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The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno
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The Great Perhaps

by Joe Meno

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This is a brilliant and entertaining novel. Meno offers an insightful and humorous portrait of one highly dysfunctional family, while also exploring some fascinating big ideas. The story is told from the multiple perspectives of five members of the same family, the Caspers: father, Jonathan, a kind of nutty professor who is completely absorbed by his study of an ancient, but still alive, squid; his wife, Madeline, an academic as well, who is studying aggression in pigeons and is deeply resentful of her husband’s neglect at home; oldest daughter Amelia, a high school junior and wannabe Marxist, who writes long creeds against capitalism in her school paper; Thisbe, a high school freshman, who is constantly begging God to offer some evidence of his existence, while also hating herself for her attraction to another girl in her class; and grandfather, Henry, who has perhaps the most moving tale of all. He was the son of a German tailor, who was arrested for sedition and sent to an internment camp during World War II. Henry always longed to build and fly airplanes, and he becomes an aeronautical engineer, but then discovers a plane he built is used to drop napalm during the Vietnam War. He experiences a nervous breakdown, after he realizes he has unwittingly repeated the sins of his own father, whose greed brought about the death of Japanese families who were interned at the WWII camp next to the Germans. Henry’s neglect as a father helped contribute to the utter befuddlement with which his son, Jonathan, lives his life. Jonathan suffers from a unique condition – he experiences seizures when he sees clouds. But the many doctors who try to understand his condition come to the conclusion that Jonathan is having a fight or flight response in the presence of clouds, and that his flight response may stem from an inherited condition of cowardice. So interwoven with the stories of the five living Casper family members, we get brilliantly told tales of Jonathan’s forbears demonstrating their cowardice over the course of many centuries past – all when faced with monumental challenges such as an Indian uprising against their British colonial occupiers, a sailors’ revolt when a trade ship gets stuck in the ice, and a charge of sedition for one of the predecessors who conspired with the French during the reign of King Wilhelm of Prussia. Meanwhile, Jonathan’s and Madeline’s academic research ties into all of these themes. Jonathan is studying a prehistoric squid, which may yield great insights into evolution, but which is also difficult to find because it prefers isolation in the depths of the ocean. When one is actually discovered alive by a rival French academic, its exposure to other beings eager to study and examine it, causes it to die. When Jonathan’s marriage begins to fall apart, he takes the same isolationist route, hiding in his den, with a sheet shielding the bed he sleeps alone in. Madeline makes an unexpected discovery with the pigeons she studies. When she removes the alpha males from the cages, the beta males begin displaying aberrant behavior – raping and killing one female after another. Much as modern humans may hate it (and Marxist daughter Amelia is one prime example), all living beings, including humans, may need a hierarchical structure to keep their societies and lives in tact. So the question is will Jonathan be able to rescue his family by finally being man enough to lead it. All though the novel are wonderful little gems – young Henry loves live listening to young radio plays. Meno offers whole transcripts of science fiction adventures, which Henry listen to with an unexpected friend – a young soldier guarding him and his family at the internment camp. Amelia wants to hate everyone, but she becomes the unwitting victim of a sleazy college professor and wants to hate the most popular boy in school – the president of the student council who’s called into take her job as editor of the school paper when her columns prove too inflammatory. This popular boy could be a cad right out of central casting, but Meno makes him an affectionate and sympathetic character constantly reaching out and finding some good in Amelia even when’s she tearing into him with her caustic, cynical wit. And there’s a wonderful continuing line about the clouds that intimidate Jonathan. Cloud shapes spoke to his cowardly predecessors, and when Madeline goes a little crazy about her husband’s neglect, she begins to think one cloud shape is speaking to her, so she begins chasing clouds, and in her delusion the one cloud she’s chasing may have something important to say to her. As I try to outline all the threads at work in this story, I can understand why it might seem impossible that any author could weave all these multiple storylines and ideas into one compelling, readable novel. But Meno pulls the feat off and amazingly so. It’s a grand achievement to have crafted something so simultaneously entertaining, thought-provoking and insightful. ( )
  johnluiz | Aug 6, 2013 |
In The Great Perhaps, Joe Meno is able to capture a typical dysfunctional American family at the brink of a mental break down. With this family, Joe Meno demonstrates that life is complicated. However, he also enlightens the reader to the paradox that there is simplicity to even the most complicated of matters. While containing such weighty themes, The Great Perhaps also manages to be quirky, funny, and touching. ( )
  WINDYW | Nov 22, 2011 |
The Casper family is described as a family of cowards on the back cover of this book, but I don't agree. I think this book is an exploration of bravery in every day life. It is also a portrayal of a modern family who share the same house, but have little ability to, or interest in, interacting with each other.

