An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Most of the world knows Steve Martin for his excellent comic acting ability, but along side this he has built a significant publication catalogue: five published screenplays, two plays, three non-fiction books and, now, three novels. I bought this novel for Mrs. KfC because the story line (New York’s art world) interested her — she finished it in one quick day and recommended that I read it. An Object of Beauty is outside my normal reading range, but I am glad that I accepted Mrs. KfC’s recommendation.

(Martin has actually invented a new “writing” strand in the last few weeks: Celebrity juror. Called for jury duty, he’s been tweeting on his experience as a potential juror — you will have to find the links for yourself — in a predictably disruptive manner.)

Disclosure: The KfC’s collect art (mainly Canadian) and do know a little bit about it. We have been in attendance, and bought works, at auctions where, far beyond our means or interests, records have been set for various Canadian artists. The art auction world is an intriguing (and potentially expensive) one — if you ever want a cheap evening’s entertainment go to an art auction and watch both the crowd and the results. As Steve Martin opens this novel, it is also the central focus.

Lacey Yeager is one of those young women who make the Manhattan art world work. Beautiful, smart and ambitious, they arrive from the hinterlands (which may be only 20 miles away), determined to make Manhattan and its attractions “work” for them. They find “jobs” that pay just enough to cover a share of the rent in an over-crowded flat; they take their nourishment and future hopes from the openings and parties that are part of the high expense art world.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the two premier auction houses in New York, drew young, crisp talent from Harvard and its look-alikes. Majors in art history were welcomed over majors in art making, and pretty was preferred in either sex. The houses wanted the staff to look swell as they crisscrossed the busy galleries on exhibition days, holding in their arms files, faxes, and transparencies. Because the pay was low, the young staff was generally financed from home. Parents thought well of it because their children were at respectable firms, working in a glamorous business, with money of all nations charging the atmosphere. The auction houses seemed not as dull as their counterparts on Wall Street, where parents of daughters imagined glass ceilings and bottom painting.

Lacey is from Georgia and she arrives in New York with both some training and, more important, an attractive face and figure and a lot of ambition. The narrator of the novel, Daniel Chester French Franks (yes, you can guess the puns Martin will play off that), arrives at roughly the same time. Lacey wants major success, Daniel wants to find a road to survival. His version of his goal is worth considering:

I left Stockbridge (Massachusetts), a town set under the glow of its even more famous citizen, the painter of glad America, Norman Rockwell. It is a town that is comfortable with art, although uncomplicated art, not the kind that is taught in educational institutions after high school. My goal, once I discovered that my artistic aspirations were not accompanied by artistic talent, was to learn to write about art with effortless clarity. This is not as easy as it sounds: Whenever I attempted it, I found myself in a convoluted rhetorical tangle from which there was no exit.

Obviously, Norman Rockwell is not a part of the world that either Lacey or Daniel enter.

Those two quotes frame the central conflict in this novel: Lacey wants to get ahead by whatever means are required, the narrator wants to document the process of artistic creation. Martin’s screen-writing ability is present throughout the process. The “get-ahead” story line drives the plot, the value of the novel lies in the documentation of what happens along the way.

I was, and am, more interested in that latter story line and I think the author delivers on it very well. Before she gets fired from Sotheby’s, Lacey’s job provides Martin with the opportunity of showing what the high-end (that means tens of millions of dollars) art auction world looks like, and he does that very well. Like John Updike, who was an accomplished art critic as well as being an excellent fiction writer, Martin knows his art — part of the charm of the novel is the 22 plates of artworks that are reproduced as they show up in the plot.

Lacey wants to climb up the wall of that world and through a combination of skill, beauty, sex and intrigue, she does — albeit with a disastrous fall awaiting each move forward. The narrator, taking a much more conservative course, moves along as well, although much more slowly. Martin uses that narrative structure to supply his own version of what was happening in the New York art world at the time — creators, dealers and buyers are all part of the mix. For this reader, that stream was by far the strongest in the book.

The result of all of this is a very intriguing read. If you are interested at all in the international art world, it is a fascinating picture. If you aren’t, it is probably a work best avoided — Martin as an art world chronicler is much better than Martin as a traditional novelist. An Object of Beauty offers a fascinating, populist take on a world that not many people know. If you are interested or curious about that world, it is worth the read — if you aren’t, checking out Steve Martin’s movies is probably a better investment of your time.

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21 Responses to “An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin”

  1. lizzysiddal Says:

    As a preraphaelite supermodel, I absolutely must have this. Sold!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Just to whet your preraphaelite tastes, Lizzy, Lacey does start out in the European section (mainly late nineteenth century) at Sotheby’s. And I give nothing away by saying that her grandmother’s limited (but very successful) “exposure” as an artist’s model — and the resulting work — plays a very significant part in the novel. I think you will find it a very successful divertissement.

    And in return, I promise to read Jan Marsh’s The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal, if only to understand what has inspired you. :-)

    Happy Holidays.

  3. Colette Jones Says:

    I love Steve Martin. I think this makes 3 novels, doesn’t it? (preceded by “Shopgirl” and “The Pleasure of My Company”.)

    I have an aging copy of “Cruel Shoes” which is very bizarre but suited my sense of humour at a certain age. I must read it again and see if I still think it is funny.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Thanks for spotting my mistake — this is, indeed, novel number three (and I have changed the original). I haven’t read either of the other two, although Shopgirl is now on the premises in Mrs. KfC’s library. I will be stealing it shortly after she finishes it as I found Martin to be an entirely worthwhle diversion and it is highly recommended by some friends as a fun read. I would say that if you have read any Martin (my exposure is limited a play performance of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which I quite liked) this will not disappoint you. Don’t plan on writing a doctoral dissertation on it however.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Have you read Olga Grushin’s novel: The Dream Life of Sukhanov? It’s the story of a Soviet art critic who tows the party line no matter the moral cost. It’s a wonderful novel and I thought I’d mention it since you are into Art.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I recall hearing about it but I have never read it. I’ll do some more research — thanks for the heads up.

  7. Trevor Says:

    You’ve intrigued me, Kevin. I respect Martin, and I’ve liked his contributions to The New Yorker over the years, but I’ve never trusted him enough to read a novel. I think the art world discussion would sustain me quite well, though.

    Merry Christmas!

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Well once you have read it, you can drop into Christies or Sothebys someday before an auction and watch the real world versions of Lacey wandering around with their files and transparencies — and make up stories about them. The novel is not a great work of fiction but in its own way it is a highly entertaining one.

    And a Merry Christmas from the KfCs to the Berretts. Hope the boys got all they wanted from Santa.

  9. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: since I’m on a roll, I also recommend Michael Frayn’s Headlong. Not an easy read, but you’re up for it.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Frayn is a favorite author and Headlong is my favorite of his novels (his plays are perhaps even better). I’ve read it two or three times (before starting blogging) and will take credit for putting Trevor onto it — check his blog for a very positive review.

    • Guy Savage Says:

      I have another couple of Frayns sitting here waiting for a read. Headlong is excellent, isn’t it?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        It is excellent — all his novels are well above the norm. He feeds another of my favorite themes (novels about newspapers) with both Towards the End of Morning and The Tin Men (both hilarious — they are to newspapers what Noises Off is to theatre) and also counts in my schoolboy novel category with Spies.

  11. Shelley Says:

    Kevin, I’m back home in Texas for the holidays, and just wanted to say that the sound of your geese flying over the Plains is the most beautiful sound here.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    They would certainly find it cold if they had stayed around here.

  13. Karyn Says:

    Delighted that Mrs KFC recommended you read it. I am absolutely loving it.

    Having recently attended the Richard Avedon auction at Christie’s in Paris, with 20 phone lines, internet bids and a seated group of about 200 (including me), with approx 600 in the room, I can assure you, it was even more exciting that Martin describes. Especially as I was with an art dealer who was bidding.

    Martin is one of the most prestigious, yet low key, American collectors of contemporary art. He knows from whence he speaks and his parsing of phrases is so visual and is such an accurate portrayal of the reality.

