Before I begin this review, I have to take a minute to draw your attention to the absurd level of talent contained within the one Steve Martin. He is widely considered the funniest stand-up comic of all time (quite the label for a trade so unforgiving and harsh). Every movie I’ve ever seen of him I have absolutely adored. Every time he’s been on SNL (which is quite a lot) he’s been hysterical. His writing is entirely too good for someone who should’ve been otherwise occupied with a bustling film career. And as if all that weren’t enough, he’s now making quite a name for himself as a skilled banjo player. Is there anything this man can’t do? It’s just absurd.
Ah-hem, sorry- just had to get that out of my system. On to the review!
The Pleasure of My Company was my first exposure to Steve Martin’s serious feature-length works. Though I knew he had the ability to create beautiful character studies as I’ve seen Shopgirl I didn’t read the book it was based on so this is the first time. I was, to put it mildly, blown away.
I’m going to start by critiquing the main character himself since that is the focus of the story. Daniel Pecan Cambridge is a genius and, like many geniuses, his brain’s excess intelligence has limited the man himself. His particular form of limitation comes in the form of a rather extreme case of OCD. He counts, performs mathematical equations, lays out grids upon the world he sees, breaks down time into smaller, more sensible fractions. And he has used all of these abilities to impose a set of constrictions on himself so severe that he can barely stand to leave his apartment.
He has rules he uses to keep his mind- which would otherwise become so transfixed on the irrational nature of existence- occupied. He avoids curbs as their “illogical elevation” confounds him so the only places he can get to are ones that a circuitous walking route with scooped-out opposing driveways will lead him to. He keeps the bulb wattage in his apartment at a stable 1125 watts which requires a constant dance of turning on and off certain bulbs as he enters and exists rooms. He finds solace in creating magic squares- which are sort-of like a geniuses’ version of sudoku where instead of each row of three equaling 15 there are 16 rows adding up to 491,384. (Yeah, my brain hurt just looking at the thing.) But, as he points out, “my salvation, the making of the square, was so pointless; there was no person attached to it, no person to shut me out or take me in.”
Which enlightens us to the largest, most devastating consequence of his illness: a sense of loneliness so deep that you, the reader, feel it in your heart, as if it were your own. The words Martin uses to describe his melancholy are so soulful that I found myself often taking a breath as I read, trying to separate myself from the mind of this character who I so connected to. His thesis: "There are few takers for the quiet heart." Words so simple that I ached for young Daniel, praying that he would find a way to release himself from his prison.
There is one passage that sums up his fears, his beliefs and his realty perfectly that I just have to share with you: “I guessed that one day the restrictions I imposed on myself would end. But first, it seemed that my range of possible activities would have to iris down to zero before I could turn myself around. Then, when I was finally stoic and immobile, I could weigh and measure every exterior force and, slowly and incrementally, once again allow the outside in. And that would be my life.”
Coming from a place that dark it's amazing that Daniel is able to emerge but he does, and in the only way one can: human connection. He forms his relationships almost by accident, instinctually picking up on cues people give him, reading them and responding to them like a reflex. And because of the people he is surrounded by he is drawn into them, the messy quality of their lives, the idiosyncrasies of them. His neighbor who leads him to take his first few triumphant steps over a curb simply by addressing them as the inconsequential things he views them to be. His case manager who inadvertently creates the opportunity for him to instinctively rescue a child. And the one person who has the biggest impact on him- Teddy, a 2 year old too innocent, Dan concluded, to be corrupted by his craziness. "If, as the books say, my habits exist to keep demons at bay, what was the point of demonstrating them in front of someone who was so clearly not a demon? Who, in fact, was so clearly a demon's opposite?"
This is where all of those reviews labeling this book as gentle start to make sense. Because his resolution is anticlimactic, quiet. Found in the small moments where an immeasurable connection occurs. The tiny triumphs that seem so inconsequential in "real life". The space that exists between two people when they are just being. There's no grand epiphanies, no life-changing cataclysms- just the quiet existence of a man living life which is made striking by the lack of life we've seen him trapped in. It's a conclusion that many authors, filmmakers and creators fail to grasp and it struck me more deeply than most of the grand tales I've ever read.
Before I end, and I apologize for the length here, but I just have to say a couple of things about the writing itself. I found the narrative fascinating. This story could not possibly told in anything other than first person and while Daniel is clearly a reliable narrator he is not always telling the story linearly. There are the memories of the past which we need to make sense of the present, of course. But there are also the statements about future events which have not yet happened, dropped into the moment because of his hindsight about what the moment means, pointing out the transitions for us before they have actually started. It's not foreshadowing in the classic sense I'm used to. It’s something I haven't seen done in this particular manner and it’s definitely going to stick in my memory the next time I find myself writing in first person.
But the most striking quality about this book is that it’s written almost like a poem. It's incredibly short because each word was so painstakingly chosen that there is no excess, no unnecessary descriptors, nothing that doesn't convey exactly what was meant to be conveyed. Because of this, the number of passages that take on a lyrical, alliterative quality are almost overwhelming. You can scarcely flip through more than two pages of my now deeply loved book without finding a sentence, a passage or a paragraph that I highlighted because of its beauty. I want to memorize these lines and recite them. I want to sear them into my brain so I can be lifted by them when life becomes just too much.