Jonathan Casper is a scientist, researching the maybe-extinct giant squid. He has seizures when he sees clouds. Throughout the book, he is mildly self-obsessed and shy about interacting with his wife, Madeline and teenaged daughters.

Madeline is a researcher, worried about the fate of the country (U.S.A.) as the 2004 election looms. The pigeons she is studying seem to have fallen into a pattern of violence which parallels, in her view, the US involvement in Iraq.

Amelia and Thisbe were raised with little actual parenting, being treated like adults by their parents. Amelia has turned to revolution for meaning, fighting against capitalism. Thisbe has turned to religion and prays almost constantly. Rounding out the family is Jonathan's father, Henry, who is trying to disappear.

In many ways, the Caspers are typical of today's society, with everyone living in their own worlds, often having difficulty connecting. Joe Meno has done an excellent job of presenting this family, who have lost each other in many ways, and their struggles to reconnect. The characters are strong, the story moves along well. I really enjoyed this one. ( )
1 vote LynnB | Dec 23, 2010 |
Expansive, funny, sad, and weirdly mesmerizing, Joe Meno's latest novel is set during the 2004 Presidential election, a time in history when we as a nation were hobbled with fear and failed by the promise of easy answers. ( )
  markflanagan | Jul 21, 2010 |
This is a tale of a dysfunctional American family – an academic couple and their two daughters, they are four very different characters…

Let’s meet the Casper family: Father - Jonathan, who has epilepsy provoked by seeing clouds, and is searching for the giant squid; Mother – Madeline keeps the family together and researches violence among pigeon flocks; older daughter Amelia - a teenaged rebel who edits the school paper and wants to make a bomb; and finally fourteen year old Thisbe who spends much time praying and talking to God, and lastly Jonathan’s father, Henry, who is fading away in an care home.

The Caspers are having a hard time living with each other. Jonathan is consumed with his studies at the University of Chicago, and forgets to take his epilepsy medication. Madeline suffers in silence, but is seething inside. Meanwhile, Amelia writes one too many inflammatory articles in the school paper and gets suspended, and Thisbe prays for everyone. Henry has decided to utter one less word per day in his personal prison. This family is in severe danger of falling apart.

The chapters alternate between the characters voices, and they are quite distinct, especially Madeline, who thinks in extended bullet points, lettered from A to Z. Jonathan is rather laissez-faire about everything except his envy of his French rival in the squid hunt. Amelia is just bolshy and an irritant, whereas Thisbe is lovely and caring and wishes she could sing. Madeline, in direct contrast to Jonathan’s weird allergy, also finds herself obsessed by a man-shaped cloud which seems to always be there. The Caspers are all scared of talking to each other, so much so that things will come to a head and I did find myself wanting to read on and find out whether they made it to the end of the book as a family unit. I particularly enjoyed Jonathan and Thisbe, finding Madeline too uptight and confused, and Amelia just needed bringing back into the real world from her revolutionary imagined one.

If you enjoy reading campus novels, and can put up with a dysfunctional family with a high quirk quotient, this tragicomedy may be your thing. I enjoyed it a lot. ( )
  gaskella | Jul 13, 2010 |
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Epigraph
One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a just war.
-Kurt Vonnegut, University of Chicago graduate school alum

Where this is an unknowable, there is a promise.
-Thornton Wilder, University of Chicago faculty member
Dedication
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Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393067963, Hardcover)

A breakout new novel from the critically acclaimed novelist and playwright Joe Meno, author of Hairstyles of the Damned.

The sky is falling for the Caspers, a family of cowards: for Jonathan, a paleontologist, searching in vain for a prehistoric giant squid; for his wife, Madeline, an animal behaviorist with a failing experiment; for their daughter, Amelia, a disappointed teenage revolutionary; for her younger sister, Thisbe, on a frustrated search for God; and for grandfather Henry, who wants to disappear, limiting himself to eleven words a day, then ten, then nine… Each fears uncertainty and the possibilities that accompany it. When Jonathan and Madeline suddenly decide to separate, this nuclear family is split, each member forced to confront his or her own cowardice, finally coming to appreciate the cloudiness of the modern age.

With wit and humor, The Great Perhaps presents a revealing look at anxiety, ambiguity, and the need for complicated answers to complex questions. 4 drawings

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:37 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The precarious world of the Casper family is thrown into chaos by the sudden separation of Jonathan and his wife, Madeline, a decision that forces the couple, their two daughters, and grandfather Henry to confront their own pursuits and cowardice.

» see all 2 descriptions

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W.W. Norton

Two editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393067963, 0393304566

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