Office Girl, written by Joe Meno and published by Akashic books, is a third-person, present-tense novel following the point-of-views of Odile, an art school drop-out who works from office-to-office while trying to find something meaningful in her otherwise mediocre life, and Jack, a recent divorcee at the ripe age of 25 with a collection of sounds recorded on tape to create a grandiose art project that’s far from fruition. It’s 1999, an end of an era, and Odile and Jack feel like they’re missing some element of themselves in order to mature to adulthood. They meet in a shitty office job they both take to stave off starvation and their own biological clocks when, struck by inspiration, they start their own artistic revolution against pop culture and expectations of societal norms. As they grow closer, they begin to realize that they never missed anything at all.
Claire, this girl I’m seeing, lent me this book—as it turns out, like most of the Columbia College Chicago undergraduates, she also had a crush on Joe Meno at one point. I can’t blame her—just about every girl I dated in college owned a copy of Hairstyles of the Damned and even if I didn’t like it, I respected the guy. Unlike some of our professors, no one ever accused Meno of hooking up with a student or even making someone sexually uncomfortable. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything mean about the guy. Not a goddamn word. Like, one of my close friends, Wyatt, had Meno for this thesis adviser and went so far as to even say that he felt luckier than most of the rest of the graduate students because of Meno’s attention to detail and direction in helping Wyatt to craft his stories. Even on the rare occasions where Meno and I ran into each other, he seemed cordial—even if he probably didn’t know who the fuck I was. He’s just that kind of guy.
(Columbia, courtesy of Newcity.)
I think it’s fair to say that most authors tend to write characters that are somewhat like them. One look at Joe Meno and you might think, “Wow, hipster.” Of course, this book is about anything but hipster culture. In fact, to conclude that there’s even a culture behind being a hipster is about as accurate as calling black kids from bad neighborhoods “urban youths.” Since the eighties and nineties, two decades convoluted with subculture and associative labeling, people have tried to peg what the hipster generation is and, according to Office Girl's book jacket, it's this. Being a starved artist with no tangible direction toward the future. Yeah, I guess you could call that a hipster. You could also call that being a fucking artist. Or anyone who tries to endeavor in a field saturated with inane attempts. You would think with all the mass consumption in modern America, not a single fucking artist would go hungry so long as he was making art. However, this generation is also defined by an incline in hopeful, art students. With the surge of art school graduates trying to find a practical buck, we define what has become formally known as “The Hipster.” A generation of dreamers and yada-yada-yada. You want my two cents? Joe Meno isn't anymore of a hipster than Stephen King, only he makes less money and has a better reputation for capturing the awkward, emotional state of the midwesterner. They both write in very diverse ways and they both publish pretty damn frequently. The only difference is, this book is supposed to make you feel something. Call it hip if you want—then find a bridge and jump off the goddamn thing.
But that’s what this story is about—it’s about two people trying to avoid classification, to figure out who they are, and discover something actually meaningful in a world otherwise populated by drones. The characters don’t smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, they don’t drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the Smiths are never once mentioned. They got lost along the way and had no one to help them figure themselves out. In that sense, Joe Meno as a person bleeds into his characters. He writes with an innocent abandonment of common sense, allowing his characters to behave irrationally while simultaneously instilling how their irrationality is completely rational. It’s the author’s voice that accomplishes this. Because Meno’s story is present-tense and utilizes passive verbs, he creates an unearthly sense of stillness around the characters—as though nothing is going on unless they act. It’s as if the entire world is completely frozen, waiting for these characters to make a choice. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. When they act out, it hits hard—but when they don’t, the absence of action in their emotional discomfort hits harder. Because of the author’s voice and his choice of tense and language, he’s able to navigate them without much interruption from external forces. They’re not acting irrationally anymore—they’re rationally acting immature because there’s no reason not to, because nothing matters but fighting every reason to hesitate.
(Hipster Behnam? Emo Behnam?)
