- Joe Meno
- C Community Grade
Two self-described artists have a meet-bland on the night telemarketing shift in the middle of Office Girl, Joe Meno’s new novel, which deals a nasty lesson wrapped up in a forgettable love story. Meno dilutes his message by imparting it through protagonists who are never compelling, though his warnings about the roteness of their lives still hits home, and shelves neatly into the anti-establishment, punk-rock canon Meno created with books like his breakthrough, Hairstyles Of The Damned.
When not punching the clock at a series of dull gigs, Jack collects materials for sonic collages, while Odile draws and keeps a notebook of “ideas” she feels too enervated to execute. Both feel more or less marooned in a Chicago January; Jack’s wife has left the country—and him, by unspoken agreement—while Odile is lonely, and perennially putting off moving in with a friend in Brooklyn. Their current menial job is their anchor, and really their only excuse to leave the house. But it isn’t difficult for readers to resist a love triangle between a guy, a girl, and their shared inability to care about anything.
The details of Jack and Odile’s courtship aren’t too far-fetched, nor so ordinary that they seem clichéd; nor are the lovers invested with unnatural quirk. Still, there isn’t enough chemistry between them to make their union worth caring about, and the meaning of their awkward interactions stays hidden. Meno constantly returns to descriptions of the January snow beneath their feet, carpeting their world with symbols, but the images only reinforce the mushy grayness of the protagonists’ emotional connection, without suggesting a temporary alleviation of the world’s dreariness. When one character inevitably challenges the other on the depth of the relationship, Meno’s normally natural dialogue grows speechy, while landing hypocritically wide of its target.
The satiric value of Jack and Odile as “artists”—a title they wear like it’s trendy—is the glare ice under all this slushy mix. The absence of any directed ambition leaves them stranded together in meaningless conversation. When Odile finally enlists Jack to enact her “ideas,” they turn out to be more like middle-school pranks, and the thrill she feels as she completes them doesn’t last. Office Girl should be a call to arms for anyone who doesn’t view artistic expression as an unwanted elective, with Jack and Odile’s empty lives suggesting the price paid by those who don’t take heed. Contented and unchanged, they exit Meno’s narrative without much of an effect, as if he recognized at last that they would never live up to the potential he offered them.