by Steve Martin

Published by Hyperion

130 pages, 2000

Buy it online


Not Just A Pretty Face

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


When I first got word of Shopgirl and saw the author's name, I did not for one second consider the possibility that the "Steve Martin" in question could possibly be the same one who has made me laugh so much throughout the years. Honestly. To my embarrassment, the thought didn't even cross my mind. I figured it had to be one of those deals like the Robin Williams who writes those wonderful Macintosh and computer design books -- and who is in no way related to the comedian. Or the Michael Richards who is sales manager for this magazine but who doesn't look, sound or act like the Michael Richards who was Seinfeld's buddy Kramer on the hit television show for so many years. So, Steve Martin and fiction? Who would have thought?

Of course, the novella Shopgirl was, in fact, written by that Steve Martin. And as it turns out, that's not the most surprising part. The fact is, Steve Martin the actor and comedian and all around goofy guy can write. More: he writes tightly and with confidence. Nor is it a funny novel. That's not to say it isn't humorous: sometimes it is. But Shopgirl isn't ha-ha, sidesplitting funny. Rather, Martin's book is gently peppered with the type of dark humor that permeates real life.

Shopgirl is the work of a mature, self-possessed writer. Even the novella length says this quite plainly. It would not have been very difficult to push Shopgirl into the sort of length that is generally considered synonymous with book-length fiction. A longer, more detailed telling would, however, have weakened this tight little tale.

The shopgirl in question is Mirabelle, a 28-year-old wannabe artist who can't quite rip herself from the regimented safety and dullness of the glove department at Neiman's in order to pursue her art. In the opening line of the book, Martin tells us that, "When you work in the glove department at Neiman's, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore." A sentiment that neatly captures that essence of Mirabelle's ennui. Lonely and quietly unfulfilled, Mirabelle suffers from depression that, "was first set in the bow in Vermont, where she grew up, and fired as a companion arrow that has traveled with her ever since."

Early in the novel, Mirabelle meets 26-year-old slacker Jeremy at a Laundromat, "the least noir dating arena on earth." Despite some desultory dating, their relationship is not matter-of-course:

Jeremy and Mirabelle are separated by a hundred million miles of vacuum space. He falls asleep at night in blissful ignorance. She, subtly doped on her prescription, time-travels through the terrain of her unconscious until she is overcome by sleep. He knows only what is right in front of him; she is aware of every incoming sensation that glances obliquely against her soft, fragile core. At this stage of their lives, in true and total fact, the only thing they have in common is a Laundromat.

Just as Mirabelle is wondering what she's doing wasting her time on someone who stencils speakers for a living and whose conversations are largely conducted in monosyllables, she begins to be pursued by a Ray Porter, successful businessman roughly twice her age.

His interest in Mirabelle comes from the part of him that still believes he can have her without obligation.... He believes that in this affair, what is given back and forth will be exactly even, and that they will both see the benefits they are receiving. But because he picked Mirabelle out by sight alone, he fails to see that her fragility, which he smelled and sensed and is lured by, runs deep in her heart and is part of her nature, and cannot be separated out for him to fuck.

There's nothing new under the sun and the bones of the story that Martin tells has been told in many ways many times before. The classic triangle, this time containing the callow youth, the waifish girl and the well-to-do older man. Yet Martin infuses his story with a dark verve that is his own. The author's tone is at once blasé and gentle and in the novella's 130 pages, he quietly presents us with a cast of characters that it's difficult not to care about. | November 2000

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.