Today I saw this book at the OPL. I thought the name was neat, so I plucked it off the shelf and thumbed through it a bit. Three hours later I was at the end and bawling.
The premise is simple: What happens when one of those kid detectives from the children's books, like Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew, grows up? What happens when he discovers evil? Or that some questions can't be answered in thirty pages? Presentation-wise it's a great pastiche of 1950's-style children's books--the book starts on chapter 30, the dust jacket has a decoder ring (which you will have to use to understand one of the subplots), and the endpapers contain mazes and crossword puzzles. There's even a "secret story" that is hinted at on the copyright page, which I was not able to find (if any of you figure it out it, please let me know). It looks like one of those high-concept projects that an undergraduate creative writing major would do for his final project, all bells and whistles and look what I can do, glazed with a sheen of postmodern irony. Even the writing style is simple and children's book-ish. But dig a little deeper into Meno's surreal '50s white-picket-fence child-detective world, and you realize that there's nothing postmodern about it. The book does not satirize the genre, it merely brings the genre's most common truths into an adult context. Those truths in summary are trite: People grow old. Innocence dies. Bad things happen to good people. But Meno brings out the reality of those truths, elevates them above mere aphorism, slams them in your face in all their awful, beautiful, heartbreaking glory. It's just like growing up and discovering the depth of meaning behind all those fairytale morals you learned as a kid--which is exactly what Meno's no-longer-a-boy detective protagonist does. And it would be easy to do that in an incredibly sappy, Hallmark card way, like some coffee table writers do, but there's a savage honesty to the way Meno does it, ringing with the voice of experience, that makes those truths once again seem inexplicable and wise, sometimes even darkly funny. Impossibly, he always manages to pull it off--it's never over the top or under the radar.
Meno's world is also gloriously fantastic. Like the world of mystery-adventure stories on which it is based, it's so surreal that it takes an intellect as superb as Meno's titular boy detective to find a scientific explanation for anything. Even the most ordinary things are made weird and beautiful--kleptomaniacs on the bus, mustache-peddling telemarketers, schoolyard bullies in love. And the less ordinary things--well, I'd better not spoil anything by mentioning the supervillain convention. Or the epidemic of buildings mysteriously disappearing. Or the--oops. Haha.
I could go for pages about pacing and storytelling style and theme, but there's something about this book's brutal honesty that makes such pretention feel completely out of place. It's a humbling read, because it's the story every aspiring magical realist and Minor Book Award Winner has tried to write, and I'm not convinced it can be done better than this (Murakami doesn't count). This is the ideal book for an adult who grew up reading Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and wonders where that part of him or her went. And as someone who falls squarely within this category, I think I can safely say I'd never read anything that hit this close to the heart.
Kevin: Okay, class, review time. First rule of book club?
Chuck: You don't talk about book club.
Kevin: Strike three, Mr. Palahniuk. Get out.
Chuck: *screaming* I am Chuck's raging bile duct! Gwarrrrrrr!