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2nd June
2010
written by Steph

Ok, so it’s time for a confession: I’ve been running behind on my book writeups. I read The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno about two weeks ago and am just now getting around to writing about it… which means, that this is probably going to be a relatively nebulous post in which I assert things without really being able to back them up.  Because at this point I remember how I ultimately felt about the book, but perhaps not specifically why I feel the way.  Then again, maybe the fact that two weeks later and I’m struggling to say anything interesting about this book speaks volumes about the book itself. But let’s backtrack a bit.  I first read about this book over at Farm Lane Books when Jackie reviewed it and said it was one of the best books about an American family that she’s ever read.  That paired with the quirky cover (featuring a giant squid!  Y’all know how I’m fascinated with things that live in the sea) immediately caught my attention and I placed a hold on the book at the local library. The Great Perhaps is one of those books where it’s rather difficult to sum it up using the phrase “the basic premise”. It revolves around the lives of a 2004 nuclear Chicago family called the Caspers. The father, Jonathan, is a research scientist obsessed with tracking down a living example of the ancient giant squid, and who also happens to suffer from seizures whenever he sees clouds.  Madeline, his wife, is also a researcher, but her work focuses on the social behaviors and hierarchies in pigeons. Throughout the novel, she becomes obsessed with a cloud figure resembling a giant man in the sky, and winds up on a manic journey following this cloud throughout Chicago.  Amelia, their eldest daughter, is a jaded and outspoken Marxist who has decided to build a bomb for her science project.  Thisbe, their youngest daughter, has become obsessed with the notion of God, much to the chagrin of her atheist parents.  Finally, Jonathan’s father Henry, who lives in a retirement community, is trying to make his memories of the past disappear all so that he too can finally vanish. So, obviously there’s a lot going on in this book, but I guess the main themes running through the book are those of cowardice (the Caspers have a long history of being lily livered) and the complexity of modern life.  Jonathan fears clouds in part because of the complex feelings and ideas they evoke, and so he studies the darkest depths of the oceans; Madeline fears the distance that is developing between herself and the rest of the family; Amelia fears being ordinary and overlooked; Thisbe fears the feelings she is beginning to develop for another girl, and worries about the future of her family; Henry fears a future bleak and banal, where all his freedoms have disappeared.  All of the Caspers find crutches on which to sublimate their fears and combat their worries, but the thing they struggle with more than anything is connecting with one another in any genuine way. This was a book that I really wanted to love, but there was something about it that always felt a bit hollow to me.  I found the stories of Amelia and Thisbe and Henry to be the most compelling, whereas I found the parents alarmingly obtuse and unsympathetic.  I felt like Meno had come up with these quirky attributes for each of the characters, but fell short when it came to fleshing them out so that they were more than just oddly eccentric.  I wanted him to dig deeper, to really expose the hearts and guts of these people, and I felt like he sort of danced around those things all in pursuit of having an oddball tale instead.  The more I read, the more disgruntled by the book I became, and the more I thought about the book after finishing it, the less I liked it.  I felt like Meno captured elements of the American family, but ultimately I don’t think he created a book populated by universal people.  Perhaps part of the problem is that once you’ve read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, any other author trying to write the Great American Novel is going to have a heck of a fight on his hands.  Because The Corrections is one of those books where the characters leap from the page and slap you across the face with their reality.  They are each their own person, and yet Franzen manages to capture universal spirits in each of them so that you know exactly who they are. In The Great Perhaps I never really felt that I was reading about real people. Ultimately, this book fell quite flat for me, though it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly why.  I never felt like I fully engaged in the characters, and there was an ersatz note throughout the entire thing to me. I don’t mind whimsy and quirkiness in my books, but I don’t like them as a substitute for depth and substance.  There were some interesting parts to the book, and certain characters were more successful than others, but overall I found it rather tiresome and superficial.  I really wish I had liked it more, because damn, what a great cover it had! Rating: 3 out of 5

8 Comments

  1. 06/02/2010

    So you’re saying I should read The Corrections? 😀

  2. 06/02/2010

    I’m sorry to hear this one didn’t quite live up to your expectations. Not being able to truly believe in the characters is always a huge drawback for me too.

  3. mee
    06/02/2010

    I remember Jackie’s review on it, and in fact Joe Meno came to the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival (but I didn’t get to see him). The premise never seems to convince me to read the book though. The Corrections sounds more interesting now after your vouch.

  4. Oh dear! You don’t seem to be having much luck with my suggestions at the moment!

    I agree that the family aren’t a good reprensation of a real family – they are all a bit bizzare! I liked their quirkiness though. It was good that I never knew what would happen next and I found some sections very moving.

    Perhaps this just reflects my boredom with the realistic at the moment?

    I haven’t read The Corrections, but will do now. I hope we can find some books that we both love in the near future.

  5. 06/03/2010

    I wasn’t a big fan of The Corrections. I am guessing that I would probably enjoy this one even less. Like you, I do love the cover though! And Thisbe is a pretty cool name.

  6. 06/03/2010

    @ softdrink: Um, yes, I suppose that is what I was saying! Read The Corrections!
     
    @ Nymeth: I was really hoping for more depth than I ultimately felt Meno achieved… so yeah, pretty underwhelmed by this one.
     
    @ mee: The Corrections is a challenging book but one that I think is immensely rewarding. It is difficult and messy in the way that real life is, and I think that’s why I like it so much.
     
    @ Jackie: You win some, you lose some! I really thought I’d love this one, and I am glad you brought it to my attention even if it didn’t end up winning me over. I did think that there were parts that were moving, but on the whole the book didn’t work for me. But I hope you do try The Corrections and let me know what you think! To me, it is the ultimate American Family Novel!
     
    @ Stephanie: Thanks for commenting. I think The Corrections is a pretty divisive book – some people just can’t get past the unsympathetic characters, and I do think Franzen’s writing is a bit over the top at time.

  7. 06/03/2010

    This does sound like it is really quirky, and not totally successful with all the elements that it is trying to juggle. I am not sure that this would be the book for me, but I did enjoy reading your honest take on it. I gather that this one may be a little like the other book you reviewed, The Monster of Templeton. It seems like both were just quirky to be quirky, with no meat to sink your teeth into.

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