Thursday 17 June 2010

Where do I fit in?

The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno (Picador 2010)

The Caspers appear at first glance to be a fairly normal family. Parents Jonathan and Madeline are academics, a palaeontologist and an animal behaviourist respectively. Their daughters, Amelia, 17, and Thisbe, 14, are high school students, each undergoing varying degrees of adolescent angst.

Jonathan is searching for a prehistoric giant squid that he believes is still alive somewhere in the deep waters of the Pacific. His search is not going very well. Madeline’s work is also progressing poorly, the pigeons she is studying having taken to raping and murdering one other each night after she leaves the lab. Amelia, a self-defined Marxist revolutionary, keeps herself at arm’s length from her family and peers in order to avoid engaging in the idiocy of their consumerist existences. Her little sister Thisbe is, perhaps most worryingly of them all – at least to Jonathan and Madeline – turning to God in an attempt to define her place in the world.

This state of general familial discontentment is clearly not the ideal scenario, but it is all holding together somehow and feels like an unremarkable state of affairs. Life is not perfect after all. But then suddenly one day it all begins to break down.

Jonathan has had a highly unusual affliction since early childhood: he is allergic to clouds. So allergic, in fact, that the mere sight of one, whether real or figurative, brings on epileptic seizure. There is no cure, but by taking daily anti-seizure medication he can live a normal life.

But Jonathan is absent-minded, with a tendency to lose himself in his work, and he often neglects to take his pills. Madeline is impatient with her husband’s cavalier attitude to his health, and when, moments after a minor collision with another vehicle, Jonathan catches sight of a cloud and has a seizure at the wheel, Madeline decides she can take no more. The couple go from being deeply in love to barely speaking to each other and the family effectively falls apart.

Because The Great Perhaps traces the Caspers’ individual journeys, rather than treating them as a whole, there is no over-arching plot to speak of, yet the novel manages to be a gripping read. It is easy to care about Meno’s quirky, flawed characters, whose stories are told by turn as the novel progresses. Their crises, minor in the grand scheme of things but of major importance to the individuals concerned, are ones most of us will have undergone at some point ourselves: Where do I fit in? How do I tell her how I feel? Why doesn’t he appreciate me?

The fact that the Caspers’ experiences are comprehensible doesn’t, however, make them prosaic. The novel’s brilliance, and what makes The Great Perhaps stand out from other similar-sounding tales of everyday American life, is its eccentricity. Madeline finds herself following a drifting cloud figure in her car every night; Thisbe wanders the neighbourhood baptising local cats; Jonathan spends the majority of the novel living beneath a sheet rigged up as a tent in the family den.

Meno’s prose is full of surprises; sentences and paragraphs do not end in the ways suggested by their beginnings. We are led into certain assumptions, only to have them dashed. This process only adds to our sense of the multi-layeredness of the novel’s characters; they behave as unexpectedly as people do in life and are highly satisfying to read about as a result.

Set in the present, The Great Perhaps also handles the past with great sensitivity and insight. The character of Henry, Jonathan’s aged father, is beautifully drawn, his memories of a childhood in wartime adding a gravity and sense of context to this otherwise modern novel. It is ultimately the presence of Henry, via various direct and indirect routes, which leads Jonathan et al to heal themselves and the family to regain its sense of contented disfunctionality.

The title of The Great Perhaps may express uncertainty, but there’s no doubt about the skill of its Chicago-based author. This wonderful novel about the American family, personal responsibility and giant squid, is Meno’s fifth, but his first to be published in the UK. Watch this space, Meno is going to be big.


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