a note on criticism & a book review: joe meno’s office girl

[From the day I started Typewritten Tales, I knew I wanted to write book reviews. And film reviews, and TV show reviews, and restaurant reviews, and reviews of my day and mood and life. I wanted to think about and engage critically with the world. This is something that I want to do in my fiction as well: to think about the world that I live in and notice it, really notice it, to experience it in a fuller way. I am excited to bring you my first book review, because it means I am starting to do what I set out to do when I took up blogging.

I would like to add a disclaimer though: I am not a fan of negative book reviews. This does not mean that I only want to publish positive, meaninglessly supportive faux-criticism. If everything is awesome, nothing is. But I see no point in ripping into something for the sake of a punchline, either. HOWEVER, you have the following review. You’ll see what I mean in a minute, but I promise you I did not write what I wrote because I enjoy tearing people down, especially when I know how much hard work a novel is. I know it’s hard work, and I haven’t even finished mine.

It is because I am working on my own attempt at a novel that I think criticism is so important. If I don’t like something, the first thing I ask myself is why. There is always a reason. There is always something to be learned from every novel, good, bad, or in between. I want to learn. I want to dissect every piece of writing that I come across so that I know what I want to do with my own writing and can recognise when it is going astray.

On that qualifying note, I present to you my less-than-complimentary thoughts on Joe Meno’s Office Girl.]

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Joe Meno’s second novel, Office Girl (Akashic Books, 2012) is set in the year 1999. Its characters worry about the Y2K bug and talk about how the world is about to end. They listen to the Velvet Underground with disavowed enthusiasm. They ride bicycles through the streets of snowy Chicago and are described by what primary colours they have chosen to adorn themselves with.

Odile, the titular “office girl,” is lost. Spiritually speaking. She’s had a series of uninspiring telemarketing roles and flings with her coworkers. She’s possibly in love with a married man, but it’s hard to tell. She gives handjobs in the supply room and feels bad about herself afterwards. An art school drop out, she doodles and daydreams and expresses a desire to start her own Anti-Art Art Movement. She’s thinking about leaving Chicago for New York.

Jack is 26 and is already getting divorced. He, too, has had a string of dull day (or, more accurately, night) jobs, but he has the soul of an artist. He rides his shiny blue bicycle around the snow-covered city, recording its sounds on a little silver dictaphone. The sound of a balloon, apparently, is something you can capture on a tape recorder. Ditto, the sound of snow falling.

It’s all very poetic, but only in a way that a rather pretentious high schooler would appreciate. Odile and Jack are rather uninspiring, flat characters: their actions seem like deliberately symbolic movements performed for the reader, rather than the actions of believable characters. Odile, especially, is a frustratingly two-dimensional, marginalised-within-her-own-narrative character: a prime specimen of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl order if I ever read one. An early chapter, entitled ‘MEN WHO HAVE ACCUMULATED AROUND HER’ is the first indication that we’re entering MPDG territory; then, Odile thinks ‘Why doesn’t anyone make anything weird like this anymore?’ while moodily reading a zine and wearing a t-shirt for a band called Suicide and hating her art-world conforming performance artist roommate (who seems to exist only so a photo of a topless girl wearing a stormtrooper helmet could be included in the book). Icing on the cake, after 55 short pages, Meno abandons Odile’s point of view entirely to tell the remainder of the story from Jack’s perspective instead.

Jack, who is (of course!) falling in love with the endearing so-called weirdness that is Odile. Despite the fact that she consistently tells him that she’s not interested in a relationship. You can smell the ending, in which Odile will stop being such a handjob-giving slut and fulfil her role as fixer of Jack’s puppy-dog neuroses, before disappearing mysteriously after having altered Jack’s like in some ineffable/unutterable fashion, preferably after he has gotten to fuck her, from the first page.

The novel is wrapped in a bubblegum-pink cover, dotted with adorably lo-fi illustrations, and even has the occasional line where you think, ‘Hey, this writing is not so bad…?’ Ultimately, though, it’s not enough to save Office Girl from the clutches of cliché.

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student life

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My first week back at university is drawing to a close.

