By Steve Martin
I need to pay more attention. I've been dismissing Shopgirl for over a decade because I, apparently, don't listen.
Somehow, I managed to confuse this little gem of a novel with the series of Shopaholic novels written by Sophie Kinsella, despite the fact that several people have repeatedly told me that it has nothing to do with the Shopaholic series. But, like I said, I don't listen. and since there is virtually zero chance of my ever picking up a Shopaholic novel (with no offense intended to either the Shopaholic series or Sophie Kinsella), this book almost passed me by due to my stubborn insistence that this book was going to be about shopping. Thank god my mother finally got it through my thick skull that Shopgirl was written by Steve Martin, untethering the book from Kinsella in my mind and placing it high on my list of novels to read. I love Steve Martin. I love his stand-up. I love his work on television. I love his films. I love his Twitter feed and I love that he can play the banjo. It would make sense that I would love his books as well. If you, like me, have dismissed this novel because you think it's going to be about shopping or something akin to consumption of items from a department store and/or a boutique on Rodeo Drive, I'm here to rest your worried mind. It's not about any of that.
Shopgirl is a bleak little love story told from the perspective of four individuals in the Los Angeles area as some point prior to the cell phone era (the novel was published in 2000). It centers around the doomed-from-the-beginning relationship between Ray, a wealthy, middle-aged man, and Mirabelle, a twenty something artist currently working the glove counter at an expensive LA department store (thus the name, Shopgirl). Jeremy, a going-nowhere slacker and Lisa, a ferocious sexual predator fill out the novel's dance card. The dating triangle of four is complete.
Martin is not exploring new territory. The modern dating scene has been raked throughout with a fine-toothed comb since the term "modern dating" came into existence. Much of the action is predictable and the outcomes are plain even to the most oblivious daters out there (read: me). Expect no Roald Dahl-esque twists in Shopgirl because they are not forthcoming. But, that's the nature of "modern dating in the pre-cell phone era," isn't it? There are no surprise endings. Only the same predictable results, relationship after relationship until we all die lonely and miserable in a house full of cats and tins of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup. It all seems so pointless.
Well, I did say it was a bleak story.
But there is a lot of charm and wit packed into this 130-page story to make it worth reading despite the fact that you know exactly how it's all going to turn out by page 25. Steve Martin has an observational tone that implies that he has lived this sort of life long enough to understand the exact physical, intellectual, emotional and psychological machinations, but not quite long enough to understand why we delude ourselves into pretending to not see those same machinations in our own relationships. This makes me like Steve Martin all the more because it's a war zone out there, kids.
Or something like that.
In Shopgirl, Martin explores the various manifestations of loneliness in an urban landscape where we are both surrounded by a millions of people and, at the same time, completely alone. Sort of like Facebook except with actual faces that move and talk and react to what you say immediately via speech rather than comments and pokes. Martin writes with a sincerity that is both comedic (expected) and tragic (surprising). Many of the observations within the novel are the sorts that we have all vaguely noticed but probably have never spent the time to collect up into a formal observation. Once Martin expresses them in words we find ourselves nodding in sad affirmation that he has nailed it on the head. Each of Martin's four principal characters have found ways in which to live with their loneliness, whether it is anti-depressants, psychological walls or dependence of self-help literature. It is fitting that one of the central characters in the novel, Lisa, works at the cosmetics counter. Her brand of loneliness is so completely covered over by vapidity and materialism that Lisa isn't even aware that she has set the controls of her life on a trajectory to disaster.
But the real strength of Shopgirl is setting. As with many of his better films, Martin brings a unique understanding of Los Angeles (or at least I think he has a unique understanding. I've never been to LA and most of what I believe about LA has been gleaned from Steve Martin Movies and The Big Lebowski). Much the same way Stephen King has the ability to capture the essence of Maine, Steve Martin has a keen sense of the particular eccentricities that make Los Angeles different and employs these eccentricities in a manner that accentuates rather than smothers the narrative. When Martin describes the various patrons entering and exiting a medical clinic while waiting for Mirabelle to fill a prescription for anti-depressants, he is expressing just enough of LAs unique qualities without over-burdening the reader with an editorial rant. It is plainly obvious that Martin loves Los Angeles and it permeates the novel, making it better as a result.
The literary style is simple. Martin employs simple, flat sentences in the present tense to convey complex social and sexual politics with the keen eye of a seasoned social scientist. However, the narrative remains stolidly detached and non-judgmental. In fact, Martin manages to evoke empathy for all his characters by focusing on the universal complexities of human relationships. I found it easy to relate to both Ray and Mirabelle despite the fact that their lives have virtually nothing in common with my own.
This is an exquisite little novel.