HE’S BETTER THAN THAT: Jason Pettus on The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno

Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography

The Great Perhaps, Joe Meno, WW Norton

So before anything else, let’s acknowledge that I have a complicated relationship with the work of Chicago wunderkind Joe Meno; I rather disliked his literary debut, for example, the popular punk-rock coming-of-age tale Hairstyles of the Damned (prompting not exactly hateful letters from his passionate fans, but rather these lengthy treaties on why I should change my mind), but then ended up being completely bowled over by his 2006 The Boy Detective Fails, writing a gushing love letter that remains one of the most-read reviews since starting CCLaP to begin with. And that brought me to the attention of WW Norton, publishers of Meno’s latest novel and his national mainstream debut; and for one of the first times as a critic, that scored me one of those much-desired “advance reading copies” (or ARCs) of the book, sent to reviewers months in advance for the benefit of bigger outfits like Publishers Weekly who need that long a lead time. And what I discovered, receiving this ARC out of the blue without even requesting it, is that it produced emotions in me even more complicated than before: because if Norton is going out of their way to send me one, it most obviously means that they think in advance that I’m going to like it and give them a bunch of good publicity (because let’s face it, CCLaP ain’t exactly Publishers Weekly, and doesn’t just merit ARCs automatically most of the time unless there’s an agenda behind it); and that made me distrust the book going into it, and wanting to judge it by a particularly high standard; but then that made me feel like I was going overboard, and suddenly made me want to take it easier on the book; but then that made me feel guilty about being so easily manipulated by a mainstream publishing industry that regular readers know I often have a lot of ideological problems with. Whew — who knew a free book would cause so much freaking angst?!

I mention all this for a legitimate reason, actually; because I ended up having this strangely schizophrenic reaction to said book, entitled The Great Perhaps and which finally got officially released earlier this week; I intensely liked little bits of it, intensely hated many more longer passages, and in general found myself simply bored and disappointed by the vast majority of the manuscript overall. To tell you the truth, I found myself saying several times while making my way through it, “You know, I think I’ve actually read this before — only that time it was called The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and it was a f-ck of a lot better. Oh, except for every fifth chapter, which is instead a near-complete ripoff of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Sigh.” But then I’d stop and think, “You know, perhaps I’m judging this too harshly because of unfairly high expectations;” but then I’d read another ridiculous chapter-sized digression or come across one more cutesy yet utterly pointless illustration and think, “No, no, I’m not being unfair, I’m not, Meno really has turned into the very thing I dread the most in the literary community — one of those clever snotty little postmodernism professor sh-ts — he has, he has, and the entire world of book lovers is a little worse off for it.” And then I’d read another chapter and change my mind again; and then I’d read yet another chapter and change my mind yet again.

Because let’s be clear, that the theme of this book is one that would make any snotty ’90s academic postmodern PC Augusten Burroughs fan proud — it’s a dark comedy about a quirky dysfunctional family (roll eyes here), with a healthy dose of magical realism added to it all (groan audibly here), plus with random diversions set throughout history thrown in willy-nilly (angrily mutter “J-sus” to yourself here), where a whole series of weird crap happens not to propel the story but simply for the sake of being weird (roll eyes again here, then get smacked by annoyed hipster sitting next to you at coffeehouse). And yes, I understand that some people actually like such stories, but I do not, I do not at all; I believe, in fact, that snotty irony-laced postmodern academic fiction is actually killing contemporary literature, and that one of the many causes of novels having less and less cultural cache these days is precisely the proliferation of this precious little Jonathan-Safran-Foer-style unreadable pabulum. That’s why so many people over the years have become such passionate fans of Meno in the first place, after all; because no matter how you feel about his past books, there’s no denying the startling freshness he’s brought to them all, and also the way that the strange details in admittedly almost all of them have usually been an integral part of telling that specific tale.

