Thursday, 16 July 2015

Book of the Month: An Object of Beauty (Steve Martin)

Steve Martin is a seriously good comic actor, one of my favourites. Like Michael Cain, he has regrettably not been very choosy in the movies he selects, and has some ghastly films to his credit; however, when he is on fire, as in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which also stars Michael Caine) or Planes, trains and Automobiles (with the late John Candy), he is superb. When he is on song, there is a kind of manic energy in Martin’s performance which the audience gets sucked into.
In the last decade, Martin, described as ‘indecently multi-talented’ by The Sunday Times, has diverted some of that energy into writing novels, one of which (Shopgirl) was made into a film, I think.

With An Object of Beauty, his third novel, Martin turns his attention to the art world of painting.

An Object of Beauty creates for the reader the world of New York art scene where creativity and talent collide with cold commercial calculations; giant-sized egos of the artists are dwarfed by the elephantine egos of the art collectors; and where, once you have crossed a certain threshold, if you do not find a knife hanging between your shoulder blades, it is only because the price of selling you down the river was not high enough.

In An Object of Beauty, Martin, who is apparently well-known for his art collection, creates the world of fine art high jinks very vividly and entertainingly for the reader. Several works of arts and painters of greater and lesser reputations play important cameo roles in the narrative. Martin obviously knows what he is talking (rather writing) about. When you possess the technical knowledge of the subject, the temptation to dazzle the reader by showing off must be extreme. To his credit Martin is in total control and at no stage does the reader is made to feel inadequate. Thus, if you (like me) know next to nothing about the relatively lesser known twentieth century American painters like Milton Avery or Maxwell Parish, or the 19th century Russian painter of minor reputation (according to the novel) Ivan Aivazovsky, it does not matter. It does not matter because these works of art are not inserted in the novel as mere add-ons; they are weaved skilfully into the narrative and, in many instances help to propel the plot forward. It is not an easy skill.

Martin is at his satirical best while describing the art-parties and pretentions of the nouveau riches who go around hoovering up paintings so that they can have their personal art galleries, to which they invite gallerists and art-critics and bore them to tears with tiresome anecdotes, which are repeated at every party (and to which the assembled react every time as though they are hearing them for the first time).
If An Object of Beauty was only about endless (albeit witty and entertaining) descriptions of gallery openings, auctions of paintings, and the artistic differences between galleries on the East and West sides of New York, readers, barring those possessing an abiding sense of curiosity about the art world, would have lost interest. The novel would have been nothing but a collage of different elements which would have failed to cohere into a whole. That is not the case here. An Object of Beauty is a plot driven novel. Martin may take the reader on a tour of ‘classical’, ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ paintings, but he also has a story to tell; and he tells it with great pizzazz.

An Object of Beauty is the story of Lacey Yeager, who enters the world of New York art scene in the 1990s as a lowly paid minion at the Sotheby’s. Lacey is intelligent, focused, sufficiently ruthless, sexy, and not above using her oomph to get what she wants and reach where she wants to go. Where Lacey ends up, at the end of the novel, and almost twenty years after she first joined Sotheby’s, is where she started, having lost a fortune (and with it, fair-weather friends and acquaintances) during the stock market crash and global recession. However, in the intervening years, she has a hell of a roller-coaster ride, and the reader is with her at every twist and turn. Lacey’s story is told by a friend, Daniel Frank, an art-critic and a friend of Lacey from her college days, and who makes periodic appearances in Lacey’s story. He also plays an important, if peripheral, role—something that will cost him a relationship several years later—in Lacey’s rise in the art world.
If the above description has led you to believe that Martin has some sort of morality tale to tell, you would be wrong. Just as he stops himself from showing off his knowledge of the art world, Martin refrains from taking a moralistic stand on Lacey’s devilish behaviour. The novel is remarkable for its moral-neutrality. Indeed, despite her schemes and deceits, Lacey does not come across as a villainess. When she loses her business and fortune, just as she is nearing forty, you feel a twinge of sorrow for her and have no hesitation in agreeing with Daniel Frank who cannot think of a ‘personality less suited for being marginalised’. The flip side is Lacey does not really come alive for the reader; she remains, despite her plotting and witty repartees and a cunning ability to use sex as a tool to get what she wants, somewhat two-dimensional, a vehicle for Martin to deliver a satirical novel on the art-world and nothing more. An Object of Beauty is a novel dominated by its milieu in which the main characters are lost.

The prose of An Object of Beauty is a mixed bag. Martin keeps a steady supply of witty one-liners, frequently, to great effect. But the tone of the narrative is not even. At times the narration is sardonic, reminiscent of vintage McInerney (Bright Lights Big City, Story of My Life) and Bret Easton Ellis (Rules of Attraction), with its blistering insights and acerbic asides (when a millionaire French art collector, who is ten years older than Lacey,  becomes interested in her and clearly wants to marry her, Lacey, while she uses his connections to further her career, has no intention of settling down with him; one of the reasons why she wouldn’t settle with him is he is older than her, which means, she tells Daniel, that he would be 45 when she is 35, and would be 55 when she is 33, and, in due course would be 65 while she still was 33); but the tone is not sustained and, at times, becomes a tad pedagogic.
The multi-million dollar industry behind the paintings is a world beyond the reach (or imagination) of many. In An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin, with cheerful élan takes the reader on a lively tour of this world and, in the process, also delivers a well-plotted novel. Well worth a read.