Conversation: Talking “Office Girl,” Chicago, and Art Movements with Joe Meno

Is Joe Meno known for his range as a writer? Because if he isn’t, he ought to be; his books have covered everything from politically-charged dissections of family (The Great Perhaps) to brutally honest coming-0f-age novels (Tender as Hellfire) to surreal and emotionally honest breakdowns of pulp archetypes (The Boy Detective Fails). Meno’s latest, Office Girl, is a seemingly straightforward narrative, following the intersecting lives of two art-obsessed Chicagoans in their early 20s. And yet, there are subtle complexities present, from the incorporation of illustrations and photographs into the text to certain observations about art and passion. It’s a short book, but it’s anything but light reading.

Following The Boy Detective Fails and The Great PerhapsOffice Girl has a much more restrained scope and style. How was the book conceived? Was it intended as a return to a smaller-scale narrative?
I’ve been thinking about what a book can do in twenty-first century different from other narrative mediums—film, television, theatre, video games. One answer is the ambitious, complex, epic kind of novel we’ve seen so much of in the last ten or fifteen years or so; these recent novels seem less about people and more about how the world works. I realized there was another purpose the novel could have; the investigation of small, fairly typical moments, moments too small to document in film, TV, or the stage. After my last two novels, I wanted to write a quiet book focused on two characters and a brief moment in their lives, which does follow most contemporary literary trends. Although it’s a realistic novel, this approach still feels relatively experimental.

Office Girl opens with a pair of alternative titles. When did you come up with these?
The book is mostly inspired by the events of my twenties in the late 1990’s, and two other sources; the novel, Odile, by Raymond Queaneau and the film, Masculin Feminin by Jean Luc Godard. The alternative titles are a take-off on a pair of subtitles that Godard uses for that film. Also, as I was designing the book with Cody Hudson, we decided we wanted the actual text to have a collagist, zine-like feel, which is really similar to Godard’s early films. So that inspiration is pretty consistent throughout, from the subtitles to the artwork and the photos. We wanted the book to feel vibrant, chaotic, subtle, and vulgar, words I guess I’d associate with Godard.

This novel is set, very specifically, in Chicago circa 1999. Why that particular city and year?
Like I said, I was twenty-five in 1999, living in Chicago. There was something about the particular historical and cultural moment where it felt like the entire planet was waiting for something important to happen—the end of the millennium, the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the end of the world—that also felt oddly insular or safe. I feel lucky to have become a young adult in the nineties because there was nothing to worry about but art and music. The fears of young people today feel different than the fears I had at the time. They’re more grounded, more realistic. I feel like I became an adult in a certain kind of bubble; it just doesn’t exist anymore and probably never will again, which is at the heart of what the book is about.

Do you have a sense of what’s become of Odile and Jack in the thirteen years since then?
Ha ha. This is a wonderful question that I prefer not to answer. It feels like it might infringe on the responsibility of the reader for some reason.

Odile has a Serge Gainsbourg poster in her apartment; am I crazy for thinking that there’s a similar aesthetic at work on the cover artwork and design?
You are not crazy. As I mentioned, the novel itself and the book’s design was heavily influenced by a mid-sixties New Wave aesthetic. The cover is actually a take-off on the movie poster for Masculin Feminin. The artwork throughout was a response to the raw, nervy collage and jump-cut style of Godard’s early films, which also seemed consistent with the aesthetic of zines.

What was the process of working the photographs and illustrations into the text like? Did you know from the outset that you wanted the book to incorporate these elements?
From the earliest conception of the book, where I decided I was writing this small, focused, quiet story, I was interesting in trying to find ways to manufacture white space—a sense of silence—on the page. Again, this feels like something books do very well, but I wanted to see what non-text elements I can use to build that specific mood. I had collaborated with Cody Hudson on some other projects before, and since he has a shared affinity for the French New Wave and underground art, he seemed like a perfect fit. We started spitballing ideas and came up with this notion that the book should be like a zine, so I approached Todd Baxter who’s done a number of the photos for my book covers to help with the photos. Then I went back through the text and made a list of possible images for the two of them to create. I think both the handdrawn art and the photos perfectly capture the tone of the text.

