Moonlighting Celebrities Novelize Consumer Culture

Mall , by Eric Bogosian. Simon & Schuster, 246 pages, $23.

hopgirl , by Steve Martin. Hyperion, 130 pages, $17.95.

We doubt the dabblers, the dilettantes–and that goes double for celebrities. Who can take completely seriously the actor who wants to direct, the singer who wants to be a movie star? We raise an eyebrow, we exchange knowing looks: We condescend to the ambitions of people of enormous talent.

Eric Bogosian and Steve Martin are performers, of course, but they are also writers. Mr. Bogosian has written not only the solo performances that are the core of his work but also three pretty good plays, two of which were turned into movies from his screenplays. Mr. Martin has written screenplays and a play of his own, and he writes trifles–”casuals”–for The New Yorker that seem to have found an audience. There ought to be nothing inherently suspect, then, about these two famous folk taking stabs at long-form fiction.

But both men struggle palpably in making the transition from essentially oral forms to full-blown narrative. Each writes perfect-pitch dialogue and makes sharp observations, but that’s not enough to make a good novel. Only Mr. Bogosian manages, after a fitful start, to breathe life into his fictional world. Mr. Martin’s book is stillborn.

Mall , Mr. Bogosian’s novel, opens with a series of character sketches very reminiscent of his solo stage work. There and here, his characters scare us with their intensity, which is the Bogosian genius. Wariness and fear displace our usual reactions–pity, sympathy, laughter–to people at the margins of modern life. We meet his characters’ rage with terror and hate of our own, and this surprises and distresses us.

Mr. Bogosian introduces the novel’s protagonists one by one. They are trying by any means available to move off the catatonic suburban grid. You fear, in the book’s early pages, that each will be merely a type, a symbol for a vice–crystal meth, or acid, or sexual transgression, or megaviolence. And you fear that Mr. Bogosian will fail to have them engage each other or their toxic environment.

But the book quickly advances from these static vignettes. Working in vivid but flatfooted and uncertain prose that improves measurably as the book moves along, Mr. Bogosian sets his malcontents in motion toward one another. The result is wonderfully cinematic. In Hollywood, you would say it’s Magnolia meets Natural Born Killers meets Die Hard . In a shopping mall!

The suburban mall is an unholy place, and Mr. Bogosian brims with revulsion for it. In general: “Scented candle shops, lingerie shops, hot cookie shops, Disney shops–inhuman crap for the masses.” In a bookstore: ” South Park T-shirts and posters, novelties in mesh bags, coffee-table books on gardening or the castles of Scotland, greeting cards, remainders stacked and stickered with large red sale tags, out-of-date semierotic bikini calendars, cute dog calendars, Filofax inserts, pencils and pens, jigsaw puzzles, incense, candles, posters of teen idols. No books.” (You bet, though, that you’d find Steve Martin’s new novel in such a bookstore, which is one of the reasons you doubt it’s a real book.)

Mall goes astray when Mr. Bogosian attempts to portray two characters not consumed by their vices: a noble black security guard with a past and a teenager who likes to read Hermann Hesse. The problem is that the author likes them, and the kindly Bogosian is not the best Bogosian.

The teenager, Jeff, seems to be a stand-in for young Eric Bogosian, who grew up in Woburn, Mass., and wasted his youth at the Burlington Mall. There is a similar character, also named Jeff, in his play subUrbia . Mr. Bogosian, who is a poet of drugs, a lucid William Burroughs, is particularly good at rendering Jeff’s acid-trip reflections.

The violence in Mall escalates to Schwarzeneggerian levels. Mr. Bogosian’s loving and not especially ironic descriptions of guns and ammunition are a little disturbing, which is probably what the author intends. The shootouts and massacres are easy to follow; if the book were a movie, you would say the action was well-directed. Mall is as exciting and disturbing as Pulp Fiction was the first time you saw it.

An upscale department store is the backdrop for many scenes in Shopgirl , but there’s no gunplay, sadly, and it’s neither exciting nor disturbing. Steve Martin is an aesthete who runs cool where Eric Bogosian runs hot. Mr. Martin’s prose is refined and controlled, and it yields some lovely sentences. But it’s also dotted with self-conscious misfires. It reads like the work of an autodidact.

Shopgirl is meant to be a satire, I suppose, but it is a flaccid and all-too-sympathetic satire, a satire that celebrates Los Angeles even as it pokes fun at it. It reminds me in this respect of Mr. Martin’s film L.A. Story .

The shopgirl in question is Mirabelle, who works in the glove department at Neiman’s, and if she despairs it is not because of the emptiness of the consumer culture. She likes objects well enough. But she pines for love. She is plain and helpless, and in making her the center of his book Mr. Martin has set himself a challenge he cannot meet. Mirabelle is as unengaging as Mr. Martin says she is.

Mirabelle meets a millionaire whom Mr. Martin irritatingly keeps referring to as “Mr. Ray Porter” or “Mr. Porter.” Porter is a classy womanizer who seduces Mirabelle and, for no good reason, ends up falling for her.

Luxury items and seduction are the main themes here. Mr. Martin, a dandy, knows his way around fancy clothes. His affectionate and detailed descriptions of them put you in mind of Bret Easton Ellis and, as in Mr. Ellis’ work, there are problems of perspective and tone.

Mr. Martin also seems to know his way around seduction–at least he writes about affairs as a tour guide might write about landmarks. His asides on the subject violate the novelist’s show-don’t-tell rule repeatedly, fundamentally and flagrantly. One wonders whether Mr. Martin has gone woozy in his liberation from the screenwriter’s general inability to comment directly on the action in a film. These asides are to the narrative what voice-overs are to film. They suggest a godlike Steve Martin gazing down with pity on the puny creatures he has casually invented.

Here is an example: “Mirabelle is not sophisticated enough to understand what is happening to her, and Ray Porter is not sophisticated enough to know what he is doing to her. She is falling in love, and she fully expects her love to be returned once Mr. Porter comes to his senses.” Here’s more, from near the end: “She has learned that her body is precious and it mustn’t be offered carelessly ever again, as it holds a direct connection to her heart.”

The author takes up the issue of Mirabelle’s poverty. It’s not clear whether Mr. Martin’s fascination with people who must think before they pay $3.50 and a tip to use valet parking is sympathetic or something else, but he returns to the impossibility of living on a shopgirl’s wages again and again. I guess we should be glad for this social realism.

Except for a few jokey asides consistent with the characters’ thoughts, Shopgirl does not mean to be funny, and that may disappoint some readers. (You would think, though, that they would be disappointed in Mr. Martin’s New Yorker casuals too, which differ in the funniness department only in aspiration.)

One likes a novel to end quietly, with a kind of sad finality. If it’s any good at all, you linger in that little echo of mortality for a moment before moving on to the next thing.

These two books conclude with acknowledgments, and both authors thank a brace of agents. It’s like watching the credits roll at the end of a movie; it reminds you how easy it is for dabblers to lose their way. You forgive Mr. Bogosian his missteps, because on the whole his book works; it grabs you. Mr. Martin’s featherweight exercise is another matter.

Adam Liptak is a lawyer at The New York Times.