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The Man With Two Brains--and Two Careers

Steve Martin's new novella plumbs the depths of an interior romance.

October 08, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the late 1950s C.P. Snow wrote a little book called "The Two Cultures," in which he delineated the essential differences between science and the liberal arts (my copy has a nice drawing of a nuclear explosion on it). The chasm between these two cultures is a sliver compared to the gulf between Hollywood and Literature. To have a foot in each of these worlds is to care little for the vulnerable parts of your anatomy.

Steve Martin, though, doesn't think it's all that bad. He publishes regularly in the New Yorker and has written several plays and a collection of short pieces called "Pure Drivel." His new novella, "Shopgirl," (Hyperion) is a rich, pure, interior story about two people who fall in love. "Shopgirl" draws so mightily on Martin's carefully conceived belief in the subconscious that it is at once familiar and revealing. It has the optimism, the fable qualities of Hollywood and the beacon-through-the-storm-clouds qualities of literary myth.

"Here, people are generous," Martin says, a little surprisingly, over lunch at the Farm in Beverly Hills. "Not judgmental in the way that people in the literary world can be." He talks about Hollywood the way a gentleman talks about an ex-wife, but admits to feeling not entirely confident in the literary world either. He refers to the point 10 years ago when his play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," opened in Chicago as a turning point in his life, "a door opening."

Prior to our chat, Martin has pushed the crossword puzzle, about one-third finished, annotated, with little slots and letters in the margins, off to the side. For the next two hours, at the little table in the corner on the porch, we inhabit a small but crowded country.

"The real struggle is in learning how to access the artistry inside of you. At one point, 'Shopgirl' was not words. It was not feelings. It was untranslatable. Here's what I love more than anything," he says. "It's not knowing what a thing is going to be. I found things, writing this book, that I didn't know I knew. I was stunned by what I was able to dredge up. And in many ways, it's still coming to me, it's still taking shape in my mind. You feel there's a lesson, but you just don't know what it is. Is it a portrait of loneliness? No. You see, when something is completely known, it's dead."

I had thought it would be good, for the sake of novelty, to do something with Martin besides just talk. I don't know, go shopping, take a walk. But after reading the novella, all you want to do is talk to the guy. Door opening is a good way to put it; it's like he's written a key. That vast territory inside us stretches out--canyons, riverbeds sprout from the chemistry of closeness with other people. You want to pay attention to everything unspoken, and not necessarily act on it.

You wonder how he could know so much about the way Mirabella, the 27-year-old artist who sells gloves for a living at Neiman Marcus, thinks. She's an unmanipulative person who has to take various drugs for debilitating depression. She's lonely but OK until she meets Ray Porter, a very wealthy businessman in his 50s who is, how to say it, playing the field.

"There's a painting in the Tate, late 19th century," Martin says, "of a sick child with a doctor attending her and a distraught mother. Everything is totally clear. It didn't make it into the next century because it was so clear. It's the enigmatic ones, the ones you don't know quite what happens in them, those are the ones that last.

"I don't know why I'm so affected by this story of Ray and Mirabella. There is a feeling that came over me of moving to the next level. There's the girl who's right for you. There's the girl who's trouble."

There is very little dialogue in the book and very little plot, in part because Martin wanted to keep it interior. What there is--for example, on Mirabelle and Ray's first date at a fancy Los Angeles restaurant--has a comedian's sure pitch and timing. "Little events have to happen," he says, "but they are the hardest for me to write." It is true that in the book, the actions are much slower than the thoughts, more obvious. He remembers a point where Ray says something to Mirabelle that makes her collapse inside. It pained Martin to have to spell out what Ray said because the important thing was that it caused this interior collapse in Mirabelle's soul, but he did.

"If there is a moral in this book," he says, almost reluctantly, "it is this: Understand when you approach someone what it is you really want. This will dictate your behavior. Ray Porter wants to understand but he is out of sync. He fools himself and her into a two-year relationship."

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