Book review: Shopgirl

I am a fan of the old Steve Martin. The SNL/L.A. Story/"The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!" Steve Martin. I don't get the New Yorker pieces, and the thicket of hype was too thick around Lapin Agile to entice me into seeing or even reading it.

I picked up my copy of Shopgirl, the book, years after it was first published; this particular softcover had an inside cover price of one dollar when I picked it up at a Salvation Army store on the West L.A. And I walked around with it for a bit before I committed even to that.

It was its heft that was the deciding factor. Shopgirl is a slip of a novel, a novella, as the cover proclaims, slight and ever-so-slightly precious, like most self-proclaimed novellas. It feels good in the hand, though, much like I imagine the gloves that introduce its two main characters must feel.

It is undeniably elegant on the inside as well, both in its faintly-stilted prose and the strange, spare atmosphere it conjures up. Shopgirl evokes a Los Angeles more like the one depicted in 1950s L.A. Confidential than the post-millenial version I tool through daily. The archetypes are modern, but they feel quaint, like girdled Suzy Parkers instead of juicy Carmen Electras.

It's not so much that the characters are unreal as it is they are remote, real seen through glass, real seen from one cool remove. What the novel(la) did more than anything was make me want to see the movie; I want to see actors inhabit these characters and bring them to life because I could not connect with them on the page: this Seattle millionaire, this alt.rockboy, this Silver Lake artist/shopgirl. Everything is a clean, sleek surface, with no grubby human bits to grab onto.

Steve Martin has the dark side down, like most funny people. He sketches out a sad, beautiful, believable story of two people running up hard against their limitations. But like Capote, a film I reviewed here recently, it's curiously unaffecting given what the characters are going through. I suspect Martin is a fan of order, and imposes it where he can, thinking the discipline serves the storytelling.

But it's the mess that makes a good story interesting. A writer can clean it up; a writer and director and editor can't.

Which is why I enjoyed reading Shopgirl. But I can't wait to see it.


Buy Shopgirl, the book, on Amazon.
Buy Shopgirl, the DVD, on Amazon.

UPDATE: Marilyn & Neil brought up the whole book-vs-movie thing in the comments, which reminded me that this rare movie-being-better-than-book thing has happened to me before, with Sideways, a delightful film which turned out to be much more tedious and blathery and self-indulgent in book form:

  • My review of the film Sideways.
  • My review of the book Sideways.

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