Reviewed by Molly O'Brien
"Cute" isn't always the nicest word to use. When leveraged a certain way, "cute" can be vicious. When Alfred Kazin described Salinger's Franny and Zooey as "cute," what he meant was: adorably self-aggrandizing, too pert and too precious. It can be difficult for an author to subvert the cuteness of their own work, and yet Joe Meno's latest novel, Office Girl, avoids the snare of its cuteness, albeit in a way that is not immediately obvious. The novel contains characters that are very cute—they are wide-eyed and young and pass each other notes that say things like "you're pretty cool okay." The book itself is cute too. Between the book's pink cover and the text there are two subtitles: "Bohemians" and "Young People On Bicycles Doing Troubling Things." Those subtitles are handwritten, not typed. Three epigraphs follow. Then a doodle of a bicycle. Finally we meet Odile, who wears mismatched socks and possesses a doll-like beauty: "The size of her eyes, larger than most girls', lends a quality of constant amazement to all of her facial expressions. Her ears are attached to her head at a spot lower than average, and are also a little wider, suggesting an elfish affectation."
Like Odile, Office Girl is adorable at the outset. It is a love story about two people, Odile and her devotee Jack, told in breathless paragraphs full of "ands," in chapters with titles like "Men who have accumulated around her" and "Off they go to an abandoned building," in blurry photographs and plainly-worded, play-by-play descriptions of nights spent together and alone. Because everything beyond the narrow parameters of Jack and Odile's existence is irrelevant, Meno has given himself plenty of room to chronicle the duo's hopes and dreams and ideals, as well as plenty of room to construct and examine the outright failure of all three.
The novel's most delicious elements are its obsolete details. It is set in Chicago, in 1999, but Meno seems far more conscious of the time than the place, so the setting feels anonymously metropolitan. Bill Clinton is in the middle of his impeachment trial, and the characters in the novel refer to the situation as "the president getting a blow job and lying about it." Sex is fumbled, never graceful. Life revolves around finding people to sleep with, creating things, and making just enough rent money. No one is online, or if they are, they don't talk about it. (Something tells me people like Odile and Jack wouldn't have gone to see the internet-themed comedy You've Got Mail, which would have been released a couple weeks before the novel begins.) Jack records the sounds of the city on mini-cassettes and illicitly makes magazines on the company Xerox. Odile sells Muzak subscriptions over the phone—a hilarious double-whammy of analog.
Odile meets Jack at the office where they both work the night shift and goads him into joining her one-woman art movement. "What are you going to call it?" he asks.
"I don't know. The Antiabstractionists. The Anti-Rationalists. The Anti-Intelligents. The Anti-Reasonists. Something like that. Basically, I'm against everything popular. Anything that makes art into a commodity. Or people into commodities. Or anything that's supposed to be a commodity."
Odile's monologue—there are many monologues in the novel – has the same repetitive, anti-corporate flavor as John Cusack's "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career" speech from Say Anything: she is the young person who thinks so much about what she doesn't want to do that she forgets what she does want to do. Meno could have tried to make his novel live up to Odile's grandiose ideas—and if he had done so, he would have ruined everything. Instead, he exaggerates the problem of only thinking in negatives by having Odile put her few meager ideas into practice. She pulls stunts in ski masks, boos an art lecture, walks around with a bunch of Mylar balloons, acts out a scene from Jaws on a city bus. No one laughs, no one gets angry. She baffles every audience she finds.
This is the big joke of Office Girl, the implicit joke Meno trusts his readers to get: the two main characters constantly critique what they believe to be bad art (paintings of Disney characters committing suicide), praise art that seems similar (a cartoon of "a triangle with arms, lighting what appears to be a joint"), then make art that isn't much better. Odile scrawls penises and breasts on bus adverts and flashes her own breasts at cars after Bill Clinton is acquitted. Odile sounds like ideal, and Odile ends up ruining her own ideal by ditching the grand theories and taking revenge on an enemy; her final act of "art terrorism" is so petty that it repels the last audience member she has left. Why does she do it? "If I don't do it now, I never will. I'll just be some office drone ten years from now, wishing I had done something interesting at least once in my life." Commodities and pop culture are no longer the targets. Odile fails because she forgot the rules for her art movement; Jack fails because he follows Odile so faithfully. No wonder bikes are so prominent in the novel—romances and careers are cycles in and of themselves. Another office job, and then another.
The premillennial setting is important to the story because it erases the characters from any potential modernity. The only reason Odile and Jack have jobs is because it is 1999—people have to sell medical supplies and Muzak over the phone, because in 1999, pre-Amazon, pre-Gmail, that's just the way things were done. Meno's characters are middlemen, both of them as obsolete as the technologies they favor for their art. So Office Girl isn't a celebration of Odile and Jack and their desultory lives and edgy haircuts and graffiti and aesthetic idealism. It's a recorded cassette crushed under someone's winter boot. It's a cave painting of two people who, thirteen years later, cannot exist. It's a way of pointing out the sadness of being a failing artist living in the last time in history that even allowed them the opportunity to fail in the first place. Office Girl may come wrapped in a cute package, with cute characters thinking cutely oblique thoughts, but the failure that Meno allows to pervade the story is not cute—it's brutal.