This review was first published in Notes from the Underground.
Joe Meno describes his fifth novel as “an argument on behalf of complexity”. It is a curious, albeit common, challenge for a writer to set himself: to write a book that is not neat and contained like traditional narratives but reflects more accurately the cloudy corners of real life. With this perspective, Meno is naturally disinclined to respect politicians like George W. Bush who famously traded on simplicity and binary opposites. Bush’s style is the very genesis of The Great Perhaps: inspired by Bush’s re-election in 2004, the novel attempts to deconstruct the fear of complexity pervading America at that time. In this way, for example, Meno cannily exposes the foolishness of arguing the merits of war on a bumper sticker .
The politics of simplicity is the book’s most powerful and moving aspect, represented most poignantly when 14-year-old Thisbe announces to her Democrat family that she prefers Bush because John Kerry’s “answers are too long”.
The five characters who make up the book’s family each come to realise that they have viewed the world too simply, and that its grey moments are just as valuable as all the others. Meno’s is therefore a legitimate argument, and a shrewd slice of sociology. But it’s not always successfully constructed. Even by the end, the characters fall into the traps they have just discovered, as they refer to the world in the binary opposites they know are flawed. While they watch the election unfold, the parents clearly consider themselves opposed to Bush – and yet we never find out exactly why they support Kerry, or where on the wavy political spectrum they sit.
The story itself is complex: it combines the lives of five unique, individual characters living separate lives despite sharing genetic information. Meno even crafts the novel with different devices as a way of making it seem like the experience of life itself: a bombardment of forms and styles. It’s not a bad idea: different people see the world in very different ways. And Meno’s good humour shines through as he writes Thisbe’s awful, teenage prayers, Amelia’s horrendous anti-capitalist diatribes and Jonathan’s academic abstract-style thoughts. But while the experience of reading them is for the most part enjoyable, it is also simplistic and even crude. It is surprising that a writer who talks about and teaches craft would settle for it. The characters could arguably have been stronger without it: if Meno is entirely comfortable writing internal struggles he should not have to rely on such gimmickry.
Perhaps ‘gimmickry’ is unfair: after all, the characters are fun. It is always enjoyable to read non-heroes: bad tempered kids and professors who know nothing of the real world. The book will certainly make you smile: you’ll feel happy to know these characters, like faulty friends who you love anyway. The grandfather is the weakest character of the piece. To some extent, Meno makes a rod for his own back with this character. As he is mostly silent, confused and swimming in his memories, it is hard to see the old man clearly and it is even harder to grasp what he represents and why he drives the story forward. But perhaps, as Meno would say, that’s life.