Friday, August 06, 2004

The pleasure of his company

I've been denying myself the pleasure of reading lately, because time is limited and responsibilities are many.

For more than a week, the only books on my nightstand were the ones I've had trouble cracking for years: Ulysses, Dianetics, A History of Islam — slim chance of a breakthrough. I deliberately put off the periodic "clearing and reshuffling," wherein I invariably rediscover that fabulous novel I picked up last year and never got 'round to.

How hard it was to resist temptation when a shipment of books I'd ordered arrived on Monday. Fortunately among that treasure was one slim volume I justified in setting apart from the heap, setting it up as my reward after a hard day's work.

The Pleasure of My Company, by Steve Martin (reviewed here).

Slim, but so satisfying. Smart and funny.

Comparisons to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time are inevitable, and in my view, Martin's is the superior book. It's . . . lighter — in the sense that it lifts you up, fills you with joy and light.

While Haddon's narrator is autistic, Martin's is obsessive–compulsive — a shade closer to this side of normal. For this reason, and because he's an adult, with a grasp on human relationships (though tenuous at times), Martin's character is the more sympathetic.

The novella has an uncomplicated plot; mostly we rattle about inside Daniel's head, inside his apartment, while he examines his love-life, complicated by his neuroses.

His need for love, for any sort of human connection, is at war with his desire for stasis, for an "utter motionless life" that will keep the clamouring world well beyond arm's length.

The only valid negative criticism of this book is that my hardcover has a misprint on page 96: the "new" magic square is in fact a copy of the previous one, with an alleged new component obviously missing.

Elinor Lipman summarizes the high points well.

Martin's tone never falters. When he describes Daniel it is through the fun-house lens of his character's weird and wonderful eye: "I can be physically appealing," Daniel tells us. "Plus I'm clean. Clean like I've just been car-washed and then scrubbed with a scouring pad and then wrapped in palm fronds infused with ginger."

His love for Elizabeth Warner, a rental agent who works Daniel's Santa Monica turf, gives new meaning to "unrequited." He is patient and hopeful, reminding us that "there was a time when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton had never met, yet it doesn't mean they weren't, in some metaphysical place, already in love."

Best of all, The Pleasure of My Company made me laugh out loud, when I really needed it. Laughter! Lesson learned: denying myself the pleasure of reading isn't good for anybody.

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