By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 6:14 PM
AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY
By Steve Martin
Grand Central. 295 pp. $26.99
Those classic "Saturday Night Live" skits are more than three decades old, but it's hard not to keep thinking of Steve Martin as a Wild and Crazy Guy or the white-suited guy with bunny ears. Who could have predicted the trajectory of that arrow that passed through his head, sailed through his platinum albums, his dozens of movies, his New Yorker magazine sketches, and now hits its target in a smart novel about the contemporary art market?
The cerebral element has always been there, of course. You could hear it in those philosophical asides, even in his silliest routines; in his charming play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" (1993); and in his thoughtful memoir, "Born Standing Up" (2007). And now Martin isn't just drawing on hearsay to write about tony galleries and multimillion-dollar auctions: When he displayed his private collection in Las Vegas in 2001, it included works by Picasso, Seurat, Edward Hopper and de Kooning. So much for getting small; he's also gotten very rich.
Like "Shopgirl," Martin's best-selling novella from 2000, "An Object of Beauty" tells the story of a young woman, but this time his heroine is ferociously ambitious and has "a scalpel personality." With a killer body, a wardrobe to show it off uptown or downtown, and a sharp sense of humor, Lacey Yeager makes sure she's the center of every room. "Naked or well dressed, was her dictum." Even in snooty Manhattan, "tables waited for Lacey like kennel puppies hoping to be picked." From her entry-level position at Sotheby's, she beats, cheats and sleeps her way into the frothy art world, riding its peaks and crashes in the years before and after the 9/11 attacks. "She was rash with people, with her body, her remarks," Martin writes. "She was equally reckless with all." She's so sure she can perceive and control invisible forces of desire that it's hard to take your eyes off her, even when she's standing next to some of the most beautiful paintings in the world.
The person most thoroughly hypnotized by her performance is the almost-invisible narrator, Daniel Franks. In love with her since college, he's Norman Rockwell to her Niki de Saint Phalle. While Lacey leaps ever higher in the gallery world, Daniel wistfully toils away as a freelance art critic, watching her soar along with the prices of ironic, deconstructive works by young artists no one had heard of two years earlier. On the opening page, he tells us that he's writing down this story as a way of exorcising Lacey from his mind, but he only seems to be engraving her presence more deeply.
Despite its sexual frankness, "An Object of Beauty" reminds me of those novels of manners written by Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells back when John Singer Sargent was painting members of the enviable class. Lacey has the skill, the taste and the ambition to move in those circles, but she knows these qualities aren't enough to gain entree. As Bernadette Peters cries in "The Jerk," "It's not the money, it's the stuff." And the question becomes how much Lacey will contort her values and how much those around her must pay for her success. "She wanted fine things, beautiful things," Martin writes. "She wanted to grow up, to no longer live like a student. Lacey knew that what she needed was an amount of money that was appropriate to her rapidly evolving taste. This need repainted moral issues that were formerly black-and-white into a vague gray."
A tint of intrigue runs through the novel as Lacey considers how much integrity distinguishes a reputable dealer from a wheeler-dealer. Martin's portrayal of Lacey's conscience is sensitive and moving, and works well on a small scale, but he has trouble keeping the element of corruption in focus across the whole novel. A plot line involving the infamous Vermeer theft at the Stewart Gardner museum is a dead end, and in the final pages the whole story suddenly turns on another crime that we knew almost nothing about.
But those flaws are not likely to trouble you as you move through this graceful novel. If Martin isn't a talented art critic himself, he does a convincing imitation of one. Insightful but modest, sophisticated but deeply skeptical of po-mo gobbledygook, he offers engaging commentary on Milton Avery, Picasso, Warhol and many others. Along the way, he provides a thoroughly enjoyable analysis of the current art market, the distortions of new money flowing from the Middle East and the effect of wealthy baby boomers turning from modern to contemporary objects. "New galleries sprouted in Chelsea overnight," he notes, "lacking only fungi domes."
Given Martin's capacity for zaniness, the subtlety of his fiction is always something of a surprise, particularly in this case when the claptrap of so much contemporary art makes a ripe subject for comedy. There's certainly humor in "An Object of Beauty," but Martin doesn't waste much powder on the easy targets. He offers some light, smart satire of wealthy collectors, who are sometimes savvy, sometimes crass, scanning the market for works that other collections might, inexplicably, consider valuable someday. And he provides an alluring depiction of the way galleries, curators and collectors try to manipulate the fickle market of taste. "It was impossible to know if this new art was good, because, mostly, good art had been defined by its endurance over time," he observes. "The sheer amount of it - to the dismay of cranky critics - was redefining what art could be. Since the 1970s, art schools shied away from teaching skills and concentrated on teaching thought. . . . Diversity bounced around like spilled marbles on concrete."
Surely, Martin's popular appeal will help "An Object of Beauty" sell better than "By Nightfall," Michael Cunningham's more sophisticated but more peculiar story about art and desire published last month. And it doesn't hurt that Martin's novel also sports a beautiful design (take that, e-books!). Bound on bright white paper, with splashy red endpapers, the text is enriched by more than 20 color reproductions of the artworks that catch Lacey's attention, from Maxfield Parrish's "Daybreak" to Richard Serra's "Betwixt the Torus and the Sphere." They make lovely, helpful enhancements to Martin's always engaging discussion of these pieces, and how wonderful it is to see a mainstream publisher that knows a book can still be an object of beauty itself.
Charles is the fiction editor for The Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.