their apparent extravagant struggles. The overall strongest, most developed character is Jonathan, who is also responsible for some of the funniest moments in the novel related to his search for, and despair of, discovering the giant, once-believed-to-be-extinct Tusoteuthis longa. I admit I did expect Thisbe’s experiences to be a little more intense and funnier throughout. And while I thought the stylistic approach of alphabetizing Madeleine’s perspective was interesting, I felt disconnected from her the most. Was that the idea? For me, Amelia, was the character I felt the most for. Her passionate extremes, her insecurities, mistakes, and struggles made her funny-in-a-sad way, and we were left with some hope at the end.
The Great Perhaps explores a difficult and narrow terrain, which at times could resemble Don Delillo, but perhaps feels a little more optimistic? It explores this kind of modern alienation or “cowardice” thematically, grounded in the particular worlds of a “typical” (for all their issues) American family.