An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin
I first came across Steve Martin as a writer, as I suspect did most people, from his novella, Shopgirl. It wasn’t his first novella – that dubious honour belonged to The Pleasure of My Company, which had a very sweet heart but violated the cardinal rule of beginner’s creative writing; namely, the main character had a mental condition that the author himself presumably does not have (a word to any would-be novelists: you don’t have to give your characters debilitating OCD to make them interesting. People are plenty interesting on their own). Shopgirl, however, was like a one-book validation of the entire genre of the novella. The story was small and insular, but full of character observations so simple but full of heart that they felt like revelations. It is a lovely little book, one I keep on my bedroom bookshelf just in case there’s a night I can’t sleep through. And in case you thought that was a fluke, his autobiography, Born Standing Up, is really quite an amazing little personal history as well, incisive and insightful, not as funny outright as you might expect, but with an aftertaste of humour on most pages, even the sad ones.
I keep using the words “little” and “small” to describe his books, not in effort to be condescending (“aw, look at the little comedian try to write!”), but to try to convey the experience of reading a book by Steve Martin. I think it’s fair to say that after his fourth book, he has a recognizable style, and that style is largely conveyed by his small touches. His language is wonderfully descriptive, metaphors plentiful but never overbearing, and his plotting well-paced but flexible enough to fit in little moments here and there that have no bearing on the story whatsoever except to show off the obvious affection he has for his characters. This is probably my favourite thing about Martin as a writer, and what makes him markedly different from a lot of other working contemporary authors: despite his rather reserved style of writing, Steve Martin loves his characters unabashedly. This is a pretty seldom-found attribute in contemporary authors (Michael Chabon is an exception, but the only one that comes immediately to mind), I think perhaps because a lot of writers write about themselves, and a lot of writers don’t like themselves all that much. Martin is more of an old school writer – the kind that has a muse.
An Object of Beauty is a lot different from Martin’s other works. First and most obviously, it’s longer. It also ends up being larger than the sum of its parts; the scope of the books sneaks up on you by the end, in a surprisingly affecting way. Another notable difference is that his relationship with his main character and muse, Lacey Yeager, is a little less worshipful and a little more acerbic, slightly biting at times in its criticism. This was a development I found very welcome – I didn’t find Mirabelle (the heroine of his first novella) cloying or unrealistic in her innocence, but I can see why someone else would have. Lacey, on the other hand, is a brazen climber with an uncommonly light touch; she is ambitious to the point of grasping, but unlike 99% of books about overly-ambitious women, in Martin’s portrayal, Lacey’s relentless drive is part of her charm. She is all insouciance and blasé confidence, and her occasional ruthlessness never seems calculated. Relationships are her accessories, not so much in the way that she views them as replaceable, but more in that she puts them on and takes them off depending on her mood, and the circumstances.
The narrator, Daniel Franks, is one such friend-accessory. Daniel is a pretty obvious stand-in for Martin (down the fact that both of their full names are a combination of two first names), and his droll voice is perfectly suited to detailing the various excesses of the New York art world.
At its most basic, that is what the book is about: the roller-coaster ride that was the Manhattan art world at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. It’s a world that Martin describes as an “insular collective,” and as such one perfectly suited to his form of writing. Daniel Franks and Lacey Yeager met at Davidson as art history majours, and as she ventures off to New York and Sotheby’s to embark on her meteoric rise through the world of art-dealing, he accompanies her at a distance on his own quieter, stop-and-start career as an art writer.
Martin clearly understands art, and the world of art dealing. The text is accompanied by a number of full-colour reproductions of paintings. By this, you might assume that if you’re not interested in art, you won’t find this book interesting. As it happens, I am interested in art and so may not be the best judge, but I can safely say that the following: 1) the book itself actually serves as a pretty good primer on the subject, if you’re simply unfamiliar with it, and 2) Martin’s subtle jabs at the airs and affectations of the art industry are well worth the price of admission. If you’re completely uninterested in art, it may not be enough to keep you engaged, but if you’re worried that the subject matter will be esoteric or unbearably pretentious, consider your fears allayed.
As far as plot is concerned, there’s not a whole lot more than there was in Martin’s novellas, despite the length; Martin excels in character observation, and isn’t one to let a tightly packed plot get in the way (though this one does include several run-ins with the FBI, which I couldn’t decide added or subtracted from the book. They didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book, but I’m not convinced they added anything, either). This particular series of observations, however, leads eventually to an understanding of an age – or possibly the end of one. It’s not a stretch to say that Lacey Yeager lacks a moral compass. She’s never intentionally cruel, though her thoughtless neglect occasionally wounds, and though she uses art in unethical ways to promote her own standing in the art world, she also seems genuinely touched by particular works, and distressed when they are misused. Lacey’s faults can be summed up thusly: it’s not that the intentionally uses (and misuses) people, it’s just that her self-preservation trumps all other potential concerns. In this way, she embodies the character, or lack thereof, of an entire age of excess – the fault is always either someone else’s or a result of the vagaries of the market. She carefully portrays a set of expectations, and then claims she made no promises when she’s expected to deliver on them.
In this way, I was surprised. I expected to enjoy An Object of Beauty, but I didn’t expect it to be as perceptive about the larger issues of wealth and its accompanying amorality, or as wistful at the simultaneous let-down of three decades’ worth of expectations about the new millennium. I grew up in the nineties, and came of age at just the right time to have my idealism shattered twice over by the double blow of September 11th and the 2008 crash. Our generation takes a lot of flack for being disaffected and overly-ironic, but you can hardly blame us for the thick crust of irony with which we approach life when you consider the age in which we became adults.
This book, like a good piece of art, takes on dimensions the longer you read it, and the more you think about it after. It was enjoyable, but more importantly, it was thoughtful – a quality that I’ve enjoyed in all of Martin’s literature. I would recommend it to pretty much anyone, but I think Generation X is probably the demographic who would most appreciate it, and be most affected by its almost paternally kind portrayal of what turned out to be a really disappointing era.