The Great Perhaps

The Great Perhaps, by Joe Meno, Macmillan £12.99, 416 pages, FT Bookshop price: £10.39

The Great Perhaps belongs to a highly specialised microgenre: stories about family crises that involve giant cephalopods. The sentimental arthouse-lite movie The Squid and the Whale provides the most obvious (perhaps the only) comparator. There’s a giant squid in the latest Dan Brown book, but it’s dead – and the squid in Jules Verne isn’t made to carry quite the symbolic freight that the squid here does. Squids are rife in science fiction (see Kraken for the latest example) but in literary fiction their appearance is more unusual.

The hero of The Great Perhaps is Jonathan Casper, a 48-year-old palaeontologist at the University of Chicago whose life’s work is the pursuit of a creature that may not even exist. Not for him ordinary Architeuthis, the common-or-garden giant squid, itself never captured alive. He is chasing its prehistoric ancestor Tusoteuthis longa, which he is convinced survives in the deep ocean.

Jonathan is a diffident Ahab of the laboratory and the faculty meeting. His pride, his purpose and his funding are under threat from a more glamorous rival – a sneering French squid-botherer with better funding sources and a more telegenic beard. Jonathan’s obsession, meanwhile, is causing him not to notice that his marriage is breaking up. His wife Madeline – herself an academic, investigating rapist pigeons – is feeling neglected.

Their two daughters are also unhappy: Amelia is an angry teenage Marxist, while her younger sister Thisbe has found God and prays by turn for the soul of the next-door-neighbour’s cat, and her own spontaneous annihilation. In the nursing home, in the background, his father Henry is quietly planning to disappear: getting rid of his possessions, parcelling his memories into gnomic missives “To Whom It May Concern”, making thwarted attempts to escape to the airport. Every day, he speaks one word fewer – moving towards the moment when he will fall silent.

The Great Perhaps seems to be steeped in literary influence, which is no bad thing. But these influences dilute each other to the extent that it’s hard to find Meno’s distinctiveness. This reads like a 21st-century American novel synthesised in a laboratory from the DNA of all the others.

There’s Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, sure – as the publishers are keen to tell us. But the back-story, about Henry’s childhood in a wartime internment camp obsessed with comic books and derring-do radio serials, wanders into Michael Chabon territory, while Zoe Heller’s The Believers explored with more attack the family dynamics of religious and political faith.

There’s a touch of Rick Moody in the domestic crisis set against wan political mood-music – here by the background of the 2004 Bush-Kerry Election. Madeline’s sections of narrative are told in single paragraphs headed “A, B, C ... ” and so on; there are diagrams of a horse, a cloud and a rhinoceros, and chapters have names such as “Further Comments of a Questionable Historical Importance”. Such light formal gimmickry seems to bow the head to Davids Eggers and Foster Wallace.

The novel participates, too, in that vanilla-flavoured magic-realist prankishness present in the generation of writers now in their forties. A mysterious man-shaped cloud appears in the sky and strides across the city and Madeline, under compulsion, follows it in her car. A Casper ancestor is impregnated when a stray bullet from a firing squad nicks the scrotum of the condemned man and lodges in her womb. Moths appear at significant moments.

The story pulls you along, the world is well enough imagined and Meno’s prose is competent, though you struggle to find a sentence you want to quote. But the whole thing leaves you with the feeling that it would be best turned into a sentimental arthouse-lite movie starring Kevin Spacey or Jeff Bridges as Jonathan. Here he is, having an epiphany as he stares at an origami flower: “What Jonathan feels next is an odd sort of wonderment at the paper flower’s certain and uncertain angles, at the curious complexity he now holds in his hand. And then he thinks: It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s complicated. Because there’s not one thing. There’s not one thing that makes sense of everything.”

Well, no. Not even a giant squid. Who knew?

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