Shopgirl, by Steve Martin


Steve Martin has to be one of the entertainers/artists who has most enriched my life (and many people’s lives) since he rose to prominence many decades ago.

Think of his diverse talents and accomplishments: He at one time was the most successful stand-up comedian in the world. Of non-cast members, he is probably the most popular, most memorable comic ever on Saturday Night Live (proving he’s just as adept at that kind of sketch comedy as at stand-up). His comedy and dramedy movies (e.g., Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, LA Story, Roxanne, The Jerk) have generally been above average to very good. He has been very successful not just performing TV and movie comedy but writing it (including for multiple television shows such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and for many of the movies he has starred in). When called upon to play a purely dramatic role as an actor (I’m thinking of The Spanish Prisoner) it turns out he’s perfectly capable of turning in a solid performance there as well. His short humor pieces (that appear in The New Yorker and other magazines and have been compiled into collections including Cruel Shoes) are often early-Woody Allen level, laugh-out-loud hilarious. For his appearances on talk shows like The Tonight Show and David Letterman’s shows, when he doesn’t do a stand-up routine he often comes prepared with some other kind of oddball antics that are among the funniest and most inventive such material you ever see on those shows. Though I don’t have the expertise to have an informed opinion about it myself, my understanding is that he’s a very accomplished musician on the banjo; that instrument isn’t just some goofy prop for his stand-up routine. As a highly intelligent philosophy major, he’s consistently thoughtful and interesting on the infrequent occasions you see him talk more seriously. Oh, and then there’s stage magic, juggling, playwriting, and probably more I’m not aware of.

Shopgirl is the first fiction book of his I’ve read (not counting the collections of very short humor pieces), so now I realize you can add to the list that he’s a talented author of serious fiction. (Shopgirl isn’t totally serious; it’s whimsical writing that would be called a “dramedy” if it were a movie. But I’d say it’s closer to the drama than comedy end of the scale.)

The protagonist of Shopgirl is Mirabelle, a 20-something part time artist who works at the glove counter in Neiman Marcus in Los Angeles. Four years out of college, she is not particularly ambitious careerwise. She suffers from depression, which is more or less under control with medication. She seems above average in intelligence, though still rather naïve about a lot of things, including men and relationships. She lives alone with two cats, suffers from a certain amount of loneliness, and is open to and somewhat actively seeking to find the right man for a full-time relationship. She is reasonably attractive and still quite young, so she gets a fair amount of attention from men, but she’s not so hot as to be defined by her looks and confident of her attractiveness. She is a more sympathetic character than not, basically a decent human being striving for—and mostly failing to achieve—genuine human connection.

As author Martin describes her:

It never occurs to Mirabelle to observe herself, and thus she is spared the image of a shy girl sitting alone in a bar on Saturday night. A girl who is willing to give every ounce of herself to someone, who could never betray her lover, who never suspects maliciousness of anyone, and whose sexuality sleeps in her, waiting to be stirred…She keeps working to make connections, but the pile of near misses is starting to overwhelm her.

Most of the book is about Mirabelle’s romantic relationships with Jeremy and Ray, especially Ray.

Jeremy, a couple years younger than her, is an immature slacker. Not a bad guy necessarily, but a pathetic buffoon with little to offer. Mirabelle is aware at some level that he’s not exactly a great catch, but there are times he doesn’t look so bad to her when the alternative is to be alone.

Ray is a millionaire in his 50s who jets in from Seattle whenever he wants to see Mirabelle. He spends a lot of money on her, buys her a lot of expensive gifts. To some extent she’s swept off her feet by him, but she seems to adjust pretty quickly to his largess and just kind of take it for granted. He is a user, pursuing relationships like this one for the sex and companionship on his own terms, avoiding making any commitments along the way. However, Martin presents him far more as immature and unaware of the emotional consequences of his actions on others, rather than a villain.

Insofar as there is a villain in the book I suppose it’s Lisa, the last of the four characters who has more than a bit part in the story. Lisa is a co-worker of Mirabelle’s, but in the far more prestigious cosmetics department. She is the quintessential shallow hot chick. Her attention and her few brain cells are focused on altering herself so as to even more effectively attract and manipulate men, and out-maneuvering all those she sees as potential rivals, including Mirabelle.

