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Shopgirl: A Novella




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About the book:

Shopgirl is comedian Steve Martin's first foray into fiction, and manages to be as assured as it is surprising, coming from the usually zany Martin. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, its fascination with the surreal body fascism of upper-class America feels like familiar Martin territory, but the shopgirl of the book's title is the figure that will surprise Martin fans. Mirabelle Buttersfield works in the glove department of Neimans, "selling things that nobody buys any more". Spending her days waiting for customers to appear, Mirabelle "looks like a puppy standing on its hind legs, and the two brown dots of her eyes, set in the china plate of her face, make her seem very cute and noticeable". Lonely and vulnerable, Mirabelle spends her evenings taking prescription drugs and drawing "dead things", while pursuing an on-off relationship with the hopeless Jeremy, who possesses "a slouch so extreme that he appears to have left his skeleton at home". Then Mr Ray Porter steps into Mirabelle's life. He is much older, rich, successful, divorced, and selfish, desiring Mirabelle "without obligation". Complicating the picture is Mirabelle's voracious rival in the opposite sex, her fellow Neimans shopgirl Lisa, who uses sex "for attracting and discarding men".

The mutual incomprehension, psychological damage and sheer vacuity practised by all four of Martin's characters sees Shopgirl veer rather uncomfortably between a comedy of manners and a very black comedy. There are some startling passages of description and interior monologue, but the characters are often rather hazy "types". Martin tries too hard in his attempt to write a psychologically intense novel about west coast America, but Shopgirl is still an enjoyable, if rather light read. --Jerry Brotton

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