Office Girl

Office Girl

by Joe Meno

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Overview

"Meno's tender, hip, funny, and imaginative portrayal of two Chicago misfits...dramatizes that anguished and awkward passage between legal age and actual adulthood."
Booklist, "Core Collection: New Adult Fiction"

Named "Best New Novel by a Chicagoan" and "Best Book for the Disillusioned Artist in All of Us" by the Chicago Reader

Selected by The Believer's readers as a favorite fiction work of 2012

One of DailyCandy's Best Books of 2012

"An off-kilter romance doubles as an art movement in Joe Meno's novel. The novel reads as a parody of art-school types...and as a tribute to their devil-may-care spirit. Meno impressively captures post-adolescent female angst and insecurity. Fresh and funny, the images also encapsulate the mortification, confusion and excitement that define so many 20-something existences."
The New York Times Book Review

"Wonderful storytelling panache...Odile is a brash, moody, likable young woman navigating the obstacles of caddish boyfriends and lousy jobs, embarking on the sort of sentimental journey that literary heroines have been making since Fanny Burney's Evelina in the 1770s. Tenderhearted Jack is the awkward, quiet sort that the women in Jane Austen's novels overlook until book's end. He is obsessed with tape-recording Chicago's ambient noises so that he can simulate the city in the safety of his bedroom, 'a single town he has invented made of nothing but sound.' Mr. Meno excels at capturing the way that budding love can make two people feel brave and freshly alive to their surroundings...the story of the relationship has a sweet simplicity."
The Wall Street Journal

"In Joe Meno's new novel, set in the last year of the 20th century, art school dropout Odile Neff and amateur sound artist Jack Blevins work deadening office jobs; gush about indie rock, French film, and obscure comic book artists; and gradually start a relationship that doubles as an art movement. They are, in other words, the 20-something doyens of pop culture and their tale of promiscuous roommates, on-again/off-again exes, and awkward sex is punctuated on the page by cute little doodles, black and white photographs (of, say, a topless woman in a Stormtrooper mask), and monologues that could easily pass for Belle & Sebastian lyrics ("It doesn’t pay to be a dreamer because all they really want you to do is answer the phone")."
Publishers Weekly (Pick of the Week)

"Meno has constructed a snowflake-delicate inquiry into alienation and longing. Illustrated with drawings and photographs and shaped by tender empathy, buoyant imagination, and bittersweet wit, this wistful, provocative, off-kilter love story affirms the bonds forged by art and story."
Booklist (starred review)

No one dies in Office Girl. 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 capturing the endless noises of the city on his out-of-date tape recorder. 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—just before the end of one world and the beginning of another—Office Girl is the story of two people caught between the uncertainty of their futures and the all-too-brief moments of modern life.

Joe Meno's latest novel also features black-and-white illustrations by renowned artist Cody Hudson and photographs by visionary photographer Todd Baxter.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617750762
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 07/03/2012
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is a winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and was a finalist for the Story Prize. He is the author of five novels and two short story collections including The Great Perhaps, The Boy Detective Fails, Demons in the Spring, and Hairstyles of the Damned. His short fiction has been published in One Story, McSweeney's, Swink, LIT, TriQuarterly, Other Voices, Gulf Coast, and broadcast on NPR. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Magazine. His stage plays have been produced in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Charville, France. He is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

ODILE

ANYWAY IT'S SNOWING.

But then there is the absolute bullshit of it! The amazing gall of some people! Who does he even think he is? Odile Neff, art-school dropout, age twenty-three, rides her green bicycle along the snowy streets of the city that evening at five p.m., arguing with herself. She is wearing one gray sock and one black sock and her faint-pink underwear, hidden beneath her long gray skirt, is dirty. It is January 1999, one year before the world as everyone knows it is about to end. Communism, like God, is already dead.

Having just finished an eight-hour shift conducting telephone surveys for an international research company — How many members in your family? What sort of hair spray do you use? How often do you use your hair spray? Have you noticed any dermatological irritations, including but not limited to eczema, carbuncles, warts, or various skin cancers, in connection with the frequent use of your hair spray? Has your hair spray ever interfered with the quality of your life? — she is now riding home and swearing to herself about something she is having a difficult time understanding, and about the person who has become the cause of all her grief. Her green hood is up, completely covering her small white ears, green scarf bound around her chin, the hem of her gray skirt blowing as she pedals along. It's only the second week of January but the winter has already become a verifiable pain in the neck. She wears her pink mittens which have become unknotted, the pale pink penumbras of her fingernails peeking out. And with these mittens she holds the cold plastic of the bicycle's handles, cursing to herself again and again.

"Asshole!" she shouts out loud. "Why won't you talk to me? Why not just talk to me and be honest about everything?"

She never thought she would be so stupid, and yet, here she is. Her fancy pearlescent shoes, bought for twelve bucks at the thrift store, keep slipping off the pedals, making her even more frustrated. The gray sky, the waxy unending weather, the caliginous buildings rising up in humorless planes of speckled silver glass, all of it makes her feel so small, so tiny. The snow continues its liberated march in considerable flakes, falling all around in achromatic sheets of bleary chalk. Also, there is his gray sock, Paul's gray sock, sitting in the left pocket of her parka, which she has been carrying around for the last few days.

Why am I so stupid? she asks herself again. Why do I keep wanting to be with him?

Her face is an abject expression of disgust, mouth twisted to the side in a frown, narrow eyebrows raised.

Is it just because I'm not supposed to? Is it just because he's married? Is it just because I thought I had the world by the balls and I always end up making a mess of everything?

Her green bicycle, unable to answer, only vibrates with rage.

AT A STOPLIGHT.

Odile pauses a block later at a stoplight which has become obscured by ice. She looks over and sees a bus idling beside the curb. On the side of the bus is an advertisement for some men's hair dye that promises to be SO FEROCIOUS! Odile grabs the silver paint marker from the pocket of her green coat and uncaps the pen and leans over and draws a pair of enormous silver breasts on the male model in the advertisement and then adds a pair of hairy, dangling, unkempt testicles between his legs. Beneath this pictogram she writes, You are an idiot, Paul. She then caps the pen, shoves it back into her pocket, and rides off through the uninterrupted snow.

A NOSE UNLIKE HER MOTHER'S.

Odile, pronounced O-deel, has dark hair, which runs just past her shoulders, a wide forehead, which is framed by uneven bangs she cut herself, and a pair of gray-blue eyes that are set several inches apart in a soft, heart- shaped face. 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, though this is hardly noticeable, as it's her large, gleaming eyes that draw you in. Her nose is neither long nor snub and is rounded in appearance, as it often is on the faces of girls of European descent. Her nose is unlike her mother's, who at first glance may appear to be the greater beauty, as there is a small bump along the left side of the bridge of Odile's nose, imperceptible to anyone who has not spent an afternoon lying in bed beside her, listening to the song she loves the most, "After Hours" by the Velvet Underground, or admiring her profile in the dark of a theater, ignoring the black-and-white film by John Cassavetes. This very small bump is the consequence of an ice-skating accident that occurred when Odile was six, and, on deeper inspection, only adds to her attractiveness. It allows the viewer to wonder what other worlds, what other small pleasures, there are to discover. Like the small beehive tattoo on her left wrist, which is so faint it's almost invisible: What does it mean? How old was she when she got it? Will she tell about it you if you sleep together? You look at it and then up at her open mouth, at the sensitive lips, the lips rounder and somehow more adventurous than you noticed at first glance, the mouth already smiling, already laughing at something you said or did.

At the moment, atop her bicycle, her mouth is partially occluded by a green scarf, though it's moving as she continues arguing with herself out loud. She curses at a cab driver and swerves past a woman with an incredibly wrinkly face, dressed in a gray fur coat. The woman's arms are piled high with packages, each of them tied nicely with a white string bow. Your face looks just like an elephant's, she wants to say but means it in the nicest possible way. And look out: there's another drift.

BUT TEN YEARS BEFORE.

