Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Report: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

It's been awhile since I read a novel.  Steve Martin's latest, An Object of Beauty, was as good a choice as any.  It was intellectual enough to hold my interest, even if its austerity kept me at a distance.  It's heroine, Lacey Yeager, is a denizen of the art world, just as Shopgirl's Mirabelle Buttersfield was.  Yet Lacey is a dealer to Mirabelle's artist, a contrast that says it all.  Where Mirabelle was self-effacing and sympathetic, Lacey is unapologetic and social climbing, as reckless with the lives of others as she is with her own.  That having been said, I don't think we're supposed to like her.  If anything, Lacey's tale is a cautionary one.  Her many machinations render her as salable as the paintings she pushes, an enticing object whose internal value has been eclipsed by money as she's auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Beginning as a basement-dwelling Sotheby's lackey, Lacey devises a web of schemes that eventually catapults her to her very own gallery.  Beautiful, brilliant, and brimming with vitality, Lacey is an interesting enough study to follow throughout Beauty's pages.  Her biographer and narrator, the besotted art writer Daniel Franks, certainly seems to think so.  It is his desire to please Lacey, after all, that leads him to betray his usual mild-mannered nature in an act that ultimately destroys his future.  Yet for all her dynamism, there is something human missing from Lacey.  I wasn't moved or enlightened by her journey as I was by Mirabelle's; at the inevitable end, I didn't even feel sad.  But then, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, this is not the kind of novel meant to evoke emotion.

Such were my thoughts before I read this quote from Joyce Carol Oates on the back cover:

"At first you think that An Object of Beauty will be a romantic comedy, starring a strong-willed, very smart, and very ruthless heroine-adventuress in the New York art world; then, as its irresistibly rendered scenes unfold, you realize that you are experiencing, from the most intimate of perspectives, the quasi-tragic history of an era.  Like Steve Martin's heartrending Shopgirl, this very different novel will captivate your attention from start to finish.  I was reminded of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence - we gain admission to a world of glittering surfaces to which few have access, and we are made to feel the perimeters of this world, the abruptness with which its doors are shut against those who violate its taboos.  An Object of Beauty is the equivalent of any number of 'art histories' of the late American twentieth century in the guise of a doomed love affair."

Whereas I was preoccupied with Lacey and Martin's motivation for introducing her to us, Oates views the protagonist as the art world itself.  To her, the central theme of the book is not Lacey's downfall, but the demise of art in a society shaken by economic ruin.  And in a strange way, that makes sense, especially given Lacey's unpalatableness.  It's easier to think of her as a symbol than as a person, as an ironic pawn of the glossy world she strives to manipulate.  Still, for all its fine writing and critical merits, I found it difficult to warm to a story woven around a villain.  Which is exactly why I could never get into "Mad Men."     

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