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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self-destructive criticism

When I woke up this morning the first thing I did was check my email.

I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t even open my eyes; I just rolled over and groped blindly among the shoes, books, cardigans, bags, wool, charger cords, newspapers, plastic bags, unpaid bills, and empty drinking bottles until my hand settled on the familiar shape of my phone. I hung off the edge of the bed and scrolled through my notifications. Right at the bottom, beneath a string of marketing emails alerting me to sales I had no interest in, was an email from my editor.

I knew before I opened it that this was not going to be a fun email to read, because I had known when I submitted my last piece that it wasn’t good enough. I had known, and I had sat in front of my laptop the entirety of the day before until my head ached, trying to get the words out, but they wouldn’t. It wasn’t a complex piece, it wasn’t something dear to my heart – it was just a film review, of an interesting film that I had quite liked, but not loved, and in my head I knew why I felt the way I did about it. It shouldn’t have been a hard piece to write. But for whatever reasons the words wouldn’t come out and so I had typed up some rambling approximation of what was going through my head and sent it in before I could talk myself out of “finishing” it. I wanted to be done with it. I knew it was bad, and I knew I was too frustrated to keep looking at it, and I knew the deadline had already whooshed unhappily past. I was starting to feel a little scared, as I always do when it comes to the crunch, that I have chosen the wrong career and that I cannot handle writing.

Writing is hard to handle, harder than movie-montages of Shakespeare-types dipping their quills or hyped-up Beats frantically typing out scroll upon scroll into the madness of the night: writing scares the fuck out of me, and sometimes I can’t face it. Not every day, just some days, writing will suddenly be inexplicably more difficult to do on that day than on other days, and I have no idea why. On a bad day, everything I write comes out as drivel; every intelligent thought I have is obscured by my sudden inability to find the right word; all my good ideas whither under my cruel, unforgiving gaze.

I open the email and it tells me exactly what I already think of myself. Nice try, Lauren. Did you even go to high school? Did you not see those spelling mistakes? Have you ever heard of grammar? Good ideas – wish you’d had the brains to develop them. I hyperventilate quietly into my pillow, and when this stops seeming like a good plan I go and hyperventilate in the bathroom for a little bit, so my boyfriend won’t hear me and ask me what’s wrong. (If he asked me, I’d have to explain: I did this stupid thing, I knew it was stupid, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I just can’t handle this.) I look in the bathroom mirror, like people in movies do when they are having existential crises, and I ask the exhausted face in there if maybe it mightn’t be time that I gave up on the idea of having dreams and picked something else I could settle for.

For some reason, the utter absurdity, the completely self-pitying foolishness of this thought snaps me out of my panicky little spiral. Give up on having dreams? Did you really just think that? I know I am starting to sound a little bit like an American talk show host when I write this, but really – who, in their right mind, thinks Oh, you know what would be sweet? Having no ambition and being content with a really dull job. I could get really good at gardening. My life could be like one long Dilbert strip. 

And so I go back into the other room and this time the email says: ‘Thanks for your review, Lauren. I really liked x, y, and z – you should develop those more. Also, I’d like you to watch your spelling and grammar mistakes.’ Because the first time I read it through, I wasn’t really listening to my editor – who is lovely, and knows the value of constructive criticism (and probably a thing or two about the fragile egos of writers) – I was still listening to the panicky, scared, stupid girl who thinks a bad day means the end of a career. Or that a bad day makes a bad writer.

So I had a shower. I went to the bakery and got a coffee, and a muffin I probably shouldn’t have, but what the hell. I sat down in front of my computer and did the crazy-writer thing, where I mutter my sentences to myself and my boyfriend looks at me funny. And today turned out to be an equally inexplicably good writing day, and when I went looking for the words I found them, and my sentences made sense, and my ideas seemed pretty good, actually, once I got the chance to look at them again. And I learned my lesson for the day: whether it be first drafts or feedback emails from editors, read everything through twice. Things will look different in the morning.

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*Actually, from time to time I have wished for apathy. Most often I’m in the middle of a panic attack when I think this – I think, god, if only I didn’t care. But this, like the panic, passes.