Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Pleasure of My Company, Steve Martin, 2003, Read by Steve Martin, Books on Tape, Inc.

Steve Martin pisses me off. It wasn’t enough that he was a success as a standup and on Saturday Night Live. While I personally am incapable of finding The Jerk funny (or The Man With Two Brains for that matter), he’s had some box office success in a variety of roles. His humor columns in The New Yorker are always a delight, and the collection of them Pure Drivel was an excellent slender volume hailed by the critics. When I heard he was taking up fiction writing, I groaned inwardly, partly out of fear it would be novelistic variations on his more dorky schtick and partly from knowing how good a writer he can be.

His first novel (or novella, if you will) Shopgirl was excellent and surprisingly tender and knowing about the female protagonist. Many male authors couldn’t write believable or three dimensional female characters if their nuts were in a vise. Women have proven better at grasping the male psyche, though women’s novels tend to show no lack of dirtbags, psychotics, control freaks, and infantile mammary worshippers (are we all really like that, ladies?).

The Pleasure of My Company was somewhat of a letdown in many ways after Shopgirl. This is not to detract from the novel’s strengths, nor to deny that this book is funnier than Shopgirl, nor even a pining for Shopgirl 2: Return of Ray. Partly the reason is that Shopgirl was such a stunning debut that any second novel was going to lack that same oomph in its delivery. Partly the reason is the Pleasure contains so many familiar elements in Martin’s later work. And partly the reason is some of the book's weaker spots.

All of which sounds like the review is winding up to be a diss of the book. It’s not. The Pleasure of My Company is an excellent read. Like his previous efforts, the book is short and can be read in one sitting. It’s an old saw of fiction, a holdover from the Greek’s notion that a play should tell the events of one day, I think, that a good novel can be read in one sitting. One can only imagine the marathon session necessary to get through A Man of No Qualities or The Lord of the Rings. While Pleasure has none of the epic scope of those books, it’s brevity is part of its charm.

Shortly, it tells the story of Daniel Pecan Cambridge , a loner who begins the novel by telling us that his entry to Mensa was denied based on what he believed was faulty grading of his test. “My score came back missing a digit. Where was the one that should have been in front of the ninety?” he asks. With this clerical error, we are introduced to the obsessive-compulsive narrator of the book who has romantic fixations on three women. He manages to lose two of them and unexpectedly gain one. Along the way, he is attacked by his psychologist’s ex-husband, he wins a “Most Average American” essay writing contest sponsored by a pie company, and every other facet of his life is destroyed and restructured.

While all the events taking place save a few in the novel are relatively small in the scope of a normal person’s life, Daniel is far from normal. Obsessive-compulsives seem to have experienced a small arts and entertainment boomlet over the last few years. The currently missing Spalding Gray seems to have been the grandfather of the obsessive character, birthing them out of his monologues. David Sedaris has provided us with a glimpse inside his childhood tics, Tony Shaloub turns in a highly mannerist performance as TV’s detective Monk, and now Steve Martin’s novel.

While Daniel is more sympathetic than some portrayals of such characters (and non-obsessive-compulsives tend to write about such characters with a more genial spirit, almost viewing them as charming idiot-savants, while those with the disorder write about themselves as nearly tormented by the disease and mocked and loathed by those around them for it), his disorders seem to be rather easily surmounted. Certainly there are setbacks and there are complications, but like most of Steve Martin’s likable characters, they eventually triumph—even if it is decidedly small “t” triumphs.

As a reader, Martin is able to draw on his stage and screen skills to deliver a very nice even-toned voice. His readings don’t shine nor do they grate. He has managed the shy person’s trick of being both there and not-there at the same time. The effect of listening to the novel is the same as you’d get after a agreeable though not electrifying meal—satiated but almost unable to remember any distinct impressions of the meal. This has the pleasurable side-effect of making Martin’s readings of his writings infinitely relistenable, as you are constantly struck by the feeling that you must have missed something the last time around. As of this writing, I’ve listened to Shopgirl three times, Pleasure once, and Pure Drivel more times than I can count.

Like Shopgirl, Pleasure is about a loner who somehow breaks out of the self-constructed shell and finally begins to live in earnest. Martin’s novels seem to be comedies of the classic sense that end with pairings and happiness and you really wouldn’t want it any other way. His endings are always a bit unexpected, the looked-for happiness coming at you obliquely, but there is a satisfaction in their peculiarity. The common themes of isolation, shyness, ceiling tile fixations are by now common territory for Martin’s readers, but if he keeps on producing such exquisite little novels, he will have eked out a promising little niche for himself.

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