Two authors, one dinner table. Joshua Mohr talks to Joe Meno about The Great Perhaps, fundamentalism, and why George W. Bush’s sentences are so short.
The Chicago Tribune calls Joe Meno “an unmistakably American author.” Meno’s new novel, The Great Perhaps, looks at an unmistakably American family, the Caspers, with all their anxieties, ambiguities, and doomed attempts to find simple answers to complex questions. Equal parts sad and funny, The Great Perhaps manages to weave the 2004 election, the Iraq War, and even World War II into a topsy-turvy story of the Caspers’ attempts to hold themselves together. Meno is the author of four previous novels, including Hairstyles of the Damned (2004) and two collections of short stories, including the illustrated volume Demons in the Spring (2008). He and Rumpus writer Joshua Mohr (Some Things that Meant the World to Me) recently read together at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, OR. Beforehand, they had dinner and talked about Meno’s work.
Rumpus: I just heard David Sedaris is reading across town at the same time as we are. Pre-sold 700 tickets, or something viciously ridiculous like that. Do you think anyone will come to our reading?
Meno: The formula that I use is that you want to have one person in the audience for every hour you traveled to get here. You drove?
Rumpus: Recklessly. About ten hours.
Meno: I flew two hours. All we need are twelve people.
Rumpus: It’s thrilling that the bar is set so low. Maybe we should have a kissing booth. That’ll pack ‘em in. How long did you work on The Great Perhaps?
Meno: I started it a couple weeks after the 2004 election. Really, the book was a way for me to ask the question why had the country made the decision it had, in reelecting George Bush. And also how that administration was defined by fear, using fear to push forward their agenda.
Rumpus: I was curious about your decision to write in the present tense. Did that happen in the revision process or in the book’s conception?
Meno: I was writing in 2004 and it was 2004…
Rumpus: That saves miles on the ol’ time machine.
Meno: It was weeks after the election. Even though I knew [the book] was going to come out a couple years later, the conflict and drama of those characters was connected to that one specific moment, the weeks leading up to the election. Ultimately, it’s about a fear of complexity. The different family members have a fear of a world that’s become too complex for them. They’ve gone to some simple answer or oversimplification.
Rumpus: I can empathize. So does the word “Perhaps” in the title echo each character’s interpretation of fear?
Meno: You got it. To me the most beautiful things are the things you’re still trying to figure out. We need complexity. The thing we were most missing in the weeks leading up to the invasion in Iraq was any kind of complex discussion. Instead we were arguing the merits of war through bumper stickers or CNN newsbytes. It wasn’t a right or left thing. It was an oversimplification of a really complex idea.
Rumpus: And a blaring deception, or series of deceptions.
Meno: Exactly. And the reason the deception worked was because people were in a complete state of panic. One of the reasons the Republicans were successful was because George Bush was able to pronounce his ideas in three or four word sentences.
Rumpus: I don’t think he had any other options.
Meno: But it worked. John Kerry had these very rational arguments that went on for paragraphs.
Rumpus: He bored his target audience.
Rumpus: A lot of male writers shy away from the idea of having to manufacture even one teenage female’s psychology on the page. You just went for it, though, and have two in this book. What was that experience like?
Meno: One character, Thisbe, I used her in a short story, someone searching for God. Then in a play, but it didn’t really work. I thought she was interesting. To me, characters always start with a question. For Thisbe [the younger of the two teenage girls in The Great Perhaps], it’s, “What’s so attractive about evangelical Christianity? Or any kind of fundamentalist religion?” It’s that the answers are already there for you, and there’s something comforting in that. Ultimately, what she’s really looking for is love.
Rumpus: This idea of starting with a question: I don’t think novels should answer the questions they posit, but instead should lead to new questions. It’s not the writer’s job to decrypt narrative.
Meno: Yeah. These characters found some resolution, but clearly they still have other lives to lead. Lives with more questions. The question is more interesting than the answer. All these characters rely really heavily on having a simple answer. Hopefully by the end of the book, they come to realize the question is the thing they should be devoted to. And that’s the book’s title. That’s the whole idea of it. Can you get rid of fear by adding a different threat?
Rumpus: Can you preempt chaos with more chaos?
Rumpus: Don’t give away too much. We’re trying to sell books for you here. One of the things I love about novels—and this seems like a paradox—is that only through the individual, the character, can a writer make a greater statement about humankind.
Meno: It’s got to go back to character.
Rumpus: So is each character in The Great Perhaps making a different social commentary, or just illuminating a different view on the prism of life?
Meno: That’s a great question.
Rumpus: I was pretty proud of myself when I scribbled that bad boy.
Meno: Each of the five family members has oversimplified everything in their life down to one thing—for Jonathan [the father] it’s the squid; for Madeline [the mother] it’s this cloud person she becomes obsessed with; for the [older] daughter Amelia it’s this bomb; for the other daughter [Thisbe] she becomes infatuated with a girl; for Henry [paternal grandfather] it’s the idea of escaping. That one single thing will save them. When actually, you need all of those. You need science, religion, politics, and history. It works like a prism, exactly like that.