It’s hard to generate too much antipathy toward her though, as again Martin is at pains to present her as more pitiful than evil:

She [Lisa] fools herself by thinking that in some way she is pursuing a career by making important contacts with successful men, and that the sex is tangential. The men play along, too. They think that she likes them, that the hand jobs aren’t bought. These men allow her to feel interesting. After all, aren’t they listening to every word?…At thirty-two, Lisa does not know about forty, and she is unprepared for the time she will actually have to know something in order to have people listen to her. Her penalty is that the men she attracts with her current package see her only from a primitive part of their brains, the childish part that likes shiny objects that make noise when rattled. Older men looking for playthings and callow boys driven by hormones access these areas more easily than the clear-thinking wife seekers of their late twenties and thirties.

Just as an aside on hot women for a moment, the using them as “playthings” and such, or in general not taking a woman seriously as anything other than a sex object if she’s super hot, I’m sure is indeed a quite common phenomenon. But I, and I’m guessing at least some other guys, often react differently. I’m thinking now especially of my younger self, but I think my tendency was, if anything, to overrate really sexy women in other areas. That is, not to fake it, but to genuinely have a bias toward seeing them as a little more intelligent, interesting, caring, whatever than they really were.

It’s probably a form of wishful thinking. I see someone with part of what I’d ideally like a woman to have—spectacular looks—and so I hope she’s got the whole package with everything else I’d want as well.

Maybe I’ve also been influenced by the fact that two of the absolute most beautiful women I’ve ever known—the two I fell in love with—were the opposite of bimbos or of conniving manipulative bitches like Lisa. They were highly intelligent, good people. And unlike Lisa they had the self-awareness to reflect upon and analyze the social and psychological dynamics associated with how men react to women like them. Lisa has kind of an instinctive awareness of these phenomena and the ability to manipulate them, but I’m talking about women who could talk about them, put them in their proper perspective, consider the ethical ramifications of them, etc.

By the way, Martin multiple times in this book ridicules surgically augmented breasts—how unappealing they are, the derogatory things they say about the women who have them and the men who are attracted to them, etc. As a huge fan of huge breasts—natural or augmented—I take exception to that. Then again I tend to like all the other sizes too, but I certainly am never less attracted to a woman because her breasts have been rendered disproportionately large.

Anyway, Shopgirl won me over early. One reason has to do with the nature of the description.

I’ve written in multiple of these pieces about how my eyes tend to glaze over reading elaborately detailed physical descriptions—precisely what the sky looked like, how the birds sounded, what the kitchen smelled like, what flowers were in the garden, etc., etc. I’m just not that observant about things like that in real life, and that indifference tends to extend to my reading. But what fascinates me is human dynamics—how people think, how they interact, what they feel, the moral implications of it all, etc. Insightful descriptions of that stuff is far more effective at holding my interest.

And Martin is quite good at that in this book. I mean, there’s some of the regular descriptive stuff too—how can there not be?—but it never feels excessive. What he’s really up to here is using fiction to illustrate the various things he has come to believe through many decades of experience about women, the different ways men and women approach dating and sex, how major differences in age and net worth affect relationships, etc. His descriptions of these psychological and sociological aspects of human behavior are consistently intelligent and insightful.

They’re at times wry and playful, and no doubt can err a bit in the direction of simplicity and stereotyping rather than hardcore realism, but even so, there’s plenty of truth to them. Like when he describes what a doofus Jeremy is, it feels like he’s oversimplifying to go for a laugh, but then again I think we’ve all known people pretty darn close to how he describes Jeremy.

I have to say, though, that while the book never lost me, I did think it faded somewhat as it went along. It’s like Martin puts all the pieces—especially the insightfully drawn character sketches—in place for a compelling story, but then it just doesn’t develop as well as seemed likely early.

The book at times seems to be headed in a darker, deeper direction than where it ultimately goes. There’s Mirabelle’s depression. There’s the very real possibility that someone will be hurt in one of these poorly handled romantic relationships to more than the run-of-the-mill degree. There’s the fact that a significant amount of information is introduced about Mirabelle’s flawed relationship with her family back in Vermont, especially with her clearly damaged and only minimally communicative Vietnam veteran father.

But then little happens with all that. The Vermont family material especially is just left hanging.

I suspect it would have been a better book had Martin allowed the story to get a little more intense, to have more bite. Instead it gradually—to me—takes on the feel of a mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy, complete with at least a semi-happy ending where the main characters all show that they’ve matured emotionally as a result of their experiences.

Maybe the equivalent of such a movie script is what Martin intended all along, as Shopgirl was indeed later made into a movie.

It’s still a good book, it’s still worthy of at least a modest thumbs up, it still shows that Martin is in many ways a skilled, intelligent, and entertaining writer, but through the first third or maybe half of the book I expected to be able to write an even more enthusiastically positive assessment of Shopgirl.


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