High Art in Low Places
Steve Martin confronts the ugly side of beauty
Review by John Bear
An Object of Beauty
Though he’s churned out some forgettable movies (Father of the Bride Part II, Cheaper by the Dozen 2), those that he had a hand in writing are excellent (L.A. Story, The Jerk, Roxanne). Martin shines brightest when he writes.
His latest novel, An Object of Beauty, takes some cues from his 2001 novella Shopgirl. But this one’s far more sinister.
It follows Lacey, an up-and-comer in the mid-’90s New York art scene. Lacey begins working in the Sotheby’s basement, a low-level but coveted position. Her ambition (some might say ruthlessness) causes her star to rise, and she soon develops an obsession with art—not a love of its beauty, but rather a cold, calculated desire to acquire it. One day, exploiting the lack of communication between paranoid gallery owners, Lacey picks up a painting and sells it at a profit. She craves the action of the business.
There’s a point that you realize you’re rooting for this vain, conniving person. Because as flawed as Lacey is, she’s not a caricature. Lacey remains three-dimensional even as pathology eclipses the rest of her. Her fixation with art borders on mania, and her calculating nature comes increasingly undone as she succumbs to the obsession. There’s a sadness about this woman that’s reminiscent of Mirabelle in Shopgirl. Still, Lacey knows exactly what she’s doing. Martin succeeds at giving this character depth, which is not easy, as she’s a sociopath—even if she is likable.
Martin knows when to drop a joke in before things get too serious. Timing. Comedians have it.
The novel is narrated by a friend, a young art writer named Franks, who covets Lacey but can never really possess her. His presence in the narrative is fleeting. They have lunch sometimes and sleep together “exactly once,” to quote Franks. “If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don’t,” he admits in the outset. “I have found that—just as in real life—imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.” Even though he tells us otherwise, Franks does seem to know it all—and it’s apparent he may not be telling us everything. This is Steve Martin letting you know that, although the tone is somewhat somber, Steve Martin still wrote it.
An Object of Beauty retains the dreamy ambiance of Shopgirl and, like its counterpart, is occasionally hilarious. Dark subject matter is conveyed with certain smart-assey detachment. Martin knows when to drop a joke in before things get too serious. Timing. Comedians have it.
This book will most certainly be made into a movie. Martin is a movie guy, and the story he tells is, for better or worse, very filmic, easily transferable across media. Claire Danes, whose palpable sadness made Shopgirl a mildly depressing joy, a could easily play Lacey, making An Object of Beauty a sort of spiritual sequel.
Martin shows off his impressive art history knowledge throughout the story, even segueing into the odd exposition. Rather than slowing down the story, it illuminates Lacey’s psyche. Martin clearly has a command of the subject, as he demonstrated 20 years ago in his gleefully art-world-jabbing L.A. Story. There’s a lot to be learned from Martin, but you don’t even have to like art to enjoy An Object of Beauty.
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