Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Shopgirl, by Steve Martin

I didn't really like this book (or even think it was an interesting failure), so normally I wouldn't bother writing about it, but it presented an interesting comparison with Guinevere, which I wrote about a week ago. Both are about relationships between young, shy, confused girls (early 20s) and much older men in their 50s. Both girls eventually have artistic ambitions, both older men go after younger women compulsively and exclusively. But one was worthwhile and thought-provoking while the other was largely dishonest and, especially towards the end, truly awful. Also (not to imply any connections) one is set in San Francisco and the other in L.A., and one was written and directed by a young woman and the other by an old man, Steve Martin.

I picked up Shopgirl -- the audiobook, as read by the author -- because I like Steve Martin (see for example my review of Pennies from Heaven, which was apparently made entirely because of his support for the project) and because I thought it would be a good book for a long car ride. The book begins with a portrait of Mirabelle, who works at the glove counter of a fashionable department store in L.A. She is fairly solitary despite being attractive, because she is rather shy and suffers from chronic depression. The descriptions of how she experiences her depression, even while on medication -- the feeling of having the emotion moved and immobilized a small distance from her, but still always present somehow -- felt convincing. Martin has a feeling for prose, and sentence for sentence the book is never less than competent.

The book begins well enough. Mirabelle is incompetently courted by a slacker named Jeremy. There is a farcical scene of sex between them after Mirabelle calls him over simply to feel a body next to her at night. Martin pushes the jokes too far occasionally, but I can forgive this impulse.

Soon, unfortunately, Mirabelle's elderly admirer appears at the glove counter, and the book begins its long decline. It is never really funny again, but it does get a great deal nastier and increasingly unconvincing. The man, Ray Porter, courts Mirabelle and they go on a date. He is nice to her and takes her to fancy restaurants, which she appreciates. Something strange starts to happen right around here. The book had started from Mirabelle's perspective, but begins to focus more and more on what Ray Porter is thinking. Mirabelle, in fact, basically vanishes as a thinking person from the middle of the book. I knew that something was going haywire the first time the two of them have sex. No relationship can take place between people of drastically different ages without both of them having some thoughts about what time has done to each of their bodies. Guinevere tackled this obvious issue directly, but the author of Shopgirl decided that he would, instead, provide a rapturous description of Mirabelle's fine ass. She never seems to have any thoughts at all about the fact that Ray is more than twice her age.

Ray Porter in fact sleeps with younger women constantly and never has the slightest trouble with stamina or performance, despite the novel's single (honest) mention of the popping of his aging joints as he sits down on Mirabelle's futon. One gets the feeling that the author, for whatever reason, does not quite want to broach this subject. Instead, all we get are beautiful young women desiring desperately to sleep with Ray Porter, for reasons that are unclear. The novel is an excellent example of sentimental misogyny, where all the women in a novel can be depicted in the most humiliating and insulting fashion as long as a single deep female character exists to be respected. This is not quite the same thing, by the way, as the old virgin-whore mindset, because there is not a woman in this book who is not sexually available.

Here are some of the marks of this attitude. Every lovely woman we encounter who meets or hears of Ray Porter wants him, and their reward is not just rejection but humiliation. A woman trying to fellate Ray Porter cannot simply be turned away; she must be drunk and fall flat on her face as she goes for the belt buckle. The strange thing is that Martin reads these scenes with rather disturbing relish, in much the same way he describes the "twat" of another bimbo character who accidentally sleeps with the wrong man in attempting to get to, who else, Ray Porter. Sentimental misogyny (which, by the way, is far from limited to male authors) also prevents the single "deep" female character from seeming at all authentic. After the beginning of the book, Mirabelle vanishes as a person. When she actually starts getting lines again towards the end of the book, as in her speech on what makes an effective lie at a dinner party, they seem strange and out of nowhere.

The book is rather essayistic in style and contains several assessments of everyone's character and development, but it ignores every implication or plot development that might be less than consoling to the audience or the author. Everyone gets what they want, people change in huge ways for no particular reason, love and maturity are found in a paragraph or two. And as I reached the last tape of this novella, it struck me how a certain kind of sensitivity can be just another manifestation of vanity. Martin's exploration of Mirabelle's character finally seems less like an honest attempt to get to know her than a desire to show himself as an observant, sensitive man. It is like a seduction guide that shows you how to present yourself as deeply interested in someone's life purely as a means of getting your subject undressed.

No comments: