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May 13, 2009

Book Notes - Joe Meno ("The Great Perhaps")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Joe Meno is one of my favorite authors, in his latest novel The Great Perhaps he turns his keen eye to the American family. A grandfather looking to escape his nursing home, a couple in a troubled marriage, and two teenagers discovering themselves, every life is explored in alternating chapters that weave the family together and make their story one. Tragic, sad, and often comic, The Great Perhaps is one of the most enjoyable books I have read all year.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"As the family's preoccupations rattle on and bang up against one another, the recently begun war in Iraq provides background noise and another dimension to the intricate and intimate tale. Meno's handle on the written word is fresh and inviting, conjuring a story that delves deeply into the human heart."

In his own words, here is Joe Meno's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Great Perhaps:

About popular music: I don't always understand it. Which to me, is the best reason to listen. Unlike almost any other cultural product, say, the intense demand of reading of fiction, or the passivity involved with watching television and film—in which someone has already done all the difficult imagining, listening to music allows the imagination to be given over to itself, darting off into wonderful abstractions of sound and language. I think this openness, this invitation to actively imagine, is the reason why I go back to pop music again and again to develop characters and stories.

Also: music is how I first started experimenting with writing. All the way back in high school, before I had ever written a story or novel or any kind of prose, I was in bad metal and rock bands. We'd listen to the radio or watch MTV and write our own versions of Guns N' Roses or Slayer songs. This was the first serious writing I think I ever did, serious in the sense that what I was doing felt incredibly important to me, even though the end results were usually pretty tragic. Eventually I moved on from writing bad song lyrics to writing bad poems and then bad short stories, and much later, questionable novels. In this way, music has always been the starting point of narrative for me.

I began working on The Great Perhaps in 2004 after the disappointing presidential election. I had written a number of scenes with some of the characters in different forms—parts of a play, some short stories—when I realized all the characters were somehow related, in that they were all dealing with fear in a different way. I decided to take these characters and make them a family. Immediately, the book started coming together, and it became obvious pretty quickly that the thing all these characters were afraid of was how complex the world had gotten; how, each in their own way, they all wanted a simple answer, but this simple answer was failing them, whether it was science, social science, politics, religion, or history.

The music I kept going back to, while working on the novel, was the Beatles' White album. I wanted the book to have the same kind of absurdity and complexity, the same breadth and span, the same sense of earnestness and humor. I wanted the writing to be dynamic, moving from quiet intimate moments to large, exaggerated ones. There are songs from that double album like "Long, long, long" and "Revolution" and "Helter Skelter" that have direct connections to characters or scenes, but the overall idea, the ambition and the fearlessness and the surreal bombast of those recordings is what most inspired me.

Also there are these songs, in no particular order of importance, which I stole ideas directly from:

1. The Beatles "Yellow Submarine"

The book opens with the family driving to zoo, listening to this song. Although it's not on the White album, it's still a Beatles song. It has that bizarre comedic sense: it's about living in a submarine. I wanted to capture that feeling of the family—driving in their old Volvo—being hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, as if they are underwater, each character alone in their own world, although they are all technically together. Also, Jonathan Casper, the father, is a paleontologist searching for a prehistoric giant squid, and I wanted to try and make that connection as well.

2. Wilco "War on War"

Madeline Casper, the mother of the family, is a animal behaviorist, studying hierarchy and dominance in social birds. What she's really trying to figure out is how to live—as a woman, mother, and wife—without a prevailing dominating force. One way she expresses her frustration with the crumbling relationships in her family and her failing experiment is to drive around and remove lawn placards supporting George Bush and Dick Cheney. It does not solve any of her problems, but it gives her somewhere to direct her anger for a moment at least.

3. Marie Laforêt, "Marie-douceur, Marie-colère"

Amelia Casper, the eldest daughter, is seventeen and has committed herself to the overthrow of capitalism. She is not doing so well with it. What she has mastered however is her disdain for everything American and a preference for the sophistication of France. She wears a black beret almost every day and will only listen to French pop music. This song is a French cover of the Rolling Stones "Paint it Black" and it is one of the most terrifying songs you'll ever hear.

4. Bette Midler, "The Rose"

Thisbe Casper is age fourteen, and more than anything, she is trying to find God. What she'd most like in the world is to able to sing, to prove her devotion to Him. Unfortunately, she has a terrible singing voice. Thisbe has joined the chorus at her school. Her voice is so bad that the instructor, Mr. Grisham, assigns Thisbe to play the piano as the chorus' accompanist. Mr. Grisham also forces the students to sing the works of Bette Midler and Bette Midler only.

5. Guided by Voices, "Huffman Prairie Flying Field"

Henry Casper, the grandfather, is in his seventies, a former aircraft engineer, who is trying to escape the retirement home where he lives. Henry's plans include barring open the security door, sneaking past the guards, taking a cab to the airport, and flying away, never to be seen or heard from again. Inspired by the sci-fi radio serials as a boy, horrified by the consequence of the planes he helped to design during the air strikes of Vietnam, Henry's hope of flight depicts the collision of the mythology of recent American history and the reality of its stunningly complex past.

Joe Meno and The Great Perhaps links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
Buy The Great Perhaps at an independent bookseller

About.com review
Bomb review
The Book Design Review review
Chicago Public Radio review
Gapers Block review
The Internet Review of Books review
Library Journal review
Mickey Hess's Road Trip of Self-Discover review
Publishers Weekly review

The Millions interview with the author
Newcity Chicago profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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