What does it mean to have an allergic reaction to a novel? And to write a review under obvious duress? Is it credential or disqualification—an instinctual response to be unpacked or a kind of zealotry that disables critical analysis? It’s hard to say which is the case, but Joe Meno’s Office Girl (Akashic Books, 224 pp., $24.95) was more maddening than anything I’ve ever read, and it took me a while to figure out why.
Over the course of 225 (sometimes-illustrated) pages, Office Girl tells the story of Odile and Jack, two zine-making 20-somethings who work dismal jobs in Chicago, sniff Liquid Paper, deface public property, start a private art movement, describe most things as “weird” and ride bikes. Odile cuts her own bangs—as well as the crusts off sandwiches— and smashes bananas on cars; Jack drinks “soda pop” and is capable of finding the appearance of a lost glove “interesting.” There are doodles (birds, penises) beneath some of the text, and a chapter called “Us and all our friends are so messed up.” “Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things” is one of two alternate titles offered for the novel. The other is “Bohemians.” Is Office Girl satire? A publicist at Akashic Books didn’t answer that question, but sent over some additional press materials.
It’s easy to forget that Odile and Jack aren’t 13-years-old, the only plausible age at which to have the thoughts they do. Odile’s art movement “isn’t about anything.” “I’m against everything popular,” she tells Jack, “Anything that makes art into a commodity. Or people into commodities. Or anything that’s supposed to be a commodity.” After hearing her manifesto, Jack is smitten. He thinks to himself, “Wow.” Odile has a notebook full of “concepts” that include dressing like a ghost on a bus and setting parakeets free in front of a playground. She hasn’t done either yet, but does, later in the novel, moon cars as a way of “celebrating the right to be stupid,” which she deems “probably the most important right we have in this country.” Odile tells Jack that she likes to make things that “don’t make a whole lot of sense to anyone but me.” Jack agrees to join her movement, though it’s unclear to both us and him just what, in practice, this really entails.
Odile is careless and giddy. She disappears for days at a time, and just when Jack thinks they’re falling in love, she casually mentions that she might move to Brooklyn. For most of the book, Jack remains tolerant of, if not enchanted by, Odile’s antics. Mr. Meno seems to presume the same, incorrectly, of the reader, and it’s not until the end that Jack’s impatience finally catches up with ours. Finally steeling himself for a cathartic goodbye, Jack wants to tell Odile that she is wrong about pop culture not mattering, because “it’s the only thing anybody has in common anymore.” But he doesn’t. Confronted with his speechless silence, she demands an answer: “Well?” “I dunno,” Jack murmurs, “I thought you ought to know you were wrong about some things, but now I don’t know what they are.” This timid, tongue-tied grasp at dissent is as close as we get to what might charitably be called an insight, and Jack’s inarticulate epiphany about the falseness of Odile’s “ideas” is more symptomatic of his pain than it is a reasoned polemic. He spends the last 10 pages of the book missing her.
It’s impossible to assess where Mr. Meno’s voice ends and his characters’ begins—which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the epigraphs (Camus, Baudelaire, Debord), acknowledgments (“Koren + Raymond Queneau + Jean-Luc Godard”) and appended “theme music,” none of which seems to be a put-on. It’s horrifying to realize, halfway through the book, that Mr. Meno is in no way mocking the frivolous pretensions of his characters. Any inkling that Jack might be secretly more gimlet-eyed than we’ve been led to believe is soon enough negated. His life, after all, is the kind he’s always wanted: “dedicated to art,” as he tells himself, “every idea, every breath an artistic gesture.”
Set, according to the publicity material, in “the final moments of the last century” (aka February 1999), Office Girl, by my count, includes two mentions of Clinton’s impeachment trial and one opaque reference to Y2K. Had it been set in the more volatile present day instead, its characters’ struggles would have been not only more immediate but higher-stakes too. Odile, we learn, has quit 17 jobs in the last three years. This fact is meant to reflect her recklessness and autonomy, but it’s impossible to read it and not think of our current times, when such flightiness is unthinkable. The bosses Jack and Odile complain about would never even hire them today, and no art school dropout without a trust fund would ever dare jeopardize one job, let alone 17. By looking back to the recent past, Mr. Meno mourns a time of irresponsibility-for-all, before apathy and indecision became privileges of only the very rich—a bizarre stance, considering that neither quality is a virtue, and that their allowances were a signature peril of the age.
1999 may well be the last year that young adults had no national traumas to worry about, and it’s conceivable that in the absence of such anxiety a novelist might see an opportunity to attend to the minutia of living, but why then make your characters so indistinct? They’re pop cultural archetypes tedious enough to have names: Jack is shoegazer, Odile a manic pixie dream girl.
Office Girl is a period novel, then, written and packaged in the style of the moment it portrays. Mr. Meno has biographical reasons for the specific vintage of his nostalgia: 1999 was the year he published, at 24, his debut novel, Tender as Hellfire, and secured himself the status of a precocious young writer on the rise. Undoubtedly he was thinking then about how best to be an artist and of the attendant problems of getting paid to do it, and these uncertainties surely now color his memory of the year. By the time his third—and most successful—novel, Hairstyles of the Damned, was released five years later (now with Akashic, rather than Big Six’ers), Mr. Meno seemed to have answered some of his own questions. “You suck it: Judith Regan. Badly. And all you other bad publishing corporations,” he wrote in the acknowledgements. “Be ready,” he continued, “the end is nigh.” The outburst sounds suspiciously Odile-like, which makes sense when you consider Mr. Meno himself, who might publish with an independent press, but now also enjoys the fruits of institutional success. With a job teaching creative writing at Columbia College, a Pushcart Prize and stories placed in McSweeney’s, any adolescent antiauthoritarianism in him has to now be outsourced.
Office Girl is about what happens when discontent isn’t galvanized into ambition, an admittedly difficult subject to tackle without falling into solipsism. Jack and Odile think of themselves as different but don’t have the intelligence to articulate why or the motivation to do the things that would prove it to be true. “You think you’re some kind of genius,” Odile tells Jack in an early moment of their falling out, “but you work in a crummy little office just like everybody else. You’re worse than all those people. At least they don’t think they’re something special.” The irony, of course, is that Odile is even more self-aggrandizing than Jack, and definitely dumber. In the wake of the exchange, she demands that he returns a button she’s made him.
The very premise of Office Girl, a sort of elegy for 1999, is its downfall; the history at the center of this book has already gone stale. Though never explicit, there is a longing here for an era before the Internet had fully democratized what was worth thinking about, a time when taste alone could be a kind of rebellion. The book has a sincere desire for simplicity—Odile and Jack like each other, in part, because they listen to the same bands. It’s true that there is something liberating about a reality in which not everything is ripe for exegesis, before technology allowed all kinds of people to like all kinds of things. It feels more righteous to have clear corporate enemies to hate than it does cable news to hate-watch. But why write so uncritically of the recent past? We live in interesting times now, and to elide them in favor of aimless nostalgia is an act of gross negligence.