Sunday, October 16, 2016

ShopgirlShopgirl by Steve Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"To Lisa, Prada is as recognizable as her own mother, and seeing Mirabelle draped in the perfect Prada shift provokes in her a deep guttural growl. [...] The only thing Lisa can think to do [...] is trim and coif her pubic hair. This is a ritualistic act of readiness, a war dance, that is akin to a matador's mystical preparations for battle."

I had not known that Steve Martin, the actor and comedy performer whom I remember mainly from the good old days (1970s and 1980s) of Saturday Night Live is also a writer, and quite a good one at that. Looking for short books to read I found his novella Shopgirl (2000) and it has proved to be a worthy read: my rating would be even higher if not for a major flaw that I mention later. In this unconventional take on a contemporary love story Mr. Martin presents a fresh literary voice, unlike any I have heard before.

Mirabelle is a decoratively pretty young woman who works in the Neiman Marcus' glove department in Beverly Hills. An aspiring graphic artist, with a Master's in fine arts, she suffers from depression: she has been unable to find a companion who would offer her attention and tenderness. Mirabelle lives an uneventful life amidst the vacuousness of the L.A. scene, occasionally dating a loser named Jeremy. She meets Ray, a man more than twice her age, very smart and very rich but - despite being on the wrong side of fifty - emotionally still an adolescent.

Shopgirl is mainly about the affair between Mirabelle and Ray but despite the tiny volume of the book other threads are present as well: in particular the thread involving Mirabelle's father, a bitter Vietnam veteran, is interesting and non-trivially developed. Mr. Martin offers generous helpings of satire about beautiful yet brain-dead people of the LA high society: the world of fashion and cosmetic surgery, populated by utter morons like Lisa from the epigraph of this review. Several psychological observations are top notch, for instance the account of the typical male obsession with female skin:
"[...] he cannot tell if the surface he glimpsed under Mirabelle's blouse was her skin or a flesh-colored nylon underthing."
Ray builds a complex structure of thoughts, scenarios, and images around this small piece of skin, and it provides several weeks worth of material for his mental self-pleasuring.

All would be really great if not for the author's absolutely infuriating manner of explaining in his own words why the characters do what they do and editorializing about their motivations. It feels like Mr. Martin is not sure whether his prose is good enough to portray the characters as real people whom the readers will be able to understand on their own, without his help. Or maybe he doubts that the readers are at all able to understand the characters' behavior. (Or maybe he provides pre-packaged answers to book-club questions about the meaning of the plot - just kidding). Either way, the author's elucidations are totally jarring and spoil the whole great effort.

If not for the author's running commentary, Shopgirl would be an extremely readable sweet little love story, offbeat and enchanting, not at all cliché or silly. With the commentary I still recommend the novella but what a waste of a great idea!

Three stars.

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