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Bonfire of the vulgarities

Law of tooth and claw reigns in Steve Martin’s sketch of the wheeler-dealer world of high art

A Warhol shown at Christie’s sale. Steve Martin’s novel looks at commodification of art. A Warhol shown at Christie’s sale. Steve Martin’s novel looks at commodification of art. (Michael Nagle/ Bloomberg News)
By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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Most of us who pick up Steve Martin’s energetic, beautifully illustrated novel about the New York art world of the past two decades will find ourselves in terra incognita. The flora is familiar — the Van Goghs, Picassos, and Warhols that adorn our lives in one way or another — but the fauna! The exotic animals populating this landscape are a revelation, from the cheetahs who sprint across the veldt in pursuit of the loveliest gazelle to the birds of prey swooping in the darkening sky to the hyenas who slither in to grab their piece of the prize, and ultimately, to the packrats whose getting and spending has no end. It’s dangerous territory. We’re lucky to have a guide as savvy and intrepid as Martin.

The novelist-explorer delegates most of his fieldwork to the young, passive Daniel Franks, a fledgling Manhattan art writer and the narrator of “An Object of Beauty.’’ Franks and an old pal (and one-night stand), Lacey Yeager, gravitate to the New York art scene at about the same time. The tale that Franks — Nick Carraway-like — delivers is that of Lacey’s preternaturally amoral and muscular claw to the top of the wheeler-dealer world of trade in objets d’art. From “cataloging . . . nineteenth-century pictures in a dim basement’’ at Sotheby’s, the devious Lacey rises to the upper floors of the auction house and then to the upper reaches of the art world.

Carraway is indeed Franks’s literary ancestor. On the book’s jacket, Joyce Carol Oates compares “An Object of Beauty’’ to Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.’’ Though Martin does attempt, with varying degrees of success, something like Wharton’s meticulous taxonomy of New York society in the 1870s, the story mirrors more closely the not-so-subtle striving of Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby.’’

Not only the narrator, but also the “heroine’’ of “An Object of Beauty’’ recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s triumph. Like Gatsby, Lacey Yeager comes from a modest background, filled with immodest ambition. And like Daisy Buchanan, Lacey is catnip to men — “Even at the age of twenty . . . [when Lacey] left a room, there was a moment of deflation while we all returned to normal life.’’

But the closest affinity between these two books is their emphasis on the commodification of beauty. The vulgarity at the heart of the high-toned Sotheby’s and Christie’s recall Gatsby’s murky activities and tawdry aspirations. Martin repeatedly and wittily reminds us how in the philistine art world, aesthetic productions become, simply, products. “At Sotheby’s, [Lacey] started to look at paintings differently. She became an efficient computer of values. . . . A Renoir of a young girl, she had witnessed, was worth more than one of an old woman. An American western picture with five tepees was worth more than a painting with one tepee. . . . When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.’’

For Lacey, adulthood is defined not by wisdom or a growing sense of responsibility, but by ownership. After buying a small Milton Avery painting, Lacey brings it home and puts it on her wall. “In a few minutes of unexpected communion, she understood why people wanted to own these things. . . . The painting was an adult object, by and for people with grown-up eyes. . . . She wanted to grow up, no longer live like a student. Lacey knew that what she needed was an amount of money that could support her rapidly evolving taste.” It’s a scene as pathetic, though not as powerful, as Daisy Buchanan with Gatsby’s wardrobe:

“He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“ ‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed . . .’’

Unlike Jay or Daisy, though, there is nothing tender or aspirational about Lacey. Except for a certain cheerfulness and resilience, she lacks all positive human characteristics. Crafty and exploitive, she is also essentially vulgar. Martin draws her character, one feels, with an eye toward Sally Bowles and her stepdaughter Holly Golightly. But Lacey can never go lightly; she speaks her mind like those other self-obsessed sirens, but when she does, one is less charmed by her candor than put off by her crudeness.

Although there are some likable characters in “An Object of Beauty,’’ we are clearly in a post-ethical universe, where the only law is that of tooth and claw. For Martin, Lacey’s avarice is just an extreme example of the workings of the secretive, glittering, and vacuous world of high art. It’s a world that Martin knows well and describes deftly: “By 1990 the boom had withered, but before that date, carloads of inferior French paintings had been sold to the Japanese and then hurriedly crated and shipped overseas before the buyers realized that perhaps their eye for Impressionism had not been fully developed.’’

While Martin’s portrayal of this exotic world is finely drawn, his prose occasionally falters. A well-crafted sentence is too often followed by the likes of “Angela and Sharon shuffled out when the evening had deflated like a whoopee cushion after the joke’s over.’