Art and writing. Kind of the same, kind of different. Who hasn’t read a novel about an artist and thought, “I guess one creative process is substituting for another. This is really about writing.” Or so I thought when I read Carol Anshaw’s recent novel, Carry the One. So I asked Anshaw, how much did you draw from your writing life in creating the life of an artist?” And several folks chuckled, and Anshaw replied, “I didn’t draw from it at all. I’m also a painter.”
The intersection between art and writing has always been a recurring theme in literature, and it’s surely a motif, as every illustrated book is a dance between word and picture. We’ve heard from many a children’s book writer and illustrator about the pairing of both together by editors. Sometimes they don’t even meet beforehand.
On a less commercial note, I’ve recently read a couple of novels about young people creating art movements. They’re not exactly historical, but both are set in the recent past, specifically, just before the internet takeover. When I read Don Lee’s new novel, The Collective, I wasn’t thinking that my reading list had become thematic. It is, however, about three college students, a visual artist and two writers, all Asian American, who meet in college, hoping to change the world with art (both visual and written).
Their ideas take on life, and they build this collective in Cambridge. But the show they build up to becomes a colossal failure, leading to the group’s self destruction. I’m not giving anything away here; the story starts with one character contemplating another’s death, several years afterward. I’m not really writing about Lee’s novel here, but simply putting in the context of this reading trend of mine.
So a bit later I pick up Joe Meno’s new novel Office Girl. He’s back at Akashic, after a flirtation with Norton. I guess he also had at least one novel at Harper. It’s not that this novel is particularly experimental; it’s just a different kind of canvas. Jack and Odile are two struggling souls in their twenties, frustrated art students, one dating a married man, and the other married, but just abandoned by his spouse. Both work a series of dead-end jobs.
Jack has become obsessed with taping the sounds of his life. His apartment is crammed with boxes sorted out by subject. And Odile? She’s been rejected by her art school establishment for not buying into the pronouncements of her authority figures, whether establishment or subversive. Odile wants to be her own kind of subversive, and that does not involve paintings of Winnie the Pooh snorting heroin.
So Jack has become a bit obsessed with Odile, and Odile is up for the attention because it seems like Jack is willing to indulge her. Or is he actually looking for an outlet for his own artistic energy. So they coin the Alphonse F. movement, which is part performance art, part craft, part prank. Haunting the city bus. Smashing bananas into a car. Creating and distributing a dirty magazine.
It sort of reminded me of Paul and Holly’s shoplifting-with-strange-masks episode in the movie version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” And so I wondered if Meno meant for this art movement of sorts to be a channeling of hormonal rebellion. And for some reason I also thought of the film “Breathless”, which was not about an art movement, but sort of helped usher in the new wave movement in film.
I thought of other comparisons, but one interesting difference is that this story doesn’t seem to end in violence, the way I thought it might. All you need is a few bloody deaths and you might have something akin to Barry Gifford, but for Meno, he's happy to keep the subversion mild. Meno's rebellion has a gentle charm, and that is reinforced with the Cody Hudson illustrations. There’s one particularly silly take on the imaginary building party that Jack’s friend takes him to. The revelers are the the Eiffel Tower, the John Hancock building, Big Ben, and a bridge, all of them having a little drink. The collection of sex organs don’t shock so much as make you smile—so very much like Emmi Hsu’s artwork for Fomato cards.
Not that all the illustrations are bright. There are the broken glasses, the mangled bicycle. But Todd Baxter’s photographs are almost always focused on the stark and disconnected—snowscapes and shoe-clad feet, and a woman posed in a Star Wars mask who could be straight out of the adult sequel to Darth Vader and Son.
In the end, this might not be so much about a movement as a moment. It’s when you meet the person who helps you face adulthood. I’m not just talking about Jack and Odile’s effect on each other, but also Jack’s stepfather David and Odile’s younger brother Ike. It’s about finding out who you don’t want to be, like Odile’s married boyfriend Paul or Jack’s wife Elise, though honestly I don’t think she was so bad. And like many stories of turning points, it ends, and we don’t know what happens next, and we shouldn’t know.
No sequels. But I wouldn’t mind a soundtrack. And just one more note.
Joe Meno’s coming to Boswell on Thursday, August 2, 7 pm with poet Dan Nowak opening for him. I'd like to point out that in an unusual move for a hardcover/paper simultaneous release, the two editions have different jackets. You might know him from his previous books, Hairstyles of the Damned, The Boy Detective Fails, and The Great Perhaps. Come with your own collective, and feel free to make a big statement.