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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Office Girl: A Chicago Love Story


It's February, 1999, and here we are, in snowy, freezing Chicago. Odile is 23. She's dropped out of art school and is aimless. She fears she's never done anything interesting. Jack is 25. He's an art school graduate, recently divorced, and is also aimless. The two meet at a menial second-shift office job.

That's the basic framework of Joe Meno's slim, sad new novel Office Girl. But Joe Meno's slim, sad new novel is awesome; it's one of my favorites of the year, in fact. It's a book that resonated with me — it gave me that indescribable "good book chill" feeling when I finished. And I haven't been able to shake it.

The idea here is that Odile wants to start her own art movement, and recruits Jack to help her. Odile is against "everything popular. Anything that makes art into a commodity. Or people into commodities. Or anything that's supposed to be a commodity." So she wants to make art that is surprising, because "people in this city...nothing surprises them anymore. When you live here, there's just too much going on around you, so you don't see any of it. It's hard to get people's attention."

So, they do things like ride an elevator in a downtown building wearing ski masks and holding a giant bouquet of silver balloons. Or wearing sheets with eye holes (as ghosts) on a city bus. They just want to create art that's "a moment" — that someone might remember. Jack is also working on an art project — he records sound of anything he thinks is interesting or beautiful while riding his bike around the city — a girl crying at a bus stop, or steam from a sewer, or total silence. It's similar to the guy from American Beauty, who records mundane things he finds beautiful. Jack's goal is to create a city of sounds — and when he shows Odile, she absolutely loves it.

But the idea of the art is secondary to the notion that these two people are just trying to find their ways in the world, and see in each other kindred spirits and journey-mates. They spend a lot of time riding their bicycles around the city at night, through the snow, confiding in each other, and telling each other secrets they've never told anyone else. And they try to decide what the future might hold — to move forward or to keep spinning their wheels. 

Again, I loved this book. It's 295 pages, but really much shorter (because of page breaks, and some cool art work and photos included in the pages, as well) — I read it in two sittings. No, this novel doesn't really break any new ground in terms of theme or plot, and yes, it could be argued that it feels a bit slight. But to me, neither of those mattered. These characters and the setting (dark, brooding Chicago — the streets, the buildings, the cold, snowy nights) got their claws into me, and haven't yet let go. Highly, highly recommended — especially if you love Chicago, especially if you were in your early 20s in the late 90s, and especially if you've ever felt a bit adrift. Five stars.


10 comments:

  1. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt?

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  2. I had heard of this one and it sounded good. Thx for the confirmation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emma Stone as the girl? hmm

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    1. I wouldn't hate that either. Maybe Zooey Deschanel? (Like a 500 Days of Summer remix?)

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  3. This actually sounds good, and like it's not a strictly romance type of novel. Am I right?

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    1. Very much not a typical romance - hipster romance, maybe. :) And, yes, it IS good!

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  4. Wow, I love your enthusiasm for this book - definitely makes me want to pick it up. Sounds very hipster - which I like.

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    1. Very hipster, indeed. They hate everything popular and are annoyed by everyone who is not each other. :) Hope you like it!

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  5. Yay for Joe Meno! I loved The Boy Detective Fails and Tender As Hellfire. I'll have to check this one out as well, especially with such a glowing review!

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    1. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that early Joe Meno is as good as later Joe Meno - I've only read OFFICE GIRL and THE GREAT PERHAPS and loved both of them. I'll definitely have to check out the two novels you mention.

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