October 7, 2012

The art of the hipster

“Office Girl” by Joe Meno (Akashic Books, 224 pages, $16.95)

“Office Girl” by Joe Meno (Akashic Books, 224 pages, $16.95)

Here’s a quick definition of “hipster” by means of example:

Question: How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer: The number is pretty obscure; you’ve probably never heard of it.

Odile wants a non-art art movement, and to a reader in 2012 that seems like a hipster idea. Joe Meno’s newest novel, set in 1999 Chicago, revolves around the lives of two 20-somethings hoping for a moment of greatness, but they lack the follow-through to create that greatness.

Odile and Jack meet at a dead-end, chop-shop medical supply company. Even their cubicles are holdovers from a previously failed business. Two rutted hipsters, one seemingly soon-to-be-ruined business, the end of a millennium. There’s nowhere to go but up, right?

With a format reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” “Office Girl” lets the reader develop his own ideas about each of the two characters, first in isolation with one section devoted to each. Then, the final section of the novel features Odile and Jack together, desperately creating what they hope will last into the new millennium.

Their nom de plume (or art, rather) is Alphonse F., inspired by a young boy Odile knew as a child. Odile and Jack sign all of their artworks, mostly marker drawings and smashed bananas, as Alphonse F.

But that’s not what is remarkable about their art movement. What is remarkable is how the two go about making art. And what they consider art. One escapade features the two riding an elevator in ski masks with 50 Mylar balloons; they ride it to the top of a skyscraper and to the bottom, exiting the elevator and building only to release the balloons.

Like the stills that sprinkle the pages of the novel, complete with drawings, Polaroids, lists and a manifesto — Odile’s and Jack’s actual inability to propel a movement (even in their own lives) leaves an indelible impression like the images burned in the text. Jack and Odile are blatantly stuck in their own ruts, yet they’re likable despite their rutted lifestyles. Jack keeps boxes and boxes filled with the sounds of the city, including sometimes silent recordings of “a traffic light making its alterations overhead.”

And Odile, with her nearly obscene sketches, spends her art momentum defacing art that she deems “beneath her.” Searching for something greater, searching for an audience, you’d think that Odile and Jack together would generate momentum.

And there is a spark. There is momentum. There is even what feels like maybe a smidge of passionate intensity. Their plans are furtive, typically fueled by Odile’s scattered scribblings; she keeps them in a notebook she picked up on a whim. A notebook meant solely for their “art terrorism.”

Jack can’t stop thinking that maybe the next time he sees her he’ll stick his tongue in her ear — just to shock her (the unshockable?) — but maybe it’ll have to be the next time, or the next. They keep donning their costumes, once dressed as ghosts, once or twice in ski masks, and they commit their self-titled anti-rationalist art brutality. And only once Jack gets hurt.

Well, maybe only once. Or twice. But in committing their random acts of art, the two come to learn quite a bit about themselves, even if it’s not what they wanted to know. And maybe they’re able to jump their individual ruts, even if the jump lands them in a place they hadn’t expected.

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