S is for Steve Martin

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My S is for Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin. He of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Jerk fame. According to the internet he’s written no less than three, which I thought was pretty impressive, probably more so because I’d only heard of Shopgirl. Of course, this will come as no surprise to Steve Martin fans, who will know that he’s written a lot of scripts, including Three Amigos and The Man with two brains. (Thank you, imdb)

Shopgirl is the story of Mirabelle, a girl who works in the glove section of a department store in Los Angeles. She keeps herself to herself, although her inner monologue reveals someone who wishes she could create and maintain the kind of relationships she sees everyone around her having. Her friends appear to be disinterested, even cold, as they constantly forget about her. They even neglect her on Thanksgiving, after they made plans. I felt sorry for her, but it’s difficult to know how much is the way she portrays it, simply because it’s told from her point of view.

However, there’s a strong sense, from my point of view anyway, that she could make her life better by just being ‘normal’. This is probably not as sympathetic as I could be, considering the girl’s on heavy duty anti-depressants, but I couldn’t help feeling that a short, sharp “buck up” would have helped.

Mirabelle gets involved in a relationship with an older man called Ray Porter, who I predictbly envisioned as Steve Martin. He’s described as trim, graying and rich. He’s also besotted with Mirabelle, which makes for interesting reading. Martin is able to write from a woman’s point of view with apparent ease – none of Mirabelle’s thoughts jarred with me and I even identified with some of them. One criticism of the tone is that there wasn’t enough difference between Mirabelle’s internakl dialogue, and Ray’s. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt at showing the reader how similar they were internally. Maybe it was to show that everyone feels like Mirabelle, on the inside, at least. The other possibility, of course, is that Steve Martin isn’t particularly good at changing tone for his characters.

If I had to describe the overall tone of the book in one word it would be: wistful. There’s a sense of loss, of missed opportunities and faded memories throughout the book from all of the characters, which I found hard to shake off once I’d finished. This, by the way, did not take me long – it’s a slip of a thing at barely 160 pages long. Despite it’s brevity, I don’t think the plot suffered.

I have to say; perhaps because I imagined Ray Porter as Steve Martin, I found the matter of fact sex scenes slightly uncomfortable. Ray’s basically innocent daydreams of a square inch of Mirabelle’s skin, glimpsed through a gap in her blouse, didn’t sit as well as they could have done when Inspector Clouseau’s narrating. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t disgusting or anything, but I definitely found the odd use of profanities, especuially sexual ones, more shocking coming from Steve Martin’s mouth.

Shopgirl wasn’t all doom and gloom – there were darkly comic bits too. Mirabelle has a cat which lives under her sofa, as it’s too shy to come out. The conversations between Ray and Mirabelle are comical too, as they’re an exaggerated version of chats that men and women have been having for centuries, where neither party gets the message properly.

I suppose one of the main questions that Shopgirl asked of me was: should she be pitied for her loneliness or envied for her independence? I would be inclined to say that she pitied herself for her loneliness, and this pity prevented her from seeing the good in her independence, and crippled her socially so she could not forge new relationships.

As you may know, there’s a film version of Shopgirl, which may well be another reason I identified Steve Martin as Ray Porter. I actually haven’t seen it yet, but I’d probably say that it’s worth taking a couple of hours more to read the book first, and then watch the film.

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