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"Lichens" by Joe Meno
The couple made their camp near water. It seemed they had been having trouble communicating; a friend of theirs—a psychologist—had suggested they spend more time together. They had come to the forest, the shore, to do just that, but their problems had only gotten worse within the uneasiness of the woods. Apparently neither the man nor the woman had anything left to say, so every sound became an insult. Beyond the yellow trapezoid of their tent, there was the distinct complaint of some fur-hided animal poking about in the dark, the exclamation of the waves assaulting the slick black rocks, the restless scratch of distant trees. The tent itself was cramped; the couple was constantly nudging each other with their sharp elbows and itchy knees. They had tried to have sex inside a nylon sleeping bag but it had gone poorly. They were city people, it turned out, and needed the distractions of noise and light.
* * *
Peter, the man, was shaped like the letter A. The thing he most loved was the ocean. The thing he most enjoyed was silence—the silence of libraries, the silence of other people’s children, the silence that accompanied the first piece of birthday cake.
* * *
Laura, the woman, was shaped like the letter F. She loved the smell of the forest, the white bark of the trees, the feeling of pine needles prickling her bare feet. The thing she most enjoyed was biting her fingernails down to the quick.
* * *
By the third day, the couple stalled. Their camping trip was in danger of becoming a defeat. They tried collecting wood for a fire but the sticks were too mossy, too wet. They tried cooking but the cook stove caught fire and melted. The hiking trail was obstructed by a golden band of bees. On their last night, they were so disappointed that they slept facing away from each other, mouths twisted into scowls.
* * *
At midnight, the man, Peter, awoke to a rustle. He looked over and saw the woman was gone. He called out her name and heard what he assumed to be insects whistling back; he climbed out of his sleeping bag and then nervously crawled out of the vinyl opening of the tent. He stood up and stared suspiciously at the moon, seeing the forest, the shore, everything in shadow.
“Laura,” he called again and followed a path down to the lapping water. It was there that he found her, kneeling beside the black rocks in her hiking shorts, water wetting her bare knees. She had her hand to her mouth and seemed to be eating something. “Laura?” he called again, and when she turned, he could see strange green and white foam along her lips.
There in her palm was an accumulation of several soft lichens—plant-like organisms, with wide angles and ridges. She appeared to be eating them.
“Laura!” he called out. Immediately, the foam at her mouth turned pink and her eyes began to palpitate, as if she were having an unfamiliar though ecstatic dream. Her body began to convulse and the man said “Laura” once more before she fell into his arms, dewy and weak. He sniffed her hands, touching her stained, inky fingers to his lips and then turned away in revulsion. But it was too late. He could already taste the brackish ocean, the grit of sea-life, the bony shell of the lichens somewhere at the back of his throat. Soon his own eyelids began to flutter, his limbs going slack, and then he could no longer feel the beat of his heart.
Read the rest of this story in Unstuck #3.
Once we aped a couple fighting on the bus. Mary pretended to be the girl and I aped the guy. The girl was wiping her wet eyes and saying, “No, I don’t believe you. No,” and so Mary repeated the same thing. They didn’t notice us. The guy said, “What do I have to do? What do I have to do to get you to believe me?” and so I asked the same thing. We made faces at each other like people who were people trying to stay in love. It took a while for the couple to actually figure out what we were doing. When they saw the scene we were making, the guy grabbed me by the front of my shirt. He started yelling. “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” I went limp, but Mary kept on going. “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” she shouted, grabbing onto my shirt, too. The guy turned to her and pushed her and she fell down but by then the bus driver had stopped the bus and we ran off, stumbling into the night air, laughing.
—from “Apes” (Unstuck #1)
Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright living in Chicago. He is the author of six novels, including The Great Perhaps and the just-released Office Girl, and two short story collections, including Demons in the Spring. His short fiction has been published in journals like McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, One Story, Swink, LIT, TriQuarterly, Other Voices and Gulf Coast, and has been broadcast on NPR. He was a contributing editor to Punk Planet, the seminal underground arts and politics magazine.
Interview by Allie Werner
UNSTUCK: Way back in 2005, you gave an interview to Bookslut in which you discussed your belief that independent publishers were going to start majorly outshining and outmaneuvering the big publishing houses. Now that we're here in the future, do you feel like that's already happening? What do you find most exciting about independent publishing today?
