An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
I read this book completely on a whim. Chase will tell you, I saw this book on sale for $6 and thought that a First Edition Hardcover is never a bad thing to have in a library, nor a bestseller for that matter.
I was surprised by Steve Martin in general. His banjo playing and comedic stylings have always impressed and amused me, and with this book, I can say some of the same. As you might guess, I’m into a ton of literary fiction which is a bit of a vacuum for writers at times. We scoff at bestsellers like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. An Object of Beauty, however, is something else entirely.
It’s commentary at its best, trying to be simple on the surface while laying out really complex, heavy issues underneath (including 9/11 and the Stock Market Crash) while tending seriously to aesthetics and art as a medium for discussion, market, and character.
The novel’s protagonist, Lacey, is painted (pardon the pun) at the beginning of the novel as a hardheaded, hardworking young woman whose ambitions shoot for the roof. We see that see is not as sexually promiscuous as she is sexually stable, knowing what she wants and how to get it. The scenes with sex are acutely well-written and leave enough for the mind to nod and let some images portray themselves in a world where sexually explicit writing is deemed necessary by some higher force of instant gratification.
Getting to my point, An Object of Beauty gets down to the grits of human conduct, even in a setting where art is supposed to be substantial. There is talk about artists intentionally creating “Bad Art,” which is somehow good, and the meta-art of painting about a painting and how no portrait is just a portrait. There is room for these philosophical ideas to permeate while Lacey runs around, trying to basically make a buck off the thing that others slave over. But it seems in the end, there is a feeling that art not taken seriously is a career unfolded and opened for what it really is: nothing.
The ending of this novel (to save spoilers) is powerful and brief. There is a sense of loss, but not on part of the characters. It seems to be a loss of the art world as a character itself, slowly diminishing and losing its focus in a time of chaos and financial catastrophe.
There are things I loved and things I definitely didn’t love about this work, but I can say that I would read it again and would recommend it. I feel as though under the comedic guise, Martin is a very, very intelligent and studied writer who is shooting for something bigger and wider than himself (and perhaps most of New York).
I’ve read some complaints about Daniel’s narration (a character in the story who writer the story), but I believe it creates more of his character and more of Lacey’s image as a painting, An Object of Beauty, as it were. You see, as the story unfolds, Daniel’s unwillingness to accept Lacey’s flaws until much later in the story, which is in a way nearly meta-fiction. While at the beginning he points them out as normal occurrences, the end of the novel really shows them as what they are, which are flaws instead of mistakes. There is something poetic about the frame there and it shouldn’t be too lightly looked upon.
All I can say is that I am glad to see another author pushing for something different, even if it wasn’t perfect. Not everyone can be DeLillo or Wallace, Atwood or Robison.