x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Blurring the lines: Steve Martin's first novel

The Hollywood actor's first full-length novel succeeds in capturing the spirit of its milieu, but otherwise offers an uncomfortable elision of art history and fictional narrative.

John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo.
John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo.

An Object of Beauty
Steve Martin

W&N
DH 98

What do you do when you've reached the pinnacle of Hollywood success? Some rest on their laurels, some go crazy, some invent a brand of pasta sauce. Steve Martin has, instead, turned his hand to writing books. It's not as abrupt a career change as it first seems - Martin began as a writer, submitting material to TV comedy shows before launching a dazzling career as a stand-up comedian, then moving into film acting. These auspicious beginnings suggest that this third book, his first full-length novel, will be as hilarious as his comic work. Not a bit of it: An Object of Beauty aims more to educate than to amuse, touring us through two decades of boom and bust in the New York art world.

The plot, such as it is, follows the young wannabe art dealer Lacey Yeager as she attempts to establish her reputation. Glamorous lovers, money and success come easily to her, but a fall awaits. All this is seen through the eyes of a university friend, Daniel, but these characters, their lovers and intrigues are almost beside the point: this is a portrait of an era - the 1990s; the early years of this century - in which art became a repository for dizzying sums of money. As such, the book is hard to pin down: its flat surfaces and breathless but strangely eventless plot feel like failings, but they could also stand in as clever commentary on an affectless world in which huge amounts of cash are passed around like complimentary bar snacks.

Steve Martin collects art and moves in art-world circles in real life; the art dealer Larry Gagosian threw him a book-launch party. Fittingly, Gagosian has a couple of glancing cameos in An Object of Beauty: "His week with her extended over Labor Day, and they went to Larry Gagosian's house in the Hamptons for an all-day party. Barton Talley was not invited, being a rival dealer, but Hinton Alberg was there and he greeted Lacey warmly." This kind of fluff might alert you to the territory occupied by this puzzling novel. Though it signals its literary ambitions, it reads at times like the well-thumbed gossip pages of a society magazine. The mix of real and fictional personae is an arch sleight of hand that continues throughout.

We eavesdrop at an art-fair dinner as a select group of collectors and curators discuss art like a room full of undergraduates: "'Look,' said Hinton, 'up to the Seventies, art proceeded in movements. Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, so everyone, including me, was on the lookout for the next movement. But instead, art in the Eighties was at an evolutionary moment where it split into chimps, birds, fish, plants, and cephalopods all at once.'"

Didactic and heavy with research, passages like this suggest that Martin's ear for dialogue has gone temporarily deaf: as he aims not just to tell a story but to give an art history class. To underline this point, 24 colour reproductions of paintings appear throughout the book. It's a bold move, but it doesn't quite pay off - the appearance of the real thing displaces Martin's careful descriptions and allusions. Above a tiny colour reproduction of John Singer Sargent's painting El Jaleo, we're told, "In Lacey, the picture aroused her deep hunger for wild adventure that could not be fulfilled by a trip to Boston in modern times." Really? The reproduced image, tamely compressed into under half a page, doesn't seem to support such an extravagant response. If the disappointing facsimile weren't there, it would be easier to believe in the painting's power.

There's a similar problem with the character of Lacey, who is hard to warm to. We keep hearing how charming, witty and brilliant she is, but when Martin does treat us to a dose of her charisma it comes across as hamfisted, even rude. Witness the following exchange: "The Avery, stowed overhead in the steel-pipe luggage rack, was projecting out just enough to thwack a man on the forehead. Lacey's rifle response, said before she even turned her head - 'You can sue me, but I've got nothing' - charmed the man enough that he said, 'Is this seat taken?' "

The stranger turns out to be none other than the writer John Updike, in yet another real-life cameo. The inclusion suggests that Martin's literary ambitions lie in Updike territory, but he doesn't have Updike's famous ability to hone a sentence. In any case, that kind of polish isn't to everyone's taste, and Martin is often on stronger ground when he sticks to brisk, functional prose befitting his early training as a screenwriter.

Indeed, An Object of Beauty is at its best when it steers closest to this form. A very short chapter condenses more of the contradictions and tensions of Lacey's life into a few sentences than most of the preceding pages, concluding: "It was the most expensive thing she owned, so she hung it in a place of honour in her new flat, where absolutely no visitor, art-wise or not, ever noticed or commented on it."

The book's pace and scale are compelling. We rattle through two decades at a cracking speed, with many chapters coming in at a breathless page or two. Daniel, the underwritten narrator, gives an awestruck account of Lacey's career that reads like a novelisation of a CV. It's like hearing gossip about a real but barely known person, perhaps a distant relative. In fact, much that happens in this book is at one remove, including important plot points - thefts, scams and romance are all announced after the event, as if the novel is lagging behind its own plot. Because so much happens in retrospect, it's hard to care when the consequences are finally revealed.

Martin is on more confident territory when dealing with the lives of the super-rich: "As Patrice waited in the Concorde lounge, he noticed a change in the usual demographics. The Americans, English, and French were being displaced by Russians, Arabs, who not only could afford to bring their entire families on the plane even though there was no discounted child's fare, but would also buy blocks of seats so no one could sit next to them." These glimpses are fascinating because of their habituated tone and the strange spectacle of the merely very rich gawping at the excesses of the extremely rich.

The instructional passages on art history come across as intrusions into what is, after all, supposed to be the story of one woman's experiences. As the novel limps to its finish, Martin characteristically takes some time out to tell us, "White became the default colour for modern gallery walls as early as the 1920s, when Bauhaus rigour dictated it. White feigned neutrality, but it was loaded with meaning. It was the severe reaction to Victorian darkness, to the painted walls of Art Nouveau and the elegant wood panels of Art Deco." This is a crisp summary of an important moment in art history, but it does not belong in fiction. This elision of two registers, the novelistic and the art-historical, is brave but jarring. Martin's subject is the art world, not the people in it, but his account of it is too loving and respectful to come alive.

A recent article by the art critic Ben Davis on artnet.com notes that, far from being a world unto itself, the art world "is, at most, a theatre for people's professional aspirations, a stage that serious artists pass through and then transcend. When you have learned its terms and then learned not to care about it, you have achieved a kind of state of grace, and that is where good art begins."

Judging by An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin is far from achieving that state of grace. The narrative is in an arriviste thrall to the perceived glamour and intrigue of the art world. But outside the academy and the auction house, art is only interesting insofar as it relates to the wider world. Despite its ambition and reach, An Object of Beauty falls far short of finding a point of real connection between the machinations of art insiders and the wider questions of art and life.

Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and Intelligence Squared.