JOE MENO: I still feel pretty strongly that small, independent publishers are a lot more willing to take risks in both content and form. If you look at the kinds of books Grove Press or McSweeney's or Akashic put out, there's a distinct feeling of daring.
I feel like Office Girl [Meno's latest novel] is daring in how slight and how quiet it is, and how pretty normal the characters are. That, believe it or not, doesn't fit in with what most contemporary literary publishers are putting out. Most contemporary novels are really interested in telling these epic stories, or dealing with contemporary events. Novels have become a lot more about information and how the world works than about people and how they relate to other people.
The fact that Akashic let me work with two great artists is also pretty bold. I've experimented with the relationship between the text and the actual layout in other books like Demons in the Spring and The Boy Detective Fails, which were both books Akashic published. They have a willingness to allow the writer to follow his curiosity. I've had these long conversations with Johnny Temple, the publisher, about what a book can do in the 21st century that other media can't.
UNSTUCK: I'd like to talk a little bit more about the drawings and photography in Office Girl, and your work with Cody Hudson and Todd Baxter. How did the collaboration with these other artists work?
JOE MENO: They're both good pals of mine. I finished a draft of the book and realized how central art was to the story and asked what ideas they might have, Cody immediately suggested certain ideas, then Todd suggested others, and we all began to agree that the artwork should reflect the tone of the book. We decided pretty quickly on small black-and-white drawings, to reference Odile's graffiti, and black-and-white snapshot photos. We wanted to create a sense of intimacy and also to connect to the zine tradition which is referenced in the book. Basically, make a book that was a zine or a kind of Jean-Luc Godard movie in book form. Again, that's pretty risky for a publisher to put out there.
UNSTUCK: Yeah—as I was reading the book, I often felt like I was reading a very long zine. Not just in regard to the multimedia content, but also to the choice of font, typesetting, and the actual physical size of the book.
JOE MENO: Cody and I looked at a lot of different fonts, experimented with different sizes,
colors. We wanted the actual physical shape, the font, to reflect what the book was about. Which was these brief moments that occur and then disappear. And how we spend a lot of
time trying to capture those moments. Which is basically writing. Or any kind of art. So we wanted all the design elements to have this small, temporary quality. Again, other
publishers I've worked with do not want to have these kinds of conversations. They want to hand you a cover and say, "this is your book."
UNSTUCK: I was wondering how much control you had as an author over the design of the book, because the physical design reflects its content so well. And it seems like you had quite a bit of input!
JOE MENO: That's one of the great advantages working with a smaller, independent publisher. For someone like me, who's looking at the relationship between form and content, it's a huge deal. I believe books, if they're to continue in printed form, have to offer an experience you can't get anywhere else. They have to be intimate. They have to be art objects. It was Cody's idea to add the actual zine insert into the book. Which, again, seems something so uniquely connected to the story and what a book can do.
UNSTUCK: I liked how the pages actually changed color to indicate the zine insert. It did make it seem like an external object had been stapled into the middle of this novel.
JOE MENO: Again, we were trying to find ways to make the experience of reading the book unlike other narrative experiences in film, television, or theatre.
UNSTUCK: It was strange for me to read a new book set in the late 90s, because I was born in '88 and the 90s are the first decade I have any memory of. What made you decide to set Office Girl in this particular time period?
JOE MENO: There're a few reasons it's set in 1999. I was in my mid-twenties in 1999, which is roughly the same age as the two main characters. There was something about the particular historical and cultural moment as well, where it felt like the entire planet was waiting for something important to happen—the end of the millennium, the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the end of the world—but that also felt oddly insular or safe. I feel lucky to have become a young adult in the 90s because there was nothing to worry about but art and music. Also, I have no idea how young people fall in love in the twenty-first century. There's all this technology now. I just wanted to focus on the characters.
UNSTUCK: It's interesting that you mention technology, because it really stood out to me that neither Odile nor Jack seemed to have a home computer.
JOE MENO: I didn't in 1999. I had this Radio Shack word processor that had one program on it. Though Jack is pretty contemporary in a lot of the ways he moves about the world. He constantly documents the world around him using his tape player. It's pretty much the same as texting or Facebook. It's digital graffiti.
