Tuesday 25 May 2010

'both astonishing and quite ordinary'

The Great Perhaps 
by Joe Meno

The Great Perhaps is a character-driven comedy set in Chicago in the lead up to the 2004 election that saw George Bush re-elected. The Caspar's are our focus and each chapter looks at a separate member of the family, each with their own battles to fight, and the victories few and far between. Jonathan is a palaeontologist and university lecturer whose life-long obsession is the giant squid. Unfortunately his ambitions are continuously eclipsed by the achievements of his French rival, leaving him lagging always at least one step behind the discovery that could change his life forever. Obsession with the squid causes neglect of his family and marriage and for the second time he is heading towards separation. He also demonstrates a quality of the book which may be divisive.Quirkiness. Attractive? Alright in small doses? Annoying? There is a spectrum of response to quirkiness which may have already affected how you feel about films like The Royal Tenenbaums or Juno. Quirkiness in fiction is a bit of a new one on me and this book has several variations. Some work, others don't. Jonathan for example has a unique form of epilepsy that causes him to faint whenever he sees anything that has the form of a cloud (clouds are a unifying image of the book). His wife Madeleine, whose work researching the social behaviour of pigeons has taken a violent turn, becomes obsessed with a cloud that she spots in the sky one day that seems to be in the form of a man. Whilst her marriage takes a turn for the worse she feels compelled to follow the cloud's movements. Daughter Amelia has become politicised, donning a black beret at all times to demonstrate her seriousness, latching onto elements of anti-capitalism, communism and even terrorism as she attempts to construct a home-made bomb for a school project. Finally, youngest daughter Thisbe has discovered God and aims to save the soul of a neighbourhood cat, and has the scratch marks to prove it.

So, how're you doing so far? Quirked out? Personally I could just about cope with Jonathan's slightly ineffectual self as he retreats into a tent/fort he has fashioned and retreated to in 'the den'. Thisbe is adorable; praying 'for her singing voice to become an instrument of God, something miraculous, something to fill the world with wonder' when in fact she 'is an awful singer, worse than awful, very, very bad.' When she strikes up a friendship with Roxie, owner of the most fantastic voice in the school, the two of them enjoy a thrilling intimacy that sends Thisbe into a spiral into the clouds and allows Meno to unleash his prose, achieving some stunning results. Less successful for me were Amelia and particularly Madeleine. I couldn't quite get going with the whole cloud-man thing and the lettered bullet point presentation of her chapters didn't add anything other than an unnecessary trick to the writing.

There are two other sections to the book I haven't mentioned yet and one of them is the saving grace. Occasionally we come across Additional Remarks Of Historical Significance, chapters which recount the demise of a few of the male Caspar ancestors. They seem at first to be a bit pointless (I'll posit what I think they might add later) but they do at least, with their historical perspective, allow Meno again to showcase some skilful writing and imagery, as when we follow the last moments on an ice-bound ship and discover two bodies, 'their necks split, blood frozen like a thousand pennies surrounding their heads.' The fifth and most fascinating member of the family however is Jonathan's father Henry. His nursing-home life has led him to the end of the road and as he approaches the end he is slowly retreating into memory, using one fewer word each day until he knows he will only be left with one. His chapters are easily the book's best, delving back to wartime America and the period when the country's German, Italian and Japanese population were interred in camps. For young Henry his father is an unknowable figure, a man he finds it hard to trust, especially having been accused of spying before the family are sent to the camp. There, a single event will determine the future of the Caspar family, forming the reason for Henry to remain in America when the rest of his family return to Germany.

All of this ancestral examination allows Meno to develop an idea Richard Aldwin called 'the heredity of cowardice'. If a tendency to either fight or flight is inheritable, then it's possible that those he elect to fly, being the more likely to reproduce, send humanity on a trajectory that makes us less likely to choose to be brave. Those Additional Remarks Of Historical Significance I mentioned above all involve something along those lines and the modern Caspar family all have aspects of cowardice about their behaviour; ways in which they are too scared to say how they feel to the people that matter, or a hesitancy to act, to see things through to their conclusion. Henry's own request in the past to his young son is perhaps the one thing that the Caspar family need to learn over and over again.

'We always have to try to forgive the people we love. I think it's the bravest thing we can do. When the time comes, I hope you will.'


Annabel (gaskella) 26 May 2010 at 09:08  

Luckily I have a high quirk tolerance factor, and am really looking forward to reading this book. In fact I've ended up with a spare ARC of it, so it's currently on a giveaway at my blog.

William Rycroft 27 May 2010 at 01:02  

I can take a bit of quirk but there were times when it got in the way here I think. The book's best moments for me were those unfettered by it. I happened to bump into Joe in a bookshop when he was over here promoting the book and he was a lovely guy so I feel slightly rotten criticising but I have to be honest!

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