John Haskell’s new novel has what seems a comic premise. A man meets and courts a woman while pretending to be the comedian Steve Martin. Pretending is perhaps the wrong word; Jack, the narrator, is not assuming a fraudulent identity, but simply imagining, when he goes on dates, that he is Steve Martin. His impersonation is so discreet that most of his interlocutors don’t know that he’s doing it. Jack pretends to be Steve Martin because it makes him feel less self-conscious and inhibited in social situations. He has little interest in Martin himself—he barely knows his work—but is inspired by a professional Steve Martin impersonator, Scott, whom he gets to know in the course of writing an article on celebrity impersonators.
If the story sounds odd in summary, it’s even odder in the reading. The problem of feeling uncomfortable in one’s skin is usually plumbed by a particular kind of narrator. Vibrant, voluble, quick-witted, and funny in his descriptions of his own suffering, he (it is usually a he) seems to pour all the energy of his psychic conflict and foiled ambitions into his story, and somehow to sublimate frustration into eloquence. His outsized voice has the agility and charm that his social persona or romantic attempts might lack, and his narration is the solace, if not the revenge, for his social awkwardness or exclusion. He could be Alexander Portnoy or Martin Amis’s Charles Highway or, in more recent novels, the heroes of Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land or Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan.
But Haskell’s narrator is different. He is not exuberant or charismatic, exactly, though his voice is certainly distinctive. And while he might occasionally say something funny, he doesn’t seem to care about charming us with his wit. Jack is a writer and journalist, but oddly, for a writer, he seems unsure of himself from the first sentence:
What happened to me was—not me, but what happened—I’m from New York originally and I moved to Los Angeles to write about movies.
The stumble, the false start, the clumsy obfuscation of the “me”: this narrator does not quite have purchase on the story he’s telling. With his jittery repetitions and simple syntax, he sounds like someone trying to sort out a series of baffling events while talking himself down from a near-constant state of anxiety. Soon after he moves to L.A., Jack’s friend Alan, a slick Los Angeles Times editor, introduces him to an attractive former dancer named Jane:
I’d come to Los Angeles knowing only two people, and one of them was Alan, and this woman was an acquaintance of his, someone he wanted to be an acquaintance of mine, a romantic acquaintance. And although I also wanted that, I was still slightly uncomfortable jumping into the ocean of romance. That’s what it seemed like, an ocean, and …