Smile when you say "twee"

In Joe Meno’s new novel, Office Girl, art-school dropout Odile complains that a former professor called her work “‘twee’ and ‘whimsical,’ which really meant ‘weak.'” It’s as if Meno is daring the reader to make the same criticism of him. Consider the facts: he’s written a story about two bike- and Blue Line-riding hipsters who make art, practice alienation, fall in love, then make more art together. Case closed, right?

Ah, but no. Office Girl is a bittersweet little love story framed by Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial and the turn of the millennium. When she’s not answering phones or pursuing self-destructive affairs at work, Odile scrawls graffiti and fills a notebook with ideas for her anti-art movement—dress like a “ghost on the bus,” for instance. She enlists office colleague and fellow emotional weirdo Jack, whose own project involves recording noises (“the sound of a pink balloon disappearing above an electronics store”) that he plans eventually to weave into, well, something. After tagging along for one of Odile’s schemes, Jack asks her what the point is. “It’s just like a moment to be surprised by something,” she replies. “Kind of like a daydream. But something . . . real.” At that point I wrote “Ugh?” in the margin. Yet somehow it works. By letting his characters be emotionally vulnerable, even shallow or trite—which is to say . . . real—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 (Birds of America). Flashing back to a childhood assault, Meno describes Odile’s bag lying on the ground, “unfamiliar as an amputated limb.” A passing train “sounds like a kid whose teeth are all being pulled out at the same time.” The text is complemented, charmingly, by Cody Hudson’s illustrations and Todd Baxter’s photos.