A philosopher in bunny ears

By JAMES PARKER  |  December 31, 2007

Boy, I’m gonna make a renaissance man out of you
The brooding Glenn Martin, under his cloud of love withheld, has a big role in Born Standing Up: his least supportive utterances are recorded, and a thrashing inflicted when his son was nine is pivotal. Readers of Steve Martin’s fiction will recognize the details, because an identical episode occurs in 2003’s The Pleasure of My Company: “He rose and turned toward me, whipping his belt from his waist. My mind froze him in action and I saw, like ice cracking, a bifurcating line run from his head to his feet. Next, a horizontal line split him at mid-point, then the rest of the lines appeared, dividing him into eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds, and so on. I don’t remember what happened next.” The narrator of The Pleasure of My Company is an obsessive-compulsive math wizard who has never recovered from that first fragmentation of reality. The narrator of Born Standing Up is a solider character, but only just: of the beating incident he comments, with a rather tart regret, “I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”

Martin hung up the white suit and the rabbit ears in 1981, at which point, he writes, his act was “like an overly plumed bird whose next evolutionary step was extinction.” Fortunately there were other things he could do, his complicated childhood having also qualified him to be an actor, a screenwriter, a New Yorker–style humorist and — most remarkably for a comedian — a novelist. This past month he was honored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for a résumé whose variety is rivaled only by Woody Allen’s. These attainments do not always co-exist in complete harmony: the distinguished memoirist of Born Standing Up, for example, scorns the stoned philosophy geek whose “goofy one-paragraph stories” and “sketchy, half-baked material” would eventually be published in 1977 as Cruel Shoes. But CruelShoes is magnificent: is there anything in The Pleasure of My Company, or in 2000’s Shopgirl, artful as they are, to compare with the deadpan splendor of that book’s “She Had the Jugs”? “Yes, she was witty; she was intelligent. She was born of high station. She spoke and walked proudly. She was the kind who displayed nobility, who showed style and class, but above all, she had the jugs.”

Fake arrow through the egghead
Daniel Pecan Cambridge, OCD narrator of The Pleasure of My Company, spends a portion of the book trying not to utter any words that contain the letter “e” — rather in the manner of the French experimentalist Georges Perec, of whose “e”-less 1969 novel La Disparition Martin (an arty fellow) would certainly be aware. Ray Porter, the late-life suitor of Shopgirl, is falling asleep after a masturbatory interlude when “an arbitrary array of untethered words, logical marks, and symbols rushes through his mind, sweeping away everything.” Both men, in other words, are closer than might be completely comfortable to the realm of pure intellect. From Born Standing Up, we learn of the formative influence that the logic textbooks of Charles Dodgson — better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland — had on Martin’s comedy. Dodgson’s investigations of the syllogism, in particular, did something for him. An example:

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