    In terms of your comment about the art world – the world in which I live and work – your final paragraph has made me think about, for example, the financial world or the diplomatic world, for example. There are strong parallels. I would think that anyone who is passionate about what they do, would find joy in this book.

    I am reading it slower than Mrs KFC, as I don’t want it to end!

    Many thanks again and all the very best to you both for the New Year!

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks very much for such an informed comment, Karyn. Those high-end auctions as you describe have a very particular kind of tension and excitement that I think Martin captures well. I also appreciate reading that he is a significant collector — the novel certainly indicates knowledge and I assumed he must collect, but have not read that anywhere else. Since you haven’t reached the end yet, his descriptions of the gallery-oriented contemporary business are every bit as good as the auction part of the book that I described in the review — perhaps even better, since he gets more satirical about both artists and buyers.

    And you are quite right about fiction about the financial world (see my review of The Privileges) or the diplomatic world (le Carre’s latest, also review on this site, is relevant). Indeed, any novel that accurately uses circumstances that the reader knows and is interested in becomes a much more special read.

    • Karyn Says:

      Many thanks Kevin. As for the auctions, 60 works auctioned in the Avedon auction in just over an hour was a dizzying pace, high tension, excitement, clapping, extraordinary and a privilege to be there. I was sorry to not attend the Sotheby’s auction of “Exceptional Jewels & Precious Objects formerly in the Collection of The Duchess of Windsor” in London 30 Nov 2010, so that I could report to Sheila, following her splendid post on new fashion books.

      Martin’s collection is extraorindary. He is a passionate collector, very discrete.

      He definitely gets more satirical about the artists and dealers ( I love that he hates the word “gallerists”, as do I -pretentious). I am nearing the end – just loving it.

      I will look at your review of The Privileges and also Le Carre’s latest, with thanks.

      BTW, The Glass House is one of the finest books I have ever read, thanks for your poignant recommendation. I will send a separate post on this. It would make a great screenplay.

  15. gaskella Says:

    I just read this and really enjoyed it too, feeling at home like Daniel in the book as an outsider looking into the frenzy of the NY art world.

    There was a telling sentence (which I should have marked), wherein Lacey started viewing art with dollar signs – and that was the sad point where the art became a commodity to be traded just like bonds.

    I enjoy art, although I don’t claim to understand much of modern conceptual art and installations, this novel was actually quite eye-opening in that respect. I very much appreciated the pictures in the text – they were a great help.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Martin does do a good job of satirizing those (not just Lacey) who like the dollar side of the art world more than they do the art itself. But, to his credit, he is never mean-spirited in that satire.

    I too appreciated the pictures in the text, although I did wonder (idly, I admit): Did Martin put the work in the text and then chase down the picture or did illustrations come first and then he worked them into the text.

  17. tolmsted Says:

    Kevin –

    Great review as always. But the plot as you describe it reminds me of Martin’s other novel: Shopgirl… where an older man (is Daniel older than Lacey?) has a relationship with an attractive younger woman and fills the role of all-knowing narrator observing/commenting on her struggles/progress as she finds her place in the world. In Shopgirl that world was LA and the girl ends up in a gallery, and with a man her own age, by the book’s end. An Object of Beauty sounds very similar. I’m wondering how much of the book is told from Lacey’s perspective?

    I did love Shopgirl, though, and was thoroughly impressed with Martin’s writing. It has a delicacy to it that is unexpected. The movie was quite good, too.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    tolmsted: I have not read Shopgirl (but ordered it immediately after reading this one, just to check it out). Daniel and Lacey are contemporaries (they went to college together) in this book. They are also friends, persuing different paths, albeit in the same field. So I would say that Martin is guilty of using a similar format, but would also say he uses it only as a staging ground for the most interesting parts of the story. Let’s face it, he is never going to be in the running for the Nobel Prize — but he does offer a worthwhile take on a part of the world that most people never see. I’d say that makes for good fiction. Oh … and the sense of humor he shows on film is very much present in the book as well.

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