The Great Perhaps, By Joe Meno

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The Independent Culture

Even without Irvine Welsh enthusiastically citing The Corrections on its jacket, Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps would struggle to escape comparison with Jonathan Franzen's celebrated 2001 novel. And while both are ambitious family dramas, those expecting similar levels of prose pyrotechnics will be disappointed. What this novel is resolutely not is a sort of Corrections-lite. Though a brief summary of the plot suggests that this may be the case.

It is the run-in to the 2004 US Presidential election and Jonathan Casper is floundering. His obsession with discovering a living example of one of nature's great disappearing acts – Tusoteuthis longa, a prehistoric squid – has taken over his life; but now his budgets have been cut and a suave Frenchman is making all the waves in his field. His wife Madeline is conducting an experiment on pigeons which is turning the males into psychotic rapists. Youngest daughter Thisbe has found God and a confused sexuality, while elder daughter Amelia is wearing a beret and talking about destruction of the capitalist West. Meanwhile, Henry, Jonathan's father, is lying in hospital, planning one final escape, and one last plane ride.

This all seems wholly familiar, even clichéd, territory. A dysfunctional American family. A pair of college professors' mid-life crises. A dying father. Two teenagers' coming-of-age tales. Throw in a few stylistic tics – occasional pictures, flashbacks to historical events, italics and bold type – and it's easy to dismiss it as another flashy, stylish but ultimately unsatisfying attempt at the Great American Novel. To do so would be unfair on a novel that combines narrative steel, human conviction and a thoughtful examination of the contemporary family.

Meno's compassion and understanding is broad, yet intimate. While some sections are rather more successful than others, the characters are never less than well-drawn and full-blooded. Henry, slowly trying to erase himself from life while still living with the consequences of his involvement in Vietnam, is heartbreakingly realised – not once, but three times. We encounter him as an idealistic boy, as a broken man, then as a dying animal. It's a brilliantly rendered character study.

The question of power – set down by government, presided over by parents or instilled by nature – courses through the book: those that have it and those that do not. Meno shows how we cope when we have power, when we don't and, perhaps most interestingly, when we think we do. With a keen sense of phrasing, and a perfect ear for dialogue – especially teenage speech – Meno has created a refreshingly readable, subtle and intelligent novel. It more than steps out of the shadow cast by The Corrections.