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.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


I got this movie from the library on a whim. I don't think it received much praise when it was released, because its ambitions are small, but it struck me as much more interesting than most movies that people gush about. The story is fairly simple: a young woman just out of college, bright but shy and without any particular direction, meets an older man at a wedding (he is the photographer) and is immediately taken with him. He is charming but in a realistic way rarely seen in the movies; he has no repartee at his fingertips. Most of his charm lies simply in the fact that he pays attention to her. As soon becomes apparent, he can sense with whom this brand of charm will be most effective.

The girl is largely out of step with her family, all of whom are lawyers and equally self-possessed and well-spoken. She is goofy and quiet and awkward. Sarah Polley, the actress who plays her, gives a strange but completely believable performance. You scratch your head occasionally at her choices -- like the hysterical giggles she lets loose the first time the photographer attempts to seduce her -- but as the movie goes on all of the elements seem to make sense together; it is an incredibly lifelike performance.

The movie proceeds in what may seem like a predictable pattern for a May-December romance movie, but unlike movies like Something's Gotta Give, whose point is largely to shame the older man for his immorality, and bring him back into the fold only if he has been well-chastised and is ready for a woman his own age, Guinevere realizes that the man does not exist only to be fixed. As the relationship proceeds, we discover along with the girl that the man is petty and childish, a serial seducer of young women, an alcoholic, and a putative Marxist who spouts rhetoric about class while sponging off other people - but also that something real still remains after his flaws have been revealed.

A more predictable movie would simply have denounced this man as a fraud, which he clearly is to some extent, and left it that. The grand conclusion would have been that the woman sees through him and leaves him behind, wiser for the experience. But to its credit, the movie realizes that the situation is not quite so simple. Like a book that seemed great when you were seventeen, the photographer exists to some extent to be gotten past; he helps bring his lovers up to a level where they can see through him. Even while his act is to some degree insincere (his seduction routine, for example, does not change from woman to woman) the awakening he promises them does take place, and the care he lavishes on them is genuine. To be outgrown, after all, can be an honorable thing; in people, for example, it might even be a form of sacrifice.

There are a few flaws: an unnecessary voiceover, for example, and some false notes in various scenes. The movie ends rather badly too. Unlike everything that has gone before, there is a feeling that this is not the way things would actually go. Too much that was already obvious is spelled out, and there is a dream sequence that seems silly instead of a fitting conclusion. But it does not really ruin anything. Guinevere, like few movies that I have seen recently, is worth talking about with people; it resists summing up.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

To Each His Own, by Leonardo Sciascia

I read an article recently in the Boston Globe about an Afghan warlord who was one of America's allies towards the beginning of the war. He would report the position of various enemy forces and the Americans would go and bomb them. Eventually it became clear that he was just calling in airstrikes against enemy warlords and other rivals, and that any number of people who were not Taliban forces had been killed - including, apparently, guests at a wedding who were connected to someone that this guy happened to dislike.

After Karzai appointed a new governer in the region, the warlord - his name is Pacha Khan Zadran - started attacking government forces, including American soldiers. People that allegedly worked for him were captured and sent to Guantanamo - some, in fact, while he was still considered an American ally. Eventually, he was classified as an enemy and then, when it was decided that his support was necessary to stabilize the country, pardoned and made part of the government. Two of his alleged hirelings are still in Guantanamo - it is unclear what if any role they played in the attacks - and he lives in a mansion with the protection of our government. One of the major charges against the men still being held is that they have connections to him!

What do you do when you read stories like this, along with reports of accidentally gunning down families at roadblocks and people fishing by the river? What's an adequate response to the immensity of these injustices, especially in a war with so little justification? I have been thinking recently that American writers still haven't figured out how to convert the rage and bitterness that many people have felt over the last half dozen years into any sort of art. To Each His Own is the rare book that feels like a true artistic response to such massive institutional crimes. Unsurprisingly, Sciascia comes from Italy, the only Western country with a government that has been more corrupt than America's for the past few years, although mercifully with a smaller body count. I suspect it was as bad or worse in the 60s and 70s, when he wrote most of his books.

I discovered Sciascia through a list my friend made on The Powdered Wig. His book is very short, less than two hundred pages, and begins like an ordinary crime novel: a fairly unremarkable pharmacist receives a death threat saying that he will have to atone for a past crime, doesn't take it seriously, and is then killed along with a friend of his while they are hunting. People (mostly men) talk about the murder and spin out various webs of conjecture, then largely forget about it and move on to politics and other subjects. One man, a professor, something of a misfit inside these chattering groups, thinks he has a clue to the crime. Slowly, as he talks to various people (the book is filled with talking) he thinks he sees what was really going on with the murders.

No brilliant sleuthing is done, and the things he finds out many people already know. Unlike other detective novels, there is no great ingenuity in the crime. But there is something about Sciascia's book that gives it an emotional power and a feeling of greatness that most mysteries do not even aim for. I think its power lies in the fact that, as the professor conducts his desultory researches, the novel slowly takes in the entire society and, finally, implicates it in the crime, even as very few people are revealed to be guilty of anything.

Most mystery novels - as befits the increasingly atomistic life led in the countries where such books are produced - have a small cast of separate characters, each of whom is a potential suspect; they may have some connections to each other, but they are isolated and examined like specimens. Such books are not written out of the life of a society, as most of the great 19th century novels were. Modern novels do not show individuals against such a backdrop because such unified communities rarely exist anymore, even in rural areas. Sicily, at least when Sciascia wrote, still had the feeling of the sort of traditional communities that George Eliot or Hardy depicted and, as with those writers, this novel's power comes largely from the isolation of the main character from the society that surrounds him, a society that reveals itself in the end to be shot through with hypocrisy and corruption.