At the age of twelve, two weeks before her thirteenth birthday, Odile was molested by a group of boys who were several years older. It was after ice-skating practice one afternoon: Odile was waiting outside the rec center for her mother to come pick her up in the plain beige station wagon when five young men, boys from the nearby public school, found her sitting on the snowcovered merry-go-round and then began to taunt her. One of them had a ski mask on, another a red scarf around his face. She ignored them at first but when the boy with the mask leaned over and said something dirty, like, "Do you want to take a bite of my dick?" she stood, trying to run back inside the rec center. After a few steps through the snow they chased her over to the bottom of the cold metal slide, and then they took turns holding her down while each of them put their hands all over her, one of them, a boy with a dark peach-fuzz mustache, going so far as to get her black tights down to her knees. Another boy, who had a face like a mussel, all droopy and white and silvered- over with sweat, was the one peering over her when Odile realized it was she who was screaming. And then, somehow, she got her left hand free and grabbed ahold of his right ear and pulled as hard as she could. The boy shouted and rolled off and then one of the other boys hit Odile in the side of the head with a clod of snow and then she just laid there like she had died. The fact that she hadn't died was, in fact, an awful kind of disappointment. She watched through a swollen eye as the boys all walked off. And then she got up a few minutes later and stumbled over to where her bag was lying, unfamiliar as an amputated limb, and then, holding her sore ear, her sore cheek, she limped to find her mother parked out in front, humming along to Sonny and Cher on the radio. Odile told no one about the incident and instead decided that if such a situation should happen ever again, she would force her attackers to kill her first. Having survived such a particularly violent and thoughtless assault, Odile found she was no longer afraid of anything.

AT THE CORNER OF DAMEN AND AUGUSTA.

On her bicycle, Odile stops at another red light and adds a pair of boobs to a poster advertising some moronic new hip-hop release. The rapper, DJ RAW, with his sunglasses and grill of gold teeth, now has a gratuitous pair of silver saddlebag tits hanging from his chest. And then she adds a diamond over his face. And then sketches a silver dunce cap on his head. This is all she's been doing lately, drawing on street posters or other advertisements, because she hasn't made anything good, anything really interesting of her own, in weeks. Lately all she's been making are these weird, lewd doodles which she can't even call art. She places the cap over the paint marker and then glances over at a blue newspaper dispenser which features a headline having to do with the president getting impeached. The idea of being impeached for getting a bj makes Odile crazy. Maybe in the next millennium people won't be so worked up about screwing. Maybe after the comet that is coming to wipe out the world on New Year's Eve has already annihilated everything, and people have become wax-faced mutants, maybe then everyone won't be so uptight about sex. Maybe. And thinking of this, she adds a hairy vagina to the poster DJ's lap. Yikes, it looks like a black insect. And she does all of this before the light turns green.

BUT THEN THERE IS HER YOUNGER BROTHER.

And she rides up to the shadow of her apartment building and locks her bicycle to the iron gate out front. She climbs the wet carpeted stairs and hopes her kid brother will be gone, but when she unlocks the door, she sees him still lying there on the couch, still wrapped up in his green sleeping bag, his dark brown bangs hanging in his too-skinny face. He doesn't look right anymore. He looks a little disturbed, a little too serious for a boy who's only seventeen.

"What are you still doing here, dipshit?" she asks. "You said you were leaving this morning."

"I know, but then an episode of CHiPs came on, and I couldn't make myself go."

"You need to leave, Ike. You can't stay here. Mom and Dad are already going absolutely nuts. They called last night. They're really super-pissed. At both of us. But mostly me. You said you were going to the bus station this morning before I left."

"I know," he says, nodding his head. "But I don't want to go back alone."

"You only have one year left. When you're done, then you can come live here."

"But I hate it. I hate Minneapolis. I hate my friends. I hate having to live with Mom and Dad all by myself."

"Why? They don't ever fight. They're the greatest parents in the world."

"That's what I mean. They're always trying to get me to watch TV with them. They asked if I wanted to go to a movie with them a few weeks ago. It's too much. They just won't leave me alone. They're way too supportive. It practically borders on abuse."

"Okay, come on," she says, standing before him. "Pack your bags. We're going to the bus station right now."

"Really?"

"Really."

