The Great Perhaps
This is off-topic for the current group read, but as this is kind of my literature blog, the post goes here.
A few years ago, a friend gave me a short story collection entitled Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, by Joe Meno. I haven’t read it in years, and — who knows? — my opinion of it may be different were I to read it again, but I do remember really liking it. The stories were short, little vignettes of what I remember as whimsical people telling sometimes folksy, sometimes improbable stories. The stories were simple and easy but engaging. Delightful is what they were. The book was a real delight to read. Ever since, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to read more by this guy. His books haven’t been at the top of my must-read pile, but a couple of them have been on my amazon wish list. For my birthday, I finally got one of them, his most recent, The Great Perhaps.
I suppose my expectations were high.
The first line certainly drew me in: “Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint.” Clouds of varying types (by which I mean not merely cumulus and cumulonimbus but supernatural and nuclear and inkish and rhinosceric) figure prominently in the book but wind up being, for me, an unsatisfactory and in fact a downright forced conceit. Meno tries to use clouds as a vector for making a point about complexity vs. simplicity, a dichotomy he he also touches on with references to evolution and a strange psychoanalysis of Casper’s fainting, seizing spells.
The story puts us in the midst of a family breaking apart. Jonathan Casper and his wife Madeleine are undergoing a second separation and career crises while their teenage daughters confront angst, in the case of the older, and a desire for fulfillment through a misplaced and overzealous religion, in the case of the younger. Everyone in the novel is searching for something, and no one seems to be anywhere near finding it. Naturally, by the end, they’ve found it, and it all ties back in neatly to the notion that oversimplification breeds unhappiness, that complexity is beautiful.
Although they all show development from the beginning of the story to the end, the main characters are all very flat. The obsessed scientist. The woman juggling a career and domestic life and being particularly successful at neither. The rebelling, asshole child. The child interested in nothing but religion. It seems to me not to be enough to show development of flat characters into slightly rounder, or at least more fulfilled, characters. Meno concludes that complexity is beautiful, but he declines to imbue his characters with any complexity. There’s very little satisfaction to be had here.
The book insists upon a few things that seem bizarrely naive or off key. For example, Jonathan Casper studies squid and nurses a hope of finding in their genetic makeup something to help him discover “a unified idea about why the world is the way it is, and where, as human beings, we truly come from.” This seems a stretch, but then Meno goes on: “In his search for the prehistoric squid, Jonathan is looking for a single, uncomplicated answer to the mystery of human life: there must be one somewhere, he is sure of it” (21). This strikes me as a feeble attempt to unify the strands of a story that, like the mystery of human life, may simply defy tidy unification. There are several such things in the book. They feel like feints, almost. They feel contrived.
Contrivance turns out to be the book’s primary flaw, I think. Fiction is naturally contrived. It’s the throwing together of characters and situations whose intersection makes a neat story. In the best fiction, however improbable the intersections or the situations (take wheelchair assassins descending upon a tennis academy, for example), it all feels somehow merited or forgivable or even wonderfully inventive. The Great Perhaps feels to me like something that began as a neat enough idea but whose central conceit required more buttressing than was optimal, done at last with weaker struts than were needed. It feels, in a way, like some of my own efforts at writing fiction, in which something fundamental collapses out from under me and I scramble to jam something in its place. It’s not half-heartedly exactly. It’s more as if whole-heartedly (over-heartedly?) but in service of something that simply needed rethinking altogether.
Meno does some interesting things formally in the book. Sections about Madeleine Casper are often in something like numbered list form. And Jonathan’s father — who appears in some of the best writing of the book, I think — writes one-liner letters to himself that are sprinkled throughout the text; these I found quite lovely.
The Great Perhaps concerns itself at least obliquely with war, and its most interesting sections, from the childhood of Jonathan’s father, take place in the very middle of the war. Meno mentions terrorism and war in the modern context (the action of the book takes place at the time of the Bush/Kerry election) and even makes what I imagine seemed to him like a dramatic reveal pertaining to that most horrific cloud of all — the mushroom — and yet he never really ties it all together. Had he done more with that complex, conflicted father and his experience of the war, I think Meno might have had a great book. As it turned out, I get the feeling he started with the central image of the mushroom cloud and worked backward to build up a weak set of stories to support a cloud motif that was more contrived than beautiful.
All in all, it’s inadequate. Not bad exactly, but inadequate. I like Meno’s writing, and this book doesn’t turn me off to reading his other books, but it did disappoint me in some of the ways that writers like Powers and T.C. Boyle — though considered good, serious writers — sometimes disappoint. I suppose there’s worse company for Meno to keep.