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Ring It Up

SHOPGIRL A Novel By Steve Martin; Hyperion: 130 pp., $17.95

October 22, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

Mirabelle is the shopgirl of Steve Martin's first novel, "Shopgirl," a glove girl to be precise, who works in the Siberia of the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus, far from the pulsating heart of couture and perfumes where "the various scents that have been sprayed throughout the day onto waiting customers have collected into strata. . . . So Mirabelle, at five-six, always smells Chanel number 5, while someone at 5-foot-2 is always treated to the heavier Chanel number 19."

At 28, Mirabelle "has a long thin body, two small dark eyes, and a small red mouth. She also dresses like Olive Oyl, in fitted clothes--never a fluffy, girly dress--and she holds herself like Ms. Oyl, too, in a kind of jangle." A transplanted Vermonter, Mirabelle drives a pickup, lives in Silver Lake with two cats, draws in charcoal (occasionally selling her work to middling galleries) and suffers from a depression that is kept at bay only by the assiduous application of a rotating battery of medications.

Mirabelle leads a life defined by a pair of half-hearted friends, Loki and Del Rey; a jealous siliconed co-worker named Lisa; and occasional flings with the likes of the monosyllabic sound man, Jeremy. Gallery openings, brunch and Garrison Keillor are the high points on her emotional prairie, until the day that Ray Porter, a 50-year-old millionaire, enters the glove department and invites her out to dinner.

And so begins a flirtation that tumesces into an affair and, eventually, a novella, before deflating, as all good things must.

There are several Martins at work on "Shopgirl." One is the highbrow love child of Woody Allen and Dorothy Parker, observing two demoiselles at their salades: "If Immanuel Kant had stumbled across this luncheon after his noon Beverly Hills shrink appointment, he would have quickly discerned that Lisa is all phenomena and no noumena, and that Mirabelle is all noumena and no phenomena." This Martin is the clown we've known for 25 years, slightly more sophisticated (but not much) than his comic persona, wondering wide-mouthed at the farcical intersections his little characters seem to draw within the confines of this L.A. story.

The other Martin is the frosty-haired, slightly ironic, slightly jaded student of the sexual roundelays of modern America. This perspective is behind the camera, slightly above and slightly to the right of the actors, taking in more of the world and the future than can the characters with their puny senses. Here is the auteur on his hero Ray a few minutes after the first date:

"He had called her from his car phone with an invitation for Thursday not only because he liked her but also because there is a riddle in his mind. Upon reflection, he cannot tell if the surface he glimpsed under Mirabelle's blouse was her skin or a flesh-colored nylon under thing. As he weighs the evidence, he decides that it had to be a nylon under thing as what he saw was too uniform, too perfect, too balanced in color to be skin. On the other hand, if it was her skin, then she possesses his particular intoxicant, a heady milk bath he can submerge himself in, and soak in, and drown in. He knows that this riddle will probably not be solved on Thursday, but without it, there will be no Saturday, which is the next logical step in its solution."

And yet, for all its knowingness, "Shopgirl" is warm-hearted in its belief that both Mirabelle and Ray--even in the most unworkable depths of their future-less affair--are willfully blind to the impermanence of their relationship. There is also something wonderfully dishonest about the book. While "Shopgirl" seems on the surface to be the story of Mirabelle, slightly lower--at the lower depths, perhaps, where the truth of Chanel No. 19 lurks--"Shopgirl" is all about Ray. Or more precisely, "Shopgirl" is about 50-year-old guys--not-so-wild, not-so-crazy--in the same way David Mamet's play "Oleanna" was about the sexual politics of contemporary university life and, ultimately, all about the guy.

Martin delivers the guy's story with a style that leaps across months with great assurance while--except for the occasional slapstick lapses when he has to remind his readers of his vaudeville origins--maintaining its sophisticated posture. "Shopgirl" reads as smoothly and pleasurably as the novels of the late W.M. Spackman, whose "An Armful of Warm Girl" easily won the prize 25 years ago for best title of a novel about foolish 50-year-old men.

"Shopgirl" is acute and painful in its observations about predatory middle-age myopia and the vulnerability of its under-30 victims. And yet, there is something missing that leaves a feeling that the book is slighter than it could be. The observations ultimately seem to exist for their own sakes, like the Prada dresses that Lisa worships as long as they hang on mannequins. One senses that Martin wrote "Shopgirl" from passion and then stylishly disguised that passion--so much so that his Ray Porter pulses with no more personality than a stand-in. And his poor Olive Oyl of a shopgirl is left standing behind her counter, waiting for human hands to warm her gloves.

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