Saturday, December 25, 2010

Book thirty-four: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin.

Oh to be Steve Martin.  A funny, writer, musician, screenwriter, art collector, and brilliant Twitterer.  Is there nothing this man can't do?  Oh sure, all my friends point to the Pink Panther remakes to cut him down to size.  But those are minor blemishes on an otherwise brilliant career from a man who seems larger than life. And just to make sure we haven't forgetten, Steve gives us his new novel, An Object of Beauty.  Thanks Steve, for making us all feel yet again, inadequate.

Let me start by saying that I may be predisposed to like this book based on content alone. The novel takes an insider's look at the New York art scene from auction houses, to galleries, to the artists themselves.  And since I'm a big fan of fine art, An Object of Beauty had me enthralled from the opening moments. 

The book tells the story of Lacey Yeager, a young, beautiful, ambitious women set on climbing her way to the top of the art gallery world, even if it means engaging in some questionable activities.  The story is told ingeniously by Lacey's friend Daniel.  I love how the book gets so caught up in Lacey's story that you forget Daniel is telling it.  Then, just at the right moments, Daniel pulls you out of the narrative and gives you a paragraph or two of insight. 

It's obvious that Martin is a fan of art.  Some of the most engaging moments in the book are musings on art and artists.  I think Martin secretly wishes to be an art critic. Maybe that's why he's cast Daniel as a successful art writer.

But what makes An Object of Beauty such an engaging read is Martin's ability to effortlessly present characters and stories.  This book seems almost obvious; like it wrote itself, as if the story and characters always existed and just now appeared magically on the page.  Never do words get in the way of the characters.  Never does plot, or structure, or character development get in the way of the story.  It's a testament to Steve Martin's talent that it's as if there is no effort involved in writing this book because as a writer I know that's not the case. 

Of course, there's also a sophisticated humor that runs throughout the book.  Lacey Yeager is nothing if not quick witted.  Many of the chapters end with her sharp, funny statements that make you want to hang out with her.  And there are plenty of other funny moments that made me laugh.  I have to note a reference to one of my favorite Steve Martin movies, L.A. Story.  In one of its most memorable scenes, Steve Martin's character and one of his friends visit a museum.  While there, Steve reveals his secret roller skates and glides through the galleries while his friend video tapes him.  You can imagine my delight then, at this exchange from An Object of Beauty between Lacey and Daniel in reference to an Italian furniture exhibit at the Guggenheim:

Lacey: "I'd rather fuck an Italian than sit on his furniture."
Daniel: "You didn't like it?"
Lacey: "I guess I was unclear. No."
Daniel: "How come?"
Lacey: "Taste? Only one thing could have made it better."
Daniel: "What's that?"
Lacey: "Roller skates."

Steve Martin isn't afraid to make fun of the absurdities of the contemporary art world. Take, for example, the conversation that happens at a party attended by the art-world elite.  The discussion turns to a lamentation on the end of real art movements like Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism, Pop, etc. (That in itself is funny because at the time, I don't think anyone would have considered Pop a "real" art movment.") In response, the party guests start to enumerate new categories of art including "pale art" (faint things with not much going on in them), "high-craft OCD" (those guys who take a thousand pinheads and paint a picture of their grandmother on every one), "low-craft ironics" (a fancy name for wink-wink nudge nudge), "animated interiors" (apocolyptic scenes of stuff flying around a room), "angry pussy" (stuff made with menstrual blood), and my personal favorite "junk on the floor" (about which Hinton, a big time collector says, "You walk into a gallery and there's stuff strewn everywhere. I've got three of those.")  I think I've seen works in all of these categories.

Then there are the moments of just plain wonderful writing.  Like when Patrice, the Frenchman who has hopelessly fallen for Lacey, walks with her through the streets of New York.  The passage reads like a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's: beautiful, romantic, with a literary sparkle.  And yet, it somehow aches with melancholy: "Madisson Avenue was just beginning to flicker on. They walked down the street, sometimes arm in arm, sometimes with Lacey breaking away to physically exaggerate a point, walking backward, then slue-footing around to take his hand or slip her arm through the crook of his elbow."  That's enough to make anyone want to take a chance on love and art in New York City. And to read whatever Martin writes next.

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