Saturday, February 12, 2011

Scattered Thoughts on Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty

For somebody as closely identified with Hollywood, Steve Martin certainly knows his way around New York. Martin's latest novel, An Object of Beauty, is as much a love letter to New York as it is a novel. It has been described as a satire of the art world, but it is not a top-to-bottom Wolfeian satire as much as it is a contemporary comedy of manners. In Martin's novel, the art world intelligensia that attend Sotheby's auctions, shop at uptown art galleries, eat at overpriced Chelsea restaurants, and act cool in edgy artist's lofts are all faintly aware of the ridiculousness of their lives. But since when has something's ridiculousness kept people from earning or losing millions of dollars on it - especially in New York?

The novel is narrated by Daniel Franks, graduate of the Nick Carraway/Rai Merchant Memorial School of Passively Observant Outsider Narrators (NCRMMSPOON?). Franks is a former college classmate and one-time lover of the beautiful and ambitious Lacey Yeager, a high-status, low-paid Davidson graduate trying to make a name for herself in the fast-paced world of New York art dealers. Lacey is a serious art historian, but her real talent, unknown to her at the beginning of the novel, but quickly realized, is manipulating wealthy older men into overpaying for paintings. Lacey makes a few intelligent moves that get her up the ladder at Sotheby's, jumps ship to work for a prestigious Upper East Side dealer, meeting the world's wealthiest art collectors and visiting some of the world's best art museums in the process. Lacey's success at work - and the extravagant lifestyles of the art collectors she meets - whets her appetite for the finer things in life, and, through Franks's bittersweet descriptions, we learn that a beautiful person like Lacey was never long for the twenty-something world of secondhand furniture and East Village walk-ups, even if she has to cut a corner or two in order to make it north of 59th Street.

The good timing and fictional coincidences that benefit Lacey's career early in the novel foreshadow the real-world tragedies that threaten to derail it later on. (Once you get a couple of chapters into the novel, you're realize that this isn't a spoiler.) Martin's use of literary devices is commendable, but, at times, it seems as if he is struggling too hard to be serious. At its best, Martin's characterization, and charming, good-company writing style make the book a pleasure to read. In fact, those parts approach, and arguably reach, the level of artistry for which he more awkwardly and self-consciously reaches in other parts of the book. Martin only gets into trouble when he tries too hard. Consider this scene:

There was among them - five of them now - a sudden, communal silence. They stood motionless for several seconds, as though the desire to remain still had coincidentally struck each of them at exactly the same time. These were thoughtless seconds. The object was not for sale, not for trade; it had already ascended. It was for them only, to be seen by them only, as though the artist himself had placed it before them, a holy thing. The object seemed, in this brief encounter, sentinent. It sat quietly, and everyone was quiet. It spoke in silence, because that was the language of the moment.

"Well," said the director, "thank you, Sylvie." Sylvie picked up the picture and started in motion, a double whammy of beauty.

I could have done without the "double whammy of beauty" line. Its clearly an attempt to put a button on the scene, but, after the preceding paragraph's quiet, reverent tone, that kind of exit line just reads like a bad joke. Unfortunately, there are several other awkward trasitions like that throughout the book.

Despite my reservations, I still recommend An Object of Beauty. Other than the narrator, all of the major characters are real human beings, not types, and the little details of auctions and gallery openings are clearly drawn from Martin's decades of art collecting. Martin - and, eventually, his characters - believe in the importance of high art, while recognizing that, at the end of the day, our understanding of art is shaped as much by the tastes of bored rich people as it is by the inherent value of the art itself. Perspective like that is always welcome.

One final note: the hardcover edition contains full-color reproductions of twenty of the important pieces of art discussed in the book. They are printed in the middle of chapters, on the pages in which they are discussed, rather than collected together in the middle of the book, the way that photographs in a biography are printed. It adds a lot to the reader's experience, and must have cost the publisher a great deal of money. A less famous author than Martin would never have been able to persuade his publisher to make that kind of investment, andAn Object of Beauty is much better for it.

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