Sunday, January 16, 2011

Art and Fun: Steve Martin's "An Object of Beauty"

I find it bizarrely ironic that Steve Martin’s recent interview at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan ended so badly. E-mailers from all across the country (the interview was shown to subscribers on closed-circuit TV) were invited to comment and they did, demanding less art talk and more details about the comedian’s career –what was it like hosting the Oscars? Where did you learn to play banjo? How did you get that arrow through your head? The general impression was that Steve Martin had written, and now wanted discuss at droning length, an expository ‘novel’ crammed to bursting with high falutin’ cultural references and dreary factoids – a snob’s piñata full of carrots and pocket dictionaries, not even worth hitting.

The irony comes when you read the book

It’s delightful, and I say that as a dedicated reader who was not thrilled with Steve’s previous efforts -- the wan May December rich-man poor girl romance Shopgirl and the follow up, about a phobia-plagued recluse, The Pleasure of my Company. Most struggling writers I know were irked by these efforts, which would probably never have seen the light of day without a celebrity’s name attached. It’s one thing for a famous performer (Or reality show star) to pen a ghost-written autobiography. Poaching our territory and attempting novel seems presumptuous: an act of pure privilege, some kind of perverse literary droit de seigneur. Steve was dabbling, and it showed.

Well, it’s been seven years since that last book, and Steve used the time well. He’s obviously been working at his craft (did he sneak into an MFA program?) because this book is good. More than that, it’s fun. The story of Lacey Yeager, a rising star in the New York art world, it combines the diverse pleasures of a Christopher Isherwood or Truman Capote-like free spirit viewed from an adoring distance by a male narrator with the gossipy plot of a Judith Krantz novel and the zeitgeist marksmanship of Tom Wolfe. Of course, the writing isn’t as poetic as Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Berlin Stories. You don’t get the delirious page-turning junk food sugar high of trash classics like Scruples and Princess Daisy. And it lacks the red-line energy and epic polymath cultural obsession of A Man in Full or I am Charlotte Simmons. But Judith Krantz hasn’t written a novel in more than ten years, and Capote and Isherwood are dead. While we wait for Tom Wolfe’s big Miami book, this slim volume of Steve Martin’s makes an enjoyable substitute.

We watch Lacey’s rise from Sotheby’s drone to gallery owner, and Steve lets us guess at the dirty scandalous secret behind her success, revealing it at the perfect moment with the understated flourish and impeccable timing familiar from his best comedy routines and screenplays. Balzac said it: “Behind every great fortune is a great crime”, and the spectre of various art world crimes and frauds haunt Lacey’story, from the con-artists of the downtown galleries to the robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, to the subtle tricks of rigging an art auction. The book takes place over twenty years and encompasses many changes in the art world, as well as the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war. Through all her ups and downs, her brief affairs (She only sleeps with men on the first date), her cunning tactics and shady dealings, Lacey remains a novelist’s triumph: like Holly Golightly and Sally Bowles, like Charlotte Simmons and Billy Winthrop, she’s a character you can’t help loving , even against your better judgment, who you root for even when she’s wrong, and who you want to keep reading about forever.

That should take some of the sting out of a bad night at the Y.

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