Steve Martin’s first foray into fiction is as assured as it is surprising. Set in Los Angeles, its fascination with the surreal body fascism of the upper classes feels like the comedian’s familiar territory, but the shopgirl of the book’s title may surprise his fans. Mirabelle works in the glove department of Neiman’s, “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, she passes 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 her “without obligation.” Complicating the picture is Mirabelle’s voracious rival, her fellow Neiman’s employee Lisa, who uses sex “for attracting and discarding men.”
The mutual incomprehension, psychological damage, and sheer vacuity practiced by all four of Martin’s characters sees Shopgirl veer rather uncomfortably between a comedy of manners and a much darker work. 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 anomie, but Shopgirl is still an enjoyable, if rather light, read.