But here, though, the strangeness feels arbitrarily tacked on most of the time, added randomly just so that each character will have their own “thing” — a dad who faints at the sight of clouds, a mom who has anthropomorphized her laboratory animals, a daughter obsessed with ’70s revolutionaries and who is constructing a pipe bomb as a class project, another daughter who’s a budding Evangelical Christian and who slowly comes to realize that she’s actually a lesbian. Not a single one of these details end up having much to do with the overall plot or themes of the book, and there is very little about how the story ends that would change if removing any of these aspects; and I just hate that, I just f-cking hate it, when overly clever authors feel this need to prove to us that they too blew fifty grand on a largely useless Masters degree. As regular readers know, I’m generally an adherent instead of the Realist school of literary thought, and ultimately feel most of the time that language should serve in literature as the mere code that it is; that the point of words on a page is to cause as little attention to themselves as possible, so that we as readers can just simply interpret them into visual images (and conceptual ideas*) in our brain as quickly and smoothly as possible, which of course is where the actual communication in the storytelling process takes place, not on the page itself.

Now, that said, I’m of course sometimes a fan of a well-turned phrase, which is why my reaction to The Great Perhaps is more complicated than simply disliking it; for example, despite its aforementioned similarity to Kavalier and Klay, I was really charmed by the story thread concerning the family’s now doddering patriarch, a comics-obsessed first-generation German-American who through flashbacks we watch grow up in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood in the 1930s, who eventually gets shipped off by the government to a German/Japanese “domestic concentration camp” in Texas during World War Two, which turns out to easily be the best-written and most fascinating section of the entire novel. So what a shame, then, that Meno clutters up the rest of the book with so many Clinton-Era PoMo cliches — from the fact that all the characters secretly love smoking when no one else is around (really? in 2004?), to radically liberal academic parents (the whole thing’s set in Hyde Park) who share way too much info about their personal lives with their embarrassed conservative kids, to the atrocious habit among middle-aged academic authors to overly add the word ‘like’ to dialogue to signify that it’s a teenager talking. (And seriously, middle-aged academic authors, we get it already — you’re threatened by teens and so feel the need to make them all sound like morons. WE GET IT ALREADY. NOW STOP.)

In fact, I ended up having such a bad reaction to The Great Perhaps, I did something I’ve never done before in the history of CCLaP; I re-read from start to finish a book that I’ve already reviewed here, Meno’s last novel Boy Detective, just to make extra-double-sure that I wasn’t overreacting to this newer one, or maybe remembering that previous book in a better light than I should. But you know what? After reading it a second time, I realized that I really am right to have had this reaction that I have; that Boy Detective really is just brilliant in this way that Perhaps is not, for the exact reasons that are completely missing in this newer manuscript. Consider…
–Although just as weird, the strangeness in Boy Detective is always done in the direct service of the actual story — not a “magical realism” tale (which I’m growing to despise more and more with each passing year), but an out-and-out fairytale, where all attempts at reality are simply done away with to much better and more humorous effect. (For those who don’t know, the book’s main conceit is that all the famous child detectives of Mid-Century Modernist literature were actual people, and to a fault all grew up to be neurotic messes, but with Meno doing so much more with this idea than even seems possible at first.)
–The message of Boy Detective is a complex, symbolic one, open to a lot of interpretation; while the message of Perhaps is fairly obvious and badly telegraphed, summed up as, “White people have been dicks for a very, very, very long time, and none of them actually think that they’re the ones being dicks.”
–The pieces of Boy Detective’s story fit together like a tight jigsaw puzzle, all of them having a rock-solid internal logic no matter how externally surreal they may be; but in Perhaps, many of the even ho-hum details need to be stretched to the limits of believability in order for Meno to make his point. (To cite just one excellent example, ask me how f-cking ridiculous it is that an aerospace engineer could actually work for years at McDonnell Douglas [one of the biggest defense contractors on the planet during the Cold War Era] without knowing that the planes he was designing were to eventually be used for violent purposes, an insulting slap in the face to the people like my father and his friends who actually were aerospace engineers at McDonnell Douglas during the Cold War Era, and who were under no illusions whatsoever about what their jobs were.)

So when all is said and done, then, I’m afraid I’m just going to have to give The Great Perhaps an only mediocre score today, and to declare that I was just awfully underwhelmed and disappointed by it, after getting so excited about Boy Detective just a couple of years ago. And if Meno ever happens to read this, may I please, please encourage him to go back to what he’s best at — coming up with concepts of breathtaking originality, then executing them in flawlessly bizarre ways — and to stop listening to all his buddies down on campus who have obviously been whispering that what he really needs to write is yet another whiny little screed about miserable academe assholes who no one in their right mind would ever possibly give a rat’s ass about. Meno is better than that, he’s much better than that, and it’s frustrating as hell to spend 400 pages watching him forget it.

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