Claire says that I remind her of Meno. She says it’s the way I speak, the way I tell a story, and so on. I think she’s just embracing her beloved professor through me though. I can live with that. I bought Hairstyles because I was working on my own high school novel (which I am still, technically, working on), and although I didn’t have the same love for it as any number of my former romances, I do find similarities. We write from the point-of-views of those who look at the world from the outside—people who see everything that’s going on around them but feel detached, as though life is ongoing while the narrator or point-of-view is simply sitting still. A lot of indie movies are painted in this way—like in that movie, Garden State, where Zach Braff is sitting on the couch at the party and everything around him speeds up while he’s just sitting there, waiting for something to enact upon him. Only with writing, it’s more difficult than a couple of camera tricks borrowed from Scrubs. In writing a detached character, you can’t just simply say that he does nothing and let that be it. The medium doesn’t allow for the sentiments of apathy—authors are forced to make their characters engage. If anything, Joe Meno and I write very similar characters in that capacity—people who don’t know how to act but are invariably forced to in order to push the story forward. But we eventually do.
Characters make this novel magic. I often hold a lot of authors on high for the minutiae they include about their characters, but with so little plot behind Office Girl, Meno is forced to derive even deeper, richer characters than most. And he does. You don’t just know how Odile makes a living—he defines her daily rituals, her influences, and her loves in the space of a few brief instances and experimentation with the forms. It’s not just back story though, because it’s important to the context of the story. It explains her irrationality to even finer degree and alludes to the direction this novel was bound to flow toward. Likewise, Jack isn’t just the product of never-ending heartbreak—we gravitate to him because Meno defines how his mother’s divorces crafted him, his aversion to the organic, and attraction to the subtleties of surrounding noise. This plot isn’t merely defined by its characters—it is its characters, in all their magnificent flaws and hidden truths and the fragility that we know they have, that they choose to expose in only the most tender circumstances.
(Joe Meno, at Reading Under the Influence.)
Like many local authors, Joe Meno has read at RUI before I took its reigns and I’d like to get him back in there again some day. But that’s just the culture of the literary community here in Chicago. I’ve seen him read about a dozen times, between faculty readings at school and Story Week Chicago events and AWP headliner shows. It’s a community here and, even though he and I don’t know each other, we’ll run in to each other a dozen times more before I can convince him to come back to us. With any luck, I hope to osmose some of that Meno charm and luck too. After all, Meno published his first book when he was 24 and, though I tend to tell people I’m 22, the truth is I’m due for some of that magic. But that’s what his work is—it’s ancient, Chicago magic. The stories that we lived already and forgotten are brought to life again in the very human interactions that he creates. He is not merely an author, but a purveyor of buried memory.
This is a Chicago story. This is a story where no one wants to meet anyone, because this city is full of strangers who fear being judged and thus feel alienated by others. This is a Chicago story, illustrated in the way that two people who are lonely, who have no reason to trust each other, do, because sometimes, you meet the right person at the right time and you just have no other choice but to follow the old cliches. This is a Chicago story because it doesn’t contrive meaningful moments—it finds them in the carpeting snow, in the vacant, unfinished offices, and in a crisis of hope. When I read this book, I thought of any number of girls that I endured this city with—the still kisses as the snow falls through the window, the selfish use of blankets when shared with someone naked, and the exhaustion experienced from going from one neighborhood to another in order to touch that person again and wait through the night in her crappy apartment. It even reminds me of those that I didn’t share this city with, like the mother who worried too much about what dangers awaited me here and the lost love who never did stay here, out of fear for what this city would make of her. What touched me was that this story wasn’t a serendipitous love story, as portrayed in films (which Meno nods to in closing), but a Chicago love story—the love after art school, after art, when art itself is no longer grandiose works but the small evidences left behind that you were alive. That you were there and in love and who cared, because you were happy no matter how many times Chase Bank calls to remind you that you’re overdrawn or that your student loans were due.
(The Chicago Blizzard, 2011.)
There’s a lot of reasons to dislike this novel—the prose tends to be short and fragmented. Very little actually happens in the novel. The characters are awkward and, sometimes, kind of stiff because they’re so awkward. But it’s for these reasons that this novel is true. Thus, this novel is paramount. Well done, Meno. I never liked Hairstyles, but I may have judged you too soon.
The Riahi Rating: