Thursday, January 17, 2013

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Lacey Yeager is almost as hot as the art she's involved in selling, using everything she knows to rise above her station in the art world.  Manipulative, cunning, and a bit lucky, she fights for a place in a world where the world million doesn't even need to be used.  Never failing to try and gain an edge, Lacey won't even let the events of September 11th stop her from hobnobbing with the elite and joining their ranks.  But sometimes, it's just not meant to be, as this fictional chronicle by Renaissance man Steve Martin shows.

Steve Martin has been a part of my cultural orbit for my entire life, whether it was Saturday Night Live re-runs, guest appearances, or his 1980s movies.  While his acting started to leave me cold over time and Martin himself gave up stand-up, the idea of Martin the writer has risen to be one of his greatest strengths.  Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a great play to read that I hope to see life someday.  I was happy to find this at the library, waiting to be grabbed, and I'm glad I was the person who found it.

For those who don't know, one of Martin's interests is art, and he uses that interest to really infuse this book with knowledge and opinion about damned near all of the art world, giving it a basis in the real world that another writer could not manage if they set their world in the same aura of big-name art dealing.  When the characters in this book discuss Warhol's place in the pantheon of artists or the way certain painters are either ignored or "discovered" over time, you can tell it's not just research for Martin.  These are things he has either discussed or considered on his own.

Similarly, Lacey's rise to power, using her positive and negative traits to get to the point of owning her own gallery, are frequently marked with allusions to other kinds of stardom.  I don't doubt that Martin, in his trek from Disney employee to the star of the Pink Panther remake (in some ways, a rise and fall all its own), encountered people, male and female, who were not above crossing the borders of legality to try and gain an edge.

And that's the thing that really makes this book so good.  I'm an amateur art geek who is conversant from Egyptian art to the Pop era.  I have so many holes in my knowledge that people use my art expertise as a golf course, but I love going to galleries and have over time developed a way to understand what makes one painting better than another from the same time frame.  For me, the talk of Rembrandt, Matisse, and others both real and imagined meshed well with what I knew and really gave the story depth.  But if I only knew a Van Gough when the signature was pointed out to me, I could still appreciate Lacey and her story.

After all, isn't it the most American thing to do, over the course of the 90s and 2000s, to do everything you could to rise to the top, even if it was a house of cards, ready to tumble?  The dot com bubble, the housing bubble, the impending student loan bubble--they all result from the fact that we as American lust to be the richest thing around and will often do stupid things (like take out a second job to afford a more fashionable car we can't drive in because we have to work so much) just to look "better" than the rest of humanity.  Just as Lacey's actions that generate the wealth she needs to move from auction house girl to world traveler eventually banish her to the backwaters of the art work, America's actions over the past half century are quickly placing us in company with Greece instead of China.

In the end, Russia may just bury us after all, just like those who Lacey tries to screw over end up burying her.  Given that Martin sets this story to coincide with the boom and bust of America's overall economy, I think he's purposefully going for the comparison.  Lacey and the art world are avatars for Martin to make social commentary, using a literary device that goes back at least as far as Homer.

To be a good book, however, requires more than just an ability to comment.  While Martin probably will never be the best at narration, his dialogue is razor sharp, echoing without repeating his best acting work.  There were many times where I could hear Martin mentally while the character spoke, giving the story a lot of life and energy.  This was really needed because often the characters are unlikable (either rich bores or people on the make) and when Lacey says things like how she was sad there was no crime after failing at her "Lacey Drew" impression, the comedic timing is perfect.

My only real issue with the story is that I found the narrator to be an off choice.  Martin picks an art critic who was briefly a lover of Lacey's and later her dupe to tell Lacey's story, blurring whether it is fact or fiction within the context.  He's not a loser, but he's the kind of person who always ends up being an also-ran, and compared to Lacey, he's a dullard who can only reflect her light.  I guess that's the point, but I feel like the book might have been better served by keeping the narrator out of the story entirely.  You can tell Martin is trying to be post-modern, but I think it was one layer of clever too many in an otherwise really good book.

An Object of Beauty has a lot going on, just like the best paintings.  It's both a case study, an admiration of audacity, and a warning to those who will do anything to win.  Martin's got a great feel for intricate writing such as this, and I hope he continues to pour energy into books such as these and less facile films that play upon his reputation but don't play to his strengths.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rob-just stopping by to invite you to participate in Irish Short Story Month from March 1 to March 31-hope you have been well-