Monday, July 23, 2012

Office Girl by Joe Meno

My college professors often told me and my fellow communications majors how attractive we would be in the job market we were about to enter.  Apparently, employers really didn't wish to hire potential employees who had swallowed a steady diet of courses from the business college but were looking for well-read, well-rounded liberal arts-types who could then be taught what was necessary to succeed in business.  Sounded great to those of us who had spent our undergrad years learning how to speak publicly, argue scientifically, and theorize rhetorically.  Good times were near.

When we matriculated and graduated, we found out the business world really didn't want that at all so we became bartenders and servers and proto-baristas, before that was a common word or job even, and learned we didn't have to give up our garage bands after all.  Young, poor, over-educated and underemployed--that was us.  Worse than that, our birth years placed us squarely in Generation X and we were dubbed 'slackers', a sobriquet that we embraced and rejected, simultaneously, while sporting flannel shirts in mosh pits and making Soundgarden successful.  Ultimately we came around to the idea that without the safety net of college, we had paid too much for school to merely man the copiers at Kinko's.  Quelle dommage! The characters in Joe Meno's new novel find themselves at similar loose ends.

Office Girl, (or Bohemians or Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things) is set during the Chicago blizzard of 1999 and Meno uses this as a metaphor for a number of things: the hard slog toward adulthood, the cold, cruel world out there, the need to dig oneself out, to find oneself under the snow drifts and emerge as someone different.  Perhaps there are more but you can read it for yourself and tell me about it later. 

Jack and Odile want to be artists and fancy themselves as such but they can't seem to commit to the work though they certainly embrace what they perceive as the lifestyle.  They meet at a crappy call-center job.  She is a few credits shy of her BFA, promiscuous and flighty but she is such a winsome character, that like Jack, you can forgive her almost anything.  (Some readers will disagree with me and simply find her to be a giant pain in the ass and will shout "Curse you, Reed Next! You have steered me wrong!"  If so, my apologies but come back soon.  I'm likely to post again by August.  Maybe.)  Jack's youthful marriage has just ended in divorce.  He needs to get on with himself and tries, halfheartedly, but can't quite summon the necessary backbone.  Instead, he stays in Odile's orbit and hopes.  

Regular readers of Reed Next know how much I admire Meno's work.  I think he has a deep sense of compassion for his characters and his ability to portray buoyant happiness alongside aching sadness make me respect him more with each novel. He succeeds here, especially with Odile.  Back in the day, I knew Odile. I chased Odile.  I dated Odile.  I slept with her, too. Odile made me crazy in every sense but you just couldn't live with Odile because Odile couldn't live with herself.  She had one more thing she had to do, one more class to take, one more bad boyfriend and then she could be happy.  She never could as long as I knew her and, much like Jack, that made me sad and sorry for something I thought might be.  Joe Meno manages to capture her essence perfectly if a bit painfully for me as the reader. 
Office Girl lacks the emotional heft of Hairstyles of the Damned and the black humor of The Boy Detective Fails but I believe it is lighter by design and intent.  Where this could be just a hapless, tortured slacker novel, a Coupland throwback, in Meno's savvy hands, it isn't.  It is charming and engaging, infuriating and doomed.  It is a love story that never gets the love part of the relationship right.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

There are times when doing the right thing comes as a complete surprise especially when doing so is completely out of character.  So it is with Harold Fry, a man who has been a bystander of his own life.  When we meet him in Rachel Joyce's marvelous debut novel, he is retired from his sales job at a brewery, estranged from his wife, Maureen, absent in the life of his grown son, David, without friends or interests or hobbies.  Harold just is.  But he isn't really.  Even in retirement, Harold is an empty suit.  

One morning, as he sits at the breakfast table "freshly shaven, clean shirt and tie", he receives a letter from his old colleague from the brewery, Queenie Hennessy, informing him, quite concisely, that she is dying of cancer and nothing can be done.  Despite not being in touch with each other for twenty years, she thought he'd like to know.  Harold is shaken and stirred. As he walks to the nearby letter box to post a characteristically unsentimental reply, something changes in Harold.  He passes another letter box and then another.  Then a chance conversation with a counter girl at a convenience store puts everything into focus for Harold: if he keeps walking, he is certain Queenie will live. If he treks the 600 and some miles from Kingsbridge to Berwick-Upon-Tweed, he can save Queenie.  Unprepared, out of shape, wearing boat shoes and a suit, with little money and no cell phone, off he goes. By the journey of Harold Fry, Queenie Hennessy will live.

As he makes his way, Harold opens himself up to the spirit of the journey.  He will stick to the main roads despite knowing there are quicker ways to cover more miles.   He will befriend strangers and listen to their life stories.  He will accept help, grudgingly at first.  By accident, Harold's quest even becomes newsworthy and soon others join him on the road, fervent in their belief in Harold's belief, all walking to save Queenie though many with agendas of their own.  Harold, never one to rock the boat, suffers but presses on.

As for summarizing, I will leave it at that.  I have left you in a good place and there is much more to Harold's story. I do encourage you to read this work for yourself which will hit stores on July 24.  That said, I must add that I cried throughout the book for Harold, for Maureen, for David, and for Queenie.  Joyce's prose is spare and tight and I admire the economy with which she has told this tale.  There is a portion of the book that takes on some Forrest Gumpiness but that is expected and easily forgiven because it is a novel that is generous and deeply satisfying.  While a good man is hard to find, look no further than Harold Fry.