One approaches novels written by celebrities with almost an air of condescension. The poor dears, one sighs, trying to find fulfillment – or perhaps respect – in that most difficult of media. They are usually minor works, like Woody Allen’s, into which he usually pours all his leftover witticisms and spare gags; or they are works of pretentious autobiography, as found in the collective oeuvre of Ethan Hawke. Invariably the novels are lean, to say the least, more in the nature of an embellished skit than a full-blown work on its own.
That’s why I am particularly surprised and happy to say that Steve Martin has written a real novel, a true novel, one that is, at best, a signal that a major new writer has appeared on the scene – hidden in plain sight all the time! The book is, in fact, a minor masterpiece. (And when I say “minor”, I mean only that the subject matter – the highbrow world of the Manhattan Art and Gallery scenes – is a rarified one that only a very few of the one-percenters get to visit in our lifetimes.) Fortunately for us, Mr. Martin is a well-known collector of modern paintings and well-versed in his subjects. In short, this is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
Martin writes in the first person, but under the name of Daniel Chester French, who is an upwardly mobile art critic for ArtNews. As Somerset Maugham does in his books, Martin/French is content to remain only a minor character, able to comment on the true center of his work, that “object of beauty” herself, the gallery-owner known as Lacey Yeager. In Lacey, Martin has created a extremely memorable combination of Holly Golightly fused with Cleopatra. Seductive, amoral, charming, destructively ambitious (both to herself and others in her sphere) and winsomely devious, Lacey becomes a character so believable that you know you’ve either met her once or twice before at some pretentious party, or, more likely, she was your first wife. At the end of the book, Martin confesses (in Daniel’s voice) that he didn’t know whether or not to make the book into a non-fiction work using real names or to bury the work in fiction. My bet is that for those in the know this is a true roman a clef.
The pacing is perfect. The world the book inhabits is endless fascinating. And the discourse in modern art is nothing short of wonderful. Best, it is illustrated in color plates that show the paintings being discussed; one doesn’t have to go back and forth to Wikipedia to find out just what the hell he is talking about.
“An Object of Beauty” does everything a novel is supposed to do; it keeps you reading at a breakneck pace; it both amuses and edifies, and you end up knowing more than when you went in. My only question for Steve Martin is this: how can so much talent (comic, actor, writer, playwright, musician, art collector) be stuffed into one individual?
It’s not fair, I tell you! Just not fair.