Office Girl by Joe Meno. 1999, Chicago, winter. Two twenty-somethings – Jack and Odile (Oh-deel) – or Jack and Jill with a diphthong. Jack, a few years out of college and freshly divorced at 25, works at a call center (of sorts), and spends his free time biking around the city catching found sounds with his handheld tape recorder. Odile, a few years younger and an art-school drop-out, is jumping from job to job caught – quite literally – between her home town of Minneapolis and a romantic ideation of New York City. (Many Chicagoans have a similar pipe-dream.)
Post-college, pre-professional. These were the days of young adult cool. Or latent teenage misery. But at least there was no Huffington Post. Jack and Odile, assemblages of artistic quirks and occasional social ineptitude, are turn-of-the-century hipsters, before ‘hipster’ became a buzzword. Whereas ‘contemporary hipster culture’ (‘culture’ applied loosely) is propagated through an amalgam of smart phones, Facebook, and Craigslist fixed gear cycling, these turn-of-the-century younglings weren’t so self-conscious – though they were equally as clueless and fearful of the future, teetering on the line of anxiety lined by what seems to be perpetual arrested development or loafer-and-chinos suburban family life. If you stay in this twilight zone for too long, you run the risk of becoming a sociopath (Odile already shows signs of it), and it’s a time where all of the decisions you make threaten to impact the rest of your life. For Jack and Odile, you wonder if this isn’t always true. Or you hope it isn’t.
Joe Meno, whose work includes short story collections like Demons in the Spring and Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, is also the author of novels like The Great Perhaps, The Boy Detective Fails, and Hairstyles of the Damned (which some consider to be his breakthrough novel). Office Girl, which has some of the same conventions as Hairstyles – music savvy protagonists, Chicago street smarts, punchy chapters, precocious females – almost seems like a more grown up version of Hairstyles. Here you have characters who listen to Guided by Voices and Velvet Underground (bands mostly forgotten by contemporary hipster culture), who fill their free time with unrealized artistic experiments and naive awe at how the rest of life is (or isn’t) going to turn out. Thoughts like these you don’t have as a teenager or an adult. These are in-between thoughts, twilight thoughts; sometimes magical, sometimes terrifying.
Office Girl is packed with whimsy and soft terror. It’s emotionally affective and its scenes are sometimes too familiar, as if you have once been here yourself, in this same office, in that same bedroom, on that same street. It’s the tale of a weeklong romance that cuts to the heart. At times, you remember it like it was your own. Both Jack and Odile suffer from their own inability to translate their thoughts into words, and they possess a certain innocent, curious sexuality. There’s nothing graphic here, but the feelings are laid bare. And, as if in a dream, you can watch these feelings winding themselves through Jack and Odile’s increasingly complex layers of consciousness.
Is it Nobel literature? No. But that doesn’t mean it fails to resonate. It’s a specific book about general rite of passage; an investigation of that strange, dream-like transition between youth and adulthood, where everything seems possible and terrifying and wonderful all at once. Meno does good here.