UNSTUCK: Exactly. The relationship between the characters, their situations, and their mannerisms all felt very contemporary to me, which is why differences in the forms of
technology and documentation are what made me go, "This is a sort of period piece."
JOE MENO: Yeah, like I said, I was twenty-five in ‘99 and it usually takes me ten years or so to write about what was happening to me.
UNSTUCK: I noticed you included a list of theme music in the back pages of Office Girl, and I really liked that little addendum. Do you often listen to music as you write? Do you find that music informs your writing, or does what you're writing reflect your music choices?
JOE MENO: I can't listen to music while I'm actually writing. But I try to capture some of the same tone or mood from a group of artists. I've done this for all the novels I've written. I try to identify the sound, the mood of the book through music and then translate it to words. It's like taking something abstract and trying to give some kind of form. Cody Hudson and I actually sent some songs back and forth as we were figuring out the design elements.
UNSTUCK: So how did Office Girl originate?
JOE MENO: It started as a short story, then it was a play, and then I wrote it as a novel. I've done this for a number of my other novels. Writing it as a short story helps me get it down. Writing it as a play helps me figure out the characters and scenes. And then when I develop it as a novel, I'm looking at the relationship between form and content.
UNSTUCK: "Apes," the story of yours that appears in the debut issue of Unstuck, seems to address some of the same art and performance issues that Office Girl does. Gorilla/guerilla art.
JOE MENO: Ha! Gorilla/guerilla. I never thought of that. Over the last three years, I wrote about five or six stories about young people, people in their twenties. In some way, they all had something to do with art and sex. This is usually when I realize, “Oh, this is all probably going to end up as a novel.” So “Apes” was one of those. It definitely has a darker feel than Office Girl and some of the other young "art school people in love" pieces I wrote. But the idea of two people doing these public exercises, and how that affects their relationship, is pretty consistent with the book. To be honest, I'm really proud of the ending of “Apes.” I have no idea why.
UNSTUCK: It’s a bit of a surreal moment, but in a way it feels natural and plausible.
JOE MENO: I really like that he goes off with the weird, Christian girl. I feel like I know a lot of people like that. People are desperately looking for someone, anyone, a little stronger, a little more ambitious than them. It's how the punk kids I used to know all became Born-Again. They went from one dogma to another.
UNSTUCK: Yes, there's this interesting, almost invisible power struggle going on between Mary and the Christian girl on the bus. Where the girl is being mocked, but she's trying to avoid being hurt.
JOE MENO: Yeah, the Christian girl wins. Because she's nicer. There's no meaning behind that, other than the narrator is kind of weak and knows at some point Mary is going to be through with him.
The soundtrack for that story would be This Bike is a Pipebomb's "Mouseteeth."
UNSTUCK: In "Apes," the two main characters spend most of their free time imitating other people. A good portion of the aping sessions in this story seem to take place on public transit. Why do you think public transit works so well as a setting in short fiction? What's the strangest encounter you've had while riding the bus?
JOE MENO: That's a good question. Short fiction is all about compression. Compression of time, event, dramatic arc. And most important of all, the use of opposites. So public places work well, because there are usually lots of different kinds of people forced up beside
each other. There's Flannery O'Connor's majestic bus story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
As for the last part of the question, I don't take the bus. I take the subway. For some reason, at least in Chicago, there's a very different atmosphere on the El. The bus—and this is terrible to admit—is way more like a doctor's waiting room. There is a sense of frustration, confusion, disappointment, and rage. Most people who ride the bus are not doing it because they want to, which lends it the place to be particularly dramatic.
UNSTUCK: Office Girl, meanwhile, features a lot of bicycles. So, bikes versus public transit. Which is the superior form of literary transportation?
JOE MENO: For a sad story about ruined people, the bus. For a love story, bicycles.
UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?
JOE MENO: Stanley Elkin's Criers and Kibbitzers, Kibbitzers and Criers. It's a short story collection. He was this major post-modern, extremely imaginative powerhouse. He won the National Book Critics Circle prize twice and he's all but forgotten now. He's really a progenitor of what you guys are doing in Unstuck.
* * *
Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.