I have a complicated relationship with studying. A large part of me loves it: loves learning, loves thinking about interesting and intellectually challenging topics, loves reading and research, loves long hours in the library and required reading in the sunshine. I love the sense, when you’re on campus, that you are existing within a bubble. Not a sheltered, unrealistic, wait-until-you-graduate-and-see-what-the-“real”-world is like bubble, but a physical bubble: high walls, quiet spaces; the intended design of the buildings melding with the actual, inevitably disorganised way that people use them. The sense that you have passed through some filmy, soapy, invisible skin and into a different world where you don’t have to apologise for sounding smart.

Another, larger part of me hates it, even while I am loving it. And the reasons for hating it are far more nebulous and inexplicable than the reasons that I love it. Every morning, on the bus across town, I sit amongst a group of people five years younger than me and chastise myself for how much of a loser I am. Why didn’t I figure this out earlier? Why did it take me so long to reconcile my love of learning with my ability to show up and function? Have I actually reconciled this yet, or will this semester end like so many of them have: in tears, in failure, in forfeited grades and an enormous, nothing-to-show-for-it HECS debt.

I both love and hate the way that studying makes me feel. I feel dumber and smarter at once. My Philosophical Logic lecturer would probably be cringing, if he were to read this, but his class makes me feel this stronger than any of the others have so far. Coming out of his intensive two-hour first week seminar this afternoon, I felt that all-too-familiar mix of pride and dread. The weird sense of achievement at having solved a simple, introductory logic problem coupled with the crushing sense of foreboding I have about this class. I am probably going to fail it. I am not smart enough to pass Philosophical Logic.

I hate deadlines; they give me panic attacks. I hate group projects and public speaking; I hate paying large sums of money to have rambling lecturers condescend to me. I hate the long commute to campus. I hate awkward conversations with strangers and how desperate I am to have one of them talk to me, so that I don’t have to sit alone. I hate the feeling that the person behind me in the lecture theatre is reading my notes over my shoulder and quietly thinking I’m an idiot. I hate that I’ve somehow associated graduating with worthiness.

And yet I think all the time about what I am going to take on next. Whether it’s more study or pursuing a particular career path or finishing my novel, I am always taking on things that I have this weird, complicated, largely unhappy relationship with. These things that are essential to my sense of self that I, overall, hate; I hate myself in the moment of doing them. But I love them, too. Somehow.

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[Note: Again, this is another post dug up from a bloody, dark past, a.k.a. the beginning of semester. A few things have changed since I wrote this: I dropped out of Logic, but I also made some friends on campus and felt a little less lonely and worthless by the end of it. I got through the semester without crashing, burning, or failing anything. Regardless, there’s still a lot in this essay that holds true about my relationship with higher education, and I thought it was still worth publishing. I hope you think so too. LS]

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slump

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Slump. Slumped over. Going through a slump. Slump. Some lump. Lump. Lumbering, laboured, lagging.

People often speak of ‘going through a slump,’ an expression I always picture in the same way: a cartoon of a tired, defeated business man, in a dark suit, with cartoon lines under his eyes. He was walking on a sunny street a moment ago, with a straight spine and a smile on his face; but as he passes into shadow his shoulders droop in time with the corners of his sad mouth. I am going through a slump. I am walking down a dim, grey street. (I am recycling bad metaphors. I can’t help it.)

I am going through a slump. Actually, I am going through several kinds of slumps all at once. I am going through a reading slump; after a productive year in which I have read 50 books, I suddenly find myself bored and irritated by everything I pick up. I am going through a writing slump; everything I put on the page seems self-indulgent, unoriginal, boring, nothing like what it was in my head a few moments ago. I had a better opening line for this piece that had scurried away before my word processing program could be fucked to load. (Fuck you, technology.) I cannot even write letters to my friends, even though I want to. I cannot write replies to their texts, even though I want to.

I am going through a work slump; at my six-month performance review it was noted that I seemed less enthusiastic about my work. It is hard to be enthusiastic about my work. Six months in I have gotten to the point where I am no longer learning anything new, and my tasks have become mind-numbingly repetitive and frustratingly fiddly. There is nothing creative in my job, or not enough of it. My boss thinks I need reminding and for my hand to be held because, unlike her, I do not announce everything I am doing for the world to see how busy and important I am. That is unfair. I am in a slump at work in which I unfairly hate everything, including my perfectly nice boss.

