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Reviews Mon Jul 16 2012
Office Girl by Joe Meno, author of Hairstyles of the Damned, is a quirky, eccentric love story, yet non-love story, set in Chicago's West Town neighborhood in early 1999. Published by Brooklyn publisher Akashic Books, the novel focuses on two twenty-somethings stuck in nothing jobs who find each other, yet lose each other, while creating a unique art movement throughout Chicago.
Written in sassy snippets, the story centers in February 1999. For we '90s nostalgics, it draws on a part of history not often memorialized in literature, though the president was being acquitted of lying about an affair with a certain intern, Y2K had many convinced that the world was on the brink of disaster, and the Hanging Chad was about to become front page news.
The February setting in Chicago's West Town neighborhood is a unique aspect considering the fact that so many modern urban novels are set in New York. In this case, Chicago-centric scenes were a beautiful part of the story. I live just four blocks from where the story begins, and identified with snow banks on Damen Avenue and "bombed out buildings" on Milwaukee. Meno speaks to his art-school hipster audience through inside jokes only they would know, but appeals more broadly to Chicagoans who can envision the grey, snowy Chicago, the neighborhood, and the specific landmarks.
The wintertime imagery tugged on my heartstrings, as most romantic stories tend to take place in the spring or summer, and do not involve snow drifts that ring true of the Chicago I know and love. The grey aesthetic of the neighborhood, the city, and the characters makes the story real, and makes the characters' personalities pop out of a bland background.
A part from Office Girl's endearing ambiance, the bascis of the story are easily located in modern literature and, at times, tiresomely familiar. Two twenty-somethings, trying to figure themselves out, fall in and out of love. There's a bit of a Garden State and (500) Days of Summer feel, and I'd argue that Zooey Deschanel or Natalie Portman could easily be cast straight into the part of Odile. We've heard her story before. The girl in question, Odile, is an art school drop out trying to make a living and deal with a crazy roommate. She meets Jack, an awkward art school graduate with taped glasses who is overwhelmed by her personality.
The characters were enjoyable and interesting to read, but not unlike listening to the familiar stories told by 18-year-old fiction writing students concerning suicide, finding themselves, sex, dead end jobs, and frustrations with "the man" (in this case, their art school professors). I spent three years at Columbia College, the same institution where Meno teaches, and I can distinctly envision the circumstances he aptly describes. As I read this book, I felt a bit like I was sitting in Fiction 1 class in the semi-circle, listening to classmates' journal entries and trying not to roll my eyes as I'm sure they did when I read. It's clear that Meno draws accurately on this particular aspect of art school life.
Adding to the cuteness factor of the book, illustrations by Cody Hudson and photos by Todd Baxter are woven into the text. Overall, these add artistic interest, likely appealing to that art-student audience Meno seems to be targeting, without adding content to the storyline.
Overall, Office Girl offers a not-so-serious read that appeals to those hipster West Town dwelling writers and ex-art-school kids, such as myself. I imagine walking into Wormhole and Atomix very soon and seeing the cover of the pink text at half the tables there. Pick this one up for an easy summer read.