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Shopgirl: a novella

Hyperion, New York, 2000
(hardback price: $17.95; 136 pages)

The blurb on the back:

One of our country's most acclaimed and beloved entertainers, Steve Martin is quickly becoming recognized as a 'gorgeous writer capable of being at once melancholy and tart, achingly innocent and astonishingly ironic' (Elle). Beautifully written, this novella reveals a different side of Martin, one that is unexpectedly perceptive about relationships and life and profoundly wise when it comes to the inner workings of the human heart.
Mirabelle is the 'shopgirl' of the title, a young woman, beautiful in a wallflowerish kind of way, who works behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus 'selling things that nobody buys anymore...'
Slightly lost, slightly off-kilter, very shy, Mirabelle charms because of all that she is not: not glamorous, not aggressive, not self-aggrandizing. Still, there is something about her that is irresistible.
Mirabelle captures the attention of Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman almost twice her age. As they tentatively embark on a relationship, they both struggle to decipher the language of love - with consequences that are both comic and heartbreaking. Filled with the kind of witty, discerning observations that have brought Steve Martin critical success, Shopgirl is a work of disarming tenderness.

opening lines:
When you work in the glove department at Neiman's, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore. These gloves aren't like the hard-working ones sold by LL Bean; these are so fine that a lady wearing them can still pick up a straight pin.

When it comes to comedians writing novels, there are, of course, comedians and comedians. Somehow you suspected that Hugh Laurie was going to be a good writer, and that Adrian Edmondson was going to be a waste of time. Steve Martin, on the other hand, could have gone either way. One of the few decent stand-up stars of the 1970s, he made a triumphant transition to celluloid with The Jerk, but thereafter was on an arrow-straight course to comedy hell - strong early work like The Man With Two Brains and All Of Me gradually gave way to My Blue Heaven and Father of the Bride and ultimately to the nightmare that was Sgt Bilko. If we were still watching (and not many were) it was only in horror: how come the most talented American comedian of his time was putting himself through this pain?

Luckily, he seems to have had the same thought, and he gave up making the movies in order to concentrate on writing. There have been a couple of plays which have been successfully staged and got good reviews, and there's this short novel. (Calling it a novella is pure modesty - it's a bit longer than that.)

And let's be clear right up front: it's a splendid piece of work. Absolutely lovely. Any doubts about Martin's ability are entirely unfounded.

The story is really nothing at all - a flimsy, filmy little thing that would collapse if I gave anything away, so I shan't - but the telling is sheer beauty. Martin writes in the present tense and has a tendency to use names rather than pronouns at almost every opportunity, thus:

Mirabelle has two cats. One is normal, the other is a reclusive kitten who lives under a sofa and rarely comes out. Very rarely. Once a year. This gives Mirabelle the feeling that there is a mysterious stranger living in her apartment whom she never sees but who leaves evidence of his existence by subtly moving small, round objects from room to room. This description could easily apply to Mirabelle's few friends. (p.4)

The result is an almost faery-tale atmosphere, as though the events described are trapped in sepia. And yet, as you fall under the spell of the piece, you come to realize that there is some acute observation of humanity in the urban West going on here. The very ordinariness of the story becomes its attraction: watching the tiny, quiet movements of the characters and the disproportionate amount of energy required to produce those movements, you become hypnotized by this small group of normal people trying to find their way in an alienated world.

If you didn't know who Martin was, it would make no difference whatsoever. Uniquely (I think) amongst these novels by comedians, there is a tone here that has its own life entirely and doesn't bring to mind prior images of its creator.

Just like a damn good writer, really.

PS  Just in case there's any doubt: the cover photo doesn't help since the model pictured bears no resemblance to my image of the protagonist, and those sleeve notes that recall Leonard Nimoy are an insult.