by Joe Meno
Akashic Books, June 2012
Paperback, 293 pages
From the front flap of Office Girl:
About this book:
No one in it dies. Nobody talks about the international political situation. There is no mention of any economic collapse. Nothing takes place during a World War.
Instead, this novel is about young people doing interesting things in the final moments of the last century. Odile is a lovely twenty-three-year-old art-school dropout, a minor vandal, and a hopeless dreamer. Jack is a twenty-five-year-old shirker who’s most happy using his out-of-date tape recorder to capture the endless noises of the city. Together they decide to start their own art movement in defiance of a contemporary culture made dull by both the tedious and the obvious. Set in February 1999, Office Girl is the story of two people caught between the uncertainty and the all-too-brief moments of modern life.
I haven’t been to an Urban Outfitters lately, but I have a feeling Office Girl is gracing their book tables, probably hanging out with Feminist Ryan Gosling, the I Love Trader Joe’s Cookbook, and How to Piss in Public (oh how I wish I was kidding about that last one). With the paperback’s cover nearly replicating every Belle & Sebastian album cover ever and the novel’s two alternate titles being “Bohemians” and “Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things,” Office Girl is sure to catch the attentions of those trendy individuals who wear their pants too short and stopped listening to Mumford & Sons once they became popular.
This novel caught my attention when I saw it on some “most promising books of 2012” lists at the beginning of the year, and I was attracted by the prospect of a fun read about two twenty-somethings getting into mischief, being uncertain about the future, and making steps toward finding themselves. I just graduated from college and am scared and excited and unsure of what the future will hold or what I want to do with my life, so Office Girl seemed like the perfect, relatable summer read.
However, there actually wasn’t much I liked about this book. I thought the writing was wooden and the dialogue incredibly awkward. This is an actual conversation between the two main characters:
“So,” he says.
“So,” he repeats.
“I’m kinda seeing someone. I think I ought to let you know.”
“Okay,” he says, feeling his face crash and twinge in an expression of disappointment he knows he is unable to hide.
“We’re not really talking at the moment. But still.”
It was a little bit painful. While sparse, awkward dialogue might be realistic for a 23-year old who draws penises on advertisements and a 25-year-old who shirks any type of responsibility, it doesn’t make for a very engaging or pleasant reading experience. In general, the writing didn’t pull me into the story; it felt bland, and I thought the book was lacking the lively, adventurous spirit I was expecting.
The characters, too, kind of bugged me. Odile is a snob who shuns any and all commercial culture, gives guys handjobs so they will like her, and pines after the married man she slept with a few times. Jack is kind of pathetic in his inability to finish anything he starts, but I did at least find him interesting and sympathetic. I really liked his hobby of collecting the sounds of the city; I loved that he found such beauty in the little everyday things, like the sound of a balloon floating away or the buzzing of the streetlights. I have to wonder, though: how much noise do snow falling or headlights make that they can be recorded by Jack’s out-of-date tape recorder?
Along with the writing and the characters, I didn’t find the plot very compelling. The book is very slow to get going; Odile and Jack don’t meet until more than 100 pages into the novel, and even after they do meet, not all that much happens. There are a few fun scenes of Odile being wild and spontaneous while Jack tries to keep up, committing acts of “art terrorism” like acting out Jaws on Chicago’s L train and riding the bus dressed like ghosts, but mostly there are stilted conversations and juvenile plots for revenge against a “douchebag” art professor. It wasn’t a book that made me feel like I’m not alone in my uncertainty or that imparted any wisdom about growing up, and it fell short of my expectations in those regards.
Clearly this book wasn’t for me. I’m pretty sure I just failed the hipster test.
Have you read Office Girl? What did you think? Feel free to disagree with me; I would love to hear a different perspective and gain some insight into what people liked about this book!