Young adult angst. Talk of the world coming to an end. Office Girl, the fantastic new novel by author Joe Meno, reminds us that indeed we have been there and done that. Yet some stories never grow old.
Set in 1999 as Y2K looms large and President Clinton’s impeachment trials play out in the background, Office Girl takes place in a wintry Chicago. Odile is the office girl in the title, just coming out of a romance with a married man. She is trying to make sense of her life having dropped out of art school and flitting from one boring office job to the other. Eventually she lands a night sales job at a Muzak company selling office music to doctors’ offices. Here she runs into Jack Blevins, a 25-year-old who is just beginning the divorce process after his wife, Elise, leaves him and moves to Germany. Office Girl is essentially a love story—it is about Jack’s and Odile’s wary yet loving moves back into some kind of tentative relationship.
Odile has other problems, too. Her hippie parents have set her mostly adrift, and while she is barely able to come to terms with her entrance into adulthood, she often has to handle her teenaged high school brother, who visits her in Chicago after running away from home in Minneapolis. Jack, too, deals with his parents’ serial divorces while trying to figure out his place in the larger scheme of things.
When not working at her office job, Odile decides she will make some statement about art and carries out little acts of defiance against established norms in the discipline. Almost like performance art, these oddball statements help Odile feel like she is doing something, anything, to rebel against the status quo in a field she once loved so much. Helping her in these endeavors is Jack, her willing recruit who goes along simply because he has nothing much else happening in his life. As the two slowly fall in love, they must decide where to eventually take their relationship.
Office Girl is a fantastic meditation about the transition into adult life—what it means, what it involves, what does romance look like, what it should feel like. In the hands of a less gifted author, the book could have degenerated into just another starry-eyed romance. To Joe Meno’s immense credit, this novel does not. It is beautiful, it is whimsical (made even more so by the photographs and cartoons included in its pages), it is romantic, and above all necessary.
“What do you do with the rest of your life when you realize you don’t like anything?” asks Meno in the book. Both Jack and Odile know there is a slim window of opportunity before they “give up” like adults, before they realize their lives are going to be “just the same as everybody else’s.” Office Girl oozes with empathy—not just for Odile and Jack but for all of us, readers who have been in their shoes years before and who might still be grappling with life’s essential questions.
The jacket blurb reminds us that the book is not about big things: “Nobody talks about the international political situation. There is no mention of any economic collapse.” Which is precisely why Office Girl stands out. It doesn’t need pyrotechnics or grand canvases on which to paint a story about people trying to grapple with one of life’s most basic questions: What is the meaning of a life well-lived? Writing like this is its own kind of triumph.