I remember reading a story about e. e. cummings speaking to a group of undergraduates. It was toward the end of his life. He was one of the most well-known and respected poets of his generation. Despite this, the students weren’t giving him the respect he felt he deserved. They acted bored and restless instead. Frustrated, cummings told them, “Write poetry, for god’s sake. It’s the only thing that matters.” Then he stormed out of the room. This story has stuck with me for years, in part because cummings was a combat veteran of World War I. He lived through the Great Depression and World War II. And after living through what we’re taught are the major events of the twentieth century, cummings came to the conclusion that his art was the most meaningful thing in life.
I thought of this while reading Joe Meno’s Office Girl. As the description on the cover of the book points out, “No one in it dies. Nobody talks about the international political situation. There is no mention of economic collapse. Nothing takes place during a World War.” Instead, it tells the story of Odile and Jack, two hipsters being sucked into the life of office drones and resisting the pull by creating an art movement. As the book begins, Odile is cursing herself for falling for a married man. Jack is watching his marriage slip away and dealing with it in all the wrong ways. They both lose jobs and end up working together at a company that sells Muzak. Their affair begins to blossom in the downtime when they’re not taking telephone orders from dentist offices. The book, then, is about their affair.
It’s easy to define this book by what it’s not. In addition to the things that the book cover mentions, it’s also not a typical love story. There is no real love triangle, no choice for the plucky heroine to make. There’s no simple miscommunication that can be solved by a hero running through the rain to make a breathless speech to a heroine. Instead, Meno creates rounded characters. They populate our lives (or past lives). They make mistakes that we as an audience recognize. They learn to love the way we all do it: through a series of painful mistakes.
In a way, Office Girl is somewhat of a rewriting of Annie Hall, but I like Meno’s characters a whole lot more than Woody Allen’s. Also, though I haven’t focused on it thus far, the art in Jack and Odile’s life matters. It’s rough and sometimes silly. It gropes for something deeper. It flirts with real creativity. It creates a parallel to their affair. They stumble and claw to make something radiant and meaningful, but they’re just not there yet. And while Meno’s characters are still stumbling through art, Meno himself is in full stride. The writing in this novel is crisp and clever. It’s art that’s at times beautiful without getting in the way of the story. Chicago becomes a character in the novel the way it does in the works of Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow, but it’s a Chicago that is between Algren’s gritty streets and Bellow’s upscale avenues.
Though the affair between Jack and Odile is the only tension, the novel is still a page turner. It’s the kind of book that makes you blow off what you’re supposed to be doing so you can keep reading. In a sense, with Office Girl, Meno returns to the roots of the novel as an art form. When the novel first started to take off in England in the 1700s, all of the most popular books were about love and art. Because, as e. e. cummings pointed out in the mid-twentieth century, these are the things that matter most. Death and world wars are horrifying. Novels about them allow us to play with our fears and anxieties. In the end, though, they’re largely just spectacles and distractions. Love and art, though, are the places where we find real meaning in our lives. –Sean Carswell (Akashic Books, PO Box 1456, NY, NY10009)