And he nods and sits up and begins to fold his green sleeping bag.

And then they are walking back into the snow, Odile unlocking her bicycle, pushing it beside them, advancing step by step through the ever- increasing drifts, her brother, six years younger, though already taller than her by several inches, shuffling alongside her, their frames, the shape of their shoulders identical, their hair color exactly the same, their mannerisms mostly different, though in their expressions there is a similar aloof candor, the same sense of amusement at most things. And it's snowing around them and all of a sudden Odile remembers what it was like to be a kid, and to have played in the snow with her little brother, and for no other reason she turns and shoves Ike into a pile of it. And then she hops onto her bike and tries to pedal off. And so begins the now-famous chase sequence that ends only at the turnstiles of the Blue Line station on Damen Avenue.

AT THE GREYHOUND BUS STATION.

And on together riding the Blue Line subway to the Greyhound station downtown, and then afterward, Odile sits beside her younger brother in the hard vinyl chairs, ruffling his shaggy, dark hair. She looks at him and is surprised again at how skinny his face is. She kicks her legs back and forth, glancing up at the institutional-looking clock every so often.

"How long is the bus ride again?" she asks.

"About ten hours."

"That's a long time."

"I don't care. I have a book," he says.

"What's the book?"

"It's some fantasy series I'm rereading."

"So have you thought about what you're going to tell Mom and Dad?"

"No, I'll just say what you said."

"What was that?"

"That I had a freak-out. And that high school isn't the way they remember it. And I didn't want to take that Spanish test."

"That's good," she says, smiling. "You know, if you ever get into any real kind of trouble, you can always count on me."

"I know. That's why I came."

"But you're not in any real trouble."

"I know," he says. "But I missed you."

And then Odile smiles, the dimple appearing on her left cheek.

"I was hoping maybe you'd come back with me," he continues. "It's not as fun there anymore. I don't have anyone but Mom and Dad."

"I have a life here, kiddo," she says. "This is where I live."

"I know, but what's so great about this place? It's pretty dingy- looking."

"I don't know."

"Is it the buildings?" he asks.

"No."

"Is it the people?"

"No."

"Are you in love with someone here?"

And she shakes her head and knows her cheeks are glowing red. "How about this?" she asks. "You can come visit any time you like. As long as you call me beforehand."

"Okay. Okay. Sorry about getting you in trouble with Mom and Dad. I'll call next time and tell you I'm coming."

"Great," she says, and then the static-filled announcement blares over the wires and Odile stands, helping her brother with his backpack and sleeping bag. And he hugs her and begins walking away, his gait slow but more confident than you might guess.

"You're gonna be all right!" she shouts, folding her hands together like a megaphone. "Better than all right. I see big things for you, kid. Big things!" and he shakes his head and gets a little red too, and he waves to her and walks away. And then she begins to think maybe he is right. What's so great about this city? What's so great about Chicago? On the ride home, her bicycle rattling beneath her, she thinks, Nothing. And if she had climbed on that bus with her brother, would anyone have noticed? Probably not. Because Jeannie called from New York only yesterday and told her she had a place where Odile could crash, at least for a few months. And because Odile's lease is up at the end of February, she's thinking maybe she should go. Because if not now, when? And as she rides she hums a song from the band Half Japanese, considering all these different possibilities. And so.

MEN WHO HAVE ACUMULATED AROUND HER.

1. Reginald, her former English teacher, who chaperoned the Literature Club when Odile was in high school, and who was responsible for her Franny and Zooey phase. Even five years later, few days pass that Reginald doesn't stare at the blossomfaced female students in his English class, wishing they were more like Odile, punishing them with surprise quiz after surprise quiz because they are not.

2. A boy who she held hands with at the mall just outside Minneapolis when she was seventeen. This young man, Max, still walks by the video arcade every few weeks, and sighs, thinking of the afternoon they spent playing game after game of Miss Pac-Man.

3. Brandon, the first adult relationship she ever had, during her freshman year in art school, and who was the first boy she ever cheated on. A red flame of sadness still crosses his face whenever he thinks of her.

4. Will, an art student pursuing photography, who once talked Odile into doing some racy Polaroids. There are seven of them. These seven Polaroids are still kept at the top of Will's sock drawer. He will sometimes flip through them to masturbate, but also, sometimes, simply to see the daring look of abandon, the recklessness glowing pink there on her face.

5. Paul, who is not an ex or even a boyfriend, but who is someone she is afraid she has fallen in love with.

BACK AT HER APARTMENT.

And so she lugs her bicycle up the stairs and begins to frown even wider as soon as she sees a pair of men's tennis shoes lying at the front door. Because there are her roommate Isobel's orange high heels left in an awkward pattern beside them. And there is some bad music coming from inside. And Odile opens the apartment door and finds Isobel and her boyfriend Edward making another stupid art movie. Edward is in film school. And Isobel just so happens to be an exhibitionist, and she has hung dozens of near-nude black-and-white photos of herself all around the apartment. At the moment, Edward is dressed like Darth Vader, wearing a black plastic mask, and also a pair of white underpants. That is all. Isobel is in her underwear too, which is an alluring shade of pale green. She is topless and is wearing a Storm Trooper helmet. Together they sit on the couch, tickling each other and laughing. Edward is trying to hold the video camera up while wearing the awkward-looking black mask. "I'm going to fuck you using the Force. I am. I'm going to do it." This is their idea of art, of becoming famous. Odile coughs once, closing the front door behind her. The couple turns and regards her in absolute silence. Odile nods at them and then carries her bicycle inside, feeling embarrassed for everyone present. As soon as she closes her bedroom door, Isobel and Edward immediately begin laughing. Darth Vader begins breathing heavily once again.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Office Girl"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Joe Meno.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Begin Reading Office Girl,
Acknowledgements,
Bonus Joe Meno Materials,
About the Author,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Earphones Award Winner. "[Julia] Whelan's impeccable timing, pacing, and command of the different characters make for a beguiling listening experience. Whelan emphasizes the ordinary and unique qualities of the characters and accentuates the freshness of this quixotic and unconventional story." - AudioFile Magazine Starred Review. "Meno has constructed a snow-flake delicate inquiry into alienation and longing. Illustrated with drawings and photographs and shaped by tender empathy, buoyant imagination, and bittersweet wit, this wistful, provocative, off-kilter love story affirms the bonds forged by art and story." - Booklist
"High on quirk and hipster cred, the novel is light as air, surprisingly unpretentious, and extremely kind to its larky, irony-addled protagonists...endearing." - Publishers Weekly, "Pick of the Week"
A Best Fiction Book of 2012. "...a gorgeous little indie romance, circa 1999... But when things Get Weird as things do when we're young, Meno is refreshingly honest in portraying the lowest lows and not just the innocent highs. A sweetheart of a novel, complete with a hazy ending." - Kirkus Reviews
"Along with PBRs, flannels, and thick-framed glasses, this Millennial Franny and Zooey is an instant hipster staple." - Marie Claire One of the "Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2012 Book Preview" titles. - The Millions
"...Meno has written the book he's been wanting to write for years, combining all of those classic elements of his previous work... Gorgeously packaged, it's like a Meno box set 15 years in the making." - Time Out Chicago
"In this geeky-elegant novel, Meno transforms wintery Chicago into a wondrous crystallization of countless dreams and tragedies, while telling the stories of two derailed young artists, two wounded souls, in cinematic vignettes that range from lushly atmospheric visions to crack-shot volleys of poignant and funny dialogue." - Kansas City Star
"Meno supplies an off-kilter, slightly inappropriate answer to the Hollywood rom-com. Meno is a deft writer. The dialogue in Office Girl is often funny, the pacing quirky, and some of its quick, affecting similes remind me of Lorrie Moore." - Chicago Reader
"...an honest look at the isolation of being a creative person in your 20s living in a city." - Daily Beast, "3 Must-Read Offbeat Novels"
"Fresh and sharply observed, Office Girl is a love story on bicycles, capturing the beauty of individual moments and the magic hidden in everyday objects and people. Joe Meno will make you stop and notice the world. And he will make you wonder." - Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief

Customer Reviews