The Pleasure of My Company,
Steve Martin’s second novella, tells the story of Daniel Pecan Cambridge, a mild-mannered thirty-three-year-old man who suffers from a mix of autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As his compulsions, routines, and rituals take on an increasingly important role in his life, Daniel finds himself becoming more of a recluse, holing up in his Santa Monica apartment alone. Not until his student social worker Clarissa turns to him for help does Daniel confront the demons of his past and realize his longing for true human connection.
Formerly an employee of a large computer company working in numerical codes, Daniel finds himself unable to work as the symptoms of his mental illness continue to manifest in increasingly detrimental ways. Some of his obsessions include an aversion to crossing over curbs and a fixation with maintaining a series of light bulbs totaling a certain number of watts illuminated in his apartment at all times. Aside from not being able to maintain a steady job, Daniel’s compulsions force him to cross the street only at driveways, so as not to step over any curbs. This makes for an extremely impractical walking route, turning his trips to run simple errands into grand excursions.
Daniel is unable to handle crowds and public transportation, which further limits his ability to participate in general society. He understands how much his habits affect his life, in that he lives within a very contained environment with limited variables over which he maintains ultimate control. He makes sense of life by imposing his own order on things, turning the messiness into ordered grids and charts. However, he soon learns that life doesn’t quite work like that when this behavior costs him his job at Hewlett-Packard as well as his college admission.
His reclusiveness and general oddities also make him inept at forming relationships with others; he regularly concocts elaborate fantasies about women he comes into contact with in his life, such as his pharmacist Zandy and Elizabeth, a real-estate agent who is working to lease out some apartments across the street from him. Though Daniel is neurotic, he also has a sense of self-awareness that softens him and makes him quite endearing.
Martin describes Daniel’s life as being quite dull, a series of repetitive behaviors that mostly keeps him locked inside his own apartment and in his own head. The result of a combination of factors, Martin alludes that a great deal of his mental illness can be attributed to the abuse he experienced as a child, which caused him to retreat into himself, creating a protective barrier between himself and the rest of the world.
The only respite Daniel gets from his own mind is his visits from Clarissa, a student social worker whom he sees weekly. Through their sessions together, he comes to view her as his own personal savior. Ironically, Clarissa turns to Daniel in her own time of need, as she and her infant son, Teddy, move into Daniel’s apartment to escape her abusive husband. This event throws Daniel’s entire world off balance, and he must learn how to function in a new way, allowing others into his private world.
The intrusion of Clarissa and Teddy into his carefully built up fortress opens Daniel to new possibilities in his life, including the possibility of love. His relationship with Clarissa takes many twists and turns but they never quite form the bond for which he is looking.
Throughout the novel, Daniel encounters various scenarios that push him outside his comfort zone, creating a character arc that reveals true growth and development. From the mere act of crossing the street to his entering an essay writing contest and winning as the Most Average American, requiring him to give a speech in order to claim his $5000 prize, a concept which fills him with anxiety. At every obstacle, Daniel is forced to overcome his aversions to the outside world to find ways to cope.
Another character featured throughout the novel, Daniel’s grandmother is a kind, elderly woman who writes him letters and sends him checks. When she passes away, Daniel is thrown for a loop. He takes a road trip that leads him to discover more about himself and his own family history.
Daniel is an oddball, to be sure, and though Martin is typically known for his comedic sensibilities, in this tale, he renders a truly heartbreaking character. Daniel’s habits and complexities act as a barrier to his relations with the outside world, but provide the makings of a truly human and relatable character. Martin depicts the lighter side of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the final message to the reader essentially states that where psychiatry and medicine might fail, love can overcome anything.