Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company: Two Novellas by Steve Martin

Steve Martin has written screenplays (L.A. Story, Roxanne) and short stories. Under consideration in this review are two novellas.

A novella is the tween of fiction–neither a short story nor a novel, but having some qualities of each. It’s more complex than a short story and goes on longer to its conclusion. It’s shorter than a novel, as we’ve come to expect novels to be. Few writers can really pull off the novella, certainly in English. It is difficult to think of someone who really got it right. The Bertie and Jeeves novels by Wodehouse probably qualify; Joyce’s “The Dead,” the last entry in Dubliners, arguably is a novella-length short story. And so we are used to novel-length novels–anything shorter seems underdone. Maybe a novella is just a novel that the writer couldn’t quite flesh out.

Imagine Sister Carrie in Los Angeles c. 2000, at about 20 percent of the length of Dreiser, and you have Shopgirl. Mirabella works at the glove counter at Neiman Marcus, where she is discovered/preyed upon one day by the millionaire businessman (his business is never specified) Mr. Ray Porter. She wants someone to take her away from it all; he, twice her age, wants a delightful little thing to pass the time with. The plot recalls the film Pretty Woman, but with Richard Gere as he is now, and Julia Roberts as she was then–and without the Disney/Touchstone certainty of an eventual happy ending.

The novella dwells too much on intimate details, but it would have been even shorter without them, and thus a short story. Mirabella gets the most extensive character treatment; Ray Porter is a blank. Her parents have a few brief scenes and are stock figures–her father is a scarred Vietnam veteran, for goodness’ sake. This was one of the only real fits of laziness in Martin’s effort. Unlike Sister Carrie, it ends happily enough, as life comes back in a circle for Mirabella and she finds (rediscovers) the right man.

The Pleasure of My Company, on the other hand, is clearly a comic effort. It is told by Daniel Cambridge, who is either a genius or borderline mentally disabled. He sits in his apartment in Santa Monica all day, watching the world outside his window. He is obsessive-compulsive; he won’t step over a curb and so is limited in where he can walk by fortuitous driveways, which allow him to cross the street. Daniel finds himself getting involved with the social worker, Clarissa, who comes to see him, even though he had longingly desired the local realtor, Elizabeth, and the pharmacy clerk at Rite Aid. He does well in an essay contest in which he writes about being “the most average American”; on a lark, he writes two essays, and places in the contest under both his own name and the alias. Daniel’s grandmother in Texas supports him with regular checks. When she dies, Daniel and Clarissa go on a road trip to the homestead. His middle name is Pecan.

The narration recalls Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a memoir as told by someone with flat emotional responses. Only at the end do you find out that she was a clone. Daniel Cambridge’s true status never really is clarified. He mentions at the beginning that his application for Mensa was rejected and that his test clearly was scored wrong. You’re supposed to laugh at his presumption, since he is obviously so clueless, but at the end, he is told by Mensa that they had made a mistake after all. Martin cleverly lets Daniel’s actual performance remain a mystery.

The book is written without chapters, though there are odd little squiggles at various points to break up the text. It is impossible to tell whether any hierarchy is involved. There is extra space between the paragraphs, plainly in an effort to pad the book out to a respectable length.

Both these books are set in the shallow soil of Los Angeles, where no one is native and everyone is in need of a real connection. Both protagonists are from other, realer places: Vermont in Shopgirl; Texas in Company. Martin is probably being unfair to L.A., though others have had that reaction. He does not work hard enough, though, at showing the realness of life in the other states. They exist only to have a real place to go home to on a visit. Los Angeles is where the exciting living is done.

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