I am going through a slump at my other work, too, as a subeditor of the film section of a magazine. Even though it has a strong creative element and is, objectively, an interesting job. Even though the writers I work with are improving every day, impressing me with their articulate analyses and amusing one-liners. Even so I find it hard to make myself sit down in front of the computer and edit submissions, or to come up with lists of films for the writers to review. I forget what I am doing while I do it. I forget what it used to feel like. I was so excited when I found out about this job; I jumped up and danced around the room with my best friend, squealing, while our partners looked on, confused. I felt like I was making progress. I was an editor now. I was doing something.

I am going through an everything slump. An agoraphobic slump. I dislike intensely having to leave the house and feel disgusting when I do. Hyper-aware of my disgusting fat stomach and legs, my greasy, sweaty skin. I am going through a sleeping slump, sometimes. I am exhausted but I cannot sleep. I am awake, alert, but I fall asleep as if I am passing out and wake feeling drugged. Sluggish.

People think the way to help me get out of this slump is to tell me how to fix it. Go back to volunteer work, set goals, exercise more, eat better. The fact that they are right only makes me angry. I do not seem to be having an anger slump; that one part of me is functioning perfectly, overtime, anytime, all the time.

They are right and they are wrong. Getting out of the house would  be good for me. If I exercised more and ate less crap I would probably feel better. I do not think they are right about the goal-setting thing; I have plenty of goals. Large, impressive, oppressive goals; goals that scare me, or that I am scared to think I might not ever meet. I have the weight of my own expectations, I do not need yours too.

They are right but they are wrong. If I could leave the house, exercise, prepare healthy food, I would. I think that I would if I could. It’s hard to explain that these simple things are hard for me to someone who has never found them difficult. Or worse, getting advice from those who have, at some point if not currently, experienced the same difficulties with getting out of bed, having a shower, focussing on a task long enough to finish it, making themselves a meal instead of ordering something deep-friend to be delivered. Have they forgotten? Or they are living with the same cognitive dissonance I am: the knowledge that these things would heal me, but that I could only do them if I weren’t already sick. If I could do these simple things with the ease with which people say the words, ‘Just get up,’ then I wouldn’t need to be told them.

These are the things I can do: watch TV, scroll through tumblr, masturbate, pick fights. These things are easy; these things make me feel alive, if only briefly. These things distract me from the gradual frittering away of my limited time. These things can be done in a slump; in a hunched over, balled up, listless position; things that require no effort or thought and contribute absolutely nothing, to anything or anyone.

I didn’t mean for this to happen but this blog has become a way for me to write about not being able to write. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. I am not writing any of the things I want to write. Is it enough to be writing? I started this blog because I wanted to teach myself discipline: I wanted to update this regularly, and hopefully about my writing successes. I had just been paid for writing and performing something for the very first time when I started this blog. I had all these ideas bubbling around in my brain, itching to be put down in words. Instead, I use it for those self-indulgent, unoriginal, boring bits of writing I mentioned before: these clichéd attempts to articulate what it feels like to be so depressed you can barely move; apologies and self-justifications for why I am not writing anything else. It’s not enough just to write, regardless of what you are writing. The words matter; what you are trying to say matters, whether or not it is any good, even if it is just by your own standards, matters. That you are writing something that contributes to something larger matters; just writing here, to fill up space on a page and be able to say, yes, I blog does not matter. There is nothing worthwhile in spewing your thoughts onto the page and posting it on the internet; this is insubstantial, this is the opposite of what I want. I would not be proud to say I wrote this. I will not tell anyone this is here.

Who does it matter to? Me. Me, my harshest critic. My slump does not prevent me from being angry, and it doesn’t prevent me from being angry at myself. Angry for these thoughts and I feelings that I cannot prevent. Angry that I waste so much time sitting around on the couch doing nothing. I am just the same as everyone else, telling me to pull my socks up: I think this is my fault. I think this is something that can be fixed by great effort, by sheer willpower. I start to plan. Fix-it plans: no more TV, yoga every morning, a blogging schedule, a plan to complete my novel. Some part of me still thinks this slump is something I can help.