Where did the Frank Porter comic that Jack and Odile both discuss come from?
When I was nineteen, a girl I was dating turned me on to R. Crumb and Dan Clowes and Duplex Planet and alternative comics and Henry Darger. So the Frank Porter comic is a fictionalized version of those kind of mythic, underground artists who labor largely in solitude and are really embraced by young people; there’s this profound, secret quality to their work, and the feeling that you’re in on the secret, too, adds to their enjoyment.

How seriously do you take Odile’s plans for an art movement? And, to a larger extent, how did you balance Odile’s enthusiasm and passion for art with her tendency to be dismissive of work she doesn’t represent?
I take it pretty seriously. Even though it only lasts a few weeks, I think her intention is clear and she’s willing to actually act on it. When I was in my twenties, I made a lot of bad, amateurish things. I made a ton of zines, I played in punk bands, I tried painting, I started a theatre company and forced my friends who were not actors to act in my awful shows. The important thing for me was the act of doing. For some reason, I had no fear. I had way more confidence than I should have. I have this notion that a lot of the best art is made by young people during this period of relative ignorance; you’re too young to know it’s silly to even try. I listen to the records Miles Davis made when he was nineteen or twenty. It’s that fearlessness that still stings.

As for Odile’s tendency to dismiss the work of other artists, you need only consult the roster of the Dadaists or Surrealists to realize how much the success of an art movement depends upon what it’s against, or whom. As an editor at Punk Planet for several years, there was a distinct feeling of fighting against the influence of mainstream, commercial music, art, and film. It helped galvanize those feelings most people in their twenties already have; that the world is not as it should be.

Something I found interesting was the role of Odile’s onetime professor: through Jack and Odile’s eyes, he’s a figure worthy of contempt, but through certain details — the condition of his car, for one — his humanity emerges. Did you know from the outset that he would be as ambiguous a figure as anyone else in the novel?
I’m going to answer this question with a somewhat unrelated story: when I was twenty-five I started this theatre company. I had inexplicably fallen in love with the form; I was convinced it was the perfect synthesis of narrative storytelling and live music. I wrote and directed my first show and got a relatively mixed review from the Chicago Reader. But I was so devoted to all these ideas I had that I couldn’t accept anything less than a stellar review. At the time, a friend of mine was a professional clown—he’d go to kid’s birthday parties dressed up as a clown or he’d have these costumes, Winnie the Pooh, Scoobie Doo, in his car. He’d have like three or four of them at any one time. After I got the review, I drank until about seven in the morning and called him and asked him what costumes he had. He said, “Bugs Bunny and Winnie the Pooh.” We then drove down to the offices of the Reader and distributed some ludicrous flyers I had made criticizing the review dressed up as Winnie the Pooh and Bugs Bunny.

I am thirty-eight years old now and feel both deeply embarrassed and deeply saddened that I will never feel so strongly about anything as to do something so stupid like that again.

Late in the novel, Jack tells Odile, “You’re just some office drone and you don’t even know it.” To what extent is the title intended to sting? You’re clearly establishing that both Odile and Jack have more to them than the dead-end jobs that bring them together, so how ambiguously is the title intended?
Compared to some of my other titles, Office Girl might seem relatively slight, which is kind of the point. As you mention, it’s meant as label both Odile and Jack are trying to desperately avoid. It also seems to reflect that mid-sixties New Wave quality we were aspiring to, Cleo- 9 to 5, Bonne FemmesThe Bakery Girl of Monceau. Also Odile was already taken.

Towards the back of the book, you list a playlist for Office Girl. How did these particular artists help you achieve the mood of the novel? Did you find any imagery from their songs affecting the book?
Most of the songs were from a mix Cody had made while we were all working on the book. They seemed to capture the tone, the youthfulness we were trying to build into the design elements. On some level, they’re all a form of pop music as well, which was important for us to recognize. We wanted to make a book about pop culture, that was still individual, specific, and interesting, the way the songs sounded.

Photo: Joe Wigdahl

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