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.

A Sad-Sack Story: Jason Pettus reviews Jack O’Connell’s novel The Resurrectionist


The Resurrectionist, Jack O’Connell, Algonquin Books


I have been a twenty-year fan and student of the related 20th-century art movements Dadaism and Surrealism, since first getting exposed to them as an undergraduate in the ’80s. In fact, these art movements are the closest I arguably come to being legitimately “scholarly” on any topic in terms of the amount of knowledge I have about the movements. One of the things I’ve learned through such study is that these days what the general culture thinks of as ‘surrealist’ is a far cry from how the original Surrealists defined it and themselves. When these original cutting-edge artists of the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s (the ones being equally defined by the new fields of Modernism and Freudian psychoanalysis) declared that they were trying to “capture the essence of a dream” in their artistic work, they actually meant that they were trying to capture the elusive pattern and rhythm of a dream itself—that simultaneous logic/illogic within dream we so easily accept, but is so hard to accept when conscious. As the decades have progressed with early-Modernism turning into late-Modernism, Pop Art, and, finally, Postmodernism, the entire concept of Surrealism has been co-opted by the advertising industry and Hollywood to now mostly mean, “Hey, look! Weird shit!”


What this means, then, is that there’s actually two kinds of Surrealism out now with discerning fans being able to tell the difference immediately. There is the pure, old-school Surrealism of the original movement, embodied by contemporary authors like Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell who construct elaborate experiments in actually reproducing the logic and emotions of a dream-like state. Then there is the cartoonish, Hollywoodized version of Surrealism, where an author simply writes about strange crap hoping that the distraction of the crap itself will hide the fact that there’s nothing really compelling behind it. Which of these, I hear you asking, best describes the book under review today, the 2008 cult hit and so-called contemporary Surrealist tale The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell? Well, I won’t keep you in suspense anymore—it’s the second. The second, oh Lord it’s the second, an infinitely frustrating collection of random, unexplained, weird horseshit whipped at the reader’s face at breakneck speed with none of it making any sense and none of it connecting to the other weird, random parts. O’Connell’s novel is basically the equivalent of handing a person a box full of Christmas ornaments and yelling, “Shake it! It’s pretty! Shake it! It’s pretty!” And so it may be, but such a fact certainly doesn’t make it good literature nor does it make it an accurate reflection of what a dream is actually like. And that’s the difference between someone like O’Connell and an actual Surrealist, O’Connell ultimately hopes that you’ll be distracted by the shiny ornaments being shaken about and not notice that there’s no actual tree.


In fact, O’Connell starts throwing out the random crap early and quick in The Resurrectionist; it is the story of sad-sack pharmacist Sweeney, caretaker of a son named Danny who is in a persistent coma, through an accident he still silently blames on his ex-wife. His life a shambles, dealing unsuccessfully with anger issues, Sweeney has been lured to a little town called Quinsigamond in order to work for the mysterious private Peck Clinic, mostly as a way of getting his son accepted into their secretive yet widely admired coma-care program. But see, right here is where O’Connell already starts going wrong with this story by making even the details of the clinic itself inconsistent. Although our story is set in the modern world, for some reason the nurses all have old-fashioned ’50s uniforms out there at the forbidding Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere that serves as the clinic’s campus. Plus, for this being a bizarre, private, family-funded organization that doesn’t share its results or even have a clear mission, the entire rest of the contemporary medical community seems to be big fans. This is what took Sweeney out there in the first place, after all, having his boring ol’ “real-world” doctors in Ohio recommend the clinic to him, despite the clinic itself literally being like something ripped out of an old Frankenstein movie.


Now, fans will say that this is exactly how it should be, that The Resurrectionist is supposed to be filled with weird crap that makes no sense because that’s what Surrealism is; but that’s not what Surrealism is. Actual Surrealism is supposed to make sense, just the kind of twisted, illogical sense that we can only accept while in a dream state. The details of the environment are supposed to actually relate to each other within a Surrealist tale, not just exist in their own hermetically weird states alongside all the other bizarre details. O’Connell’s book feels, especially the further you get into it, like he has simply written down a bunch of random stuff that popped into his head and sounded “weird” to him, without bothering to relate any of it to each other or even adhere to the most basic precepts of those concepts.


One of the running ideas in The Ressurectionist is that Danny had been a big fan of this giant children’s media empire called “Limbo,” consisting of a hit TV show, action figures, merchandise and a long-running comic book. O’Connell even includes a number of issues of the comic in the actual manuscript of the book; but why call it a comic, I wonder, when they’re actually fully narrative short stories? What hit children’s TV show in the 2000s is possibly going to be about a group of eastern European circus freaks in the 1920s wandering aimlessly through a fictional foreign land named after the Yiddish word for Hell, living a bleak and torture-filled life and spouting existentialist dialogue more appropriate for a Beckett play than any Japanimation children’s show in existence?


Sure, it’s weird and random, I’ll give you that; but if all I want is weird and random, I can sit at home flipping through television channels watching two seconds at a time of each for two or three hours in a row. Like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is weird and random; and like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is not nearly what I’d call an entertaining artistic experience. What I want from a Surrealist project is a world that almost makes complete sense, but with just a whiff of strangeness around its corners, a fleeting glimpse of something moving just on the edge of my vision. What I want from a Surrealist project is something that makes me feel the way I do when I’m actually dreaming, a moment for example where a friend flaps his arms in the middle of a conversation and flies away, and I don’t even think twice about it; what I don’t want is a collection of random details that all draw undue attention to themselves, each of them standing in the corner of the room and waving their arms and screaming, “Look at me! Look at me! I’M WEIRD!” And unfortunately, that’s mostly what The Resurrectionist consists of, with certainly there not being a compelling story holding it all together, nor compelling characters, nor even a consistent personal style.


In fact, here’s the simple insulting truth of the matter—by the time I had reached the end, I cared about the story and was invested in the characters so little that I didn’t even bother reading the last ten pages. I could no longer even follow whatever the hell was going on with the castle and the devil and the chicken-boy or whatever the fuck it all was. This is that’s a terrible, terrible thing to say about a novel—that after reading 300 pages of it, you didn’t care enough to bother with what’s supposed to be the most important ten pages of all. And this says more about this book than probably anything else I might be tempted to write.



This review first appeared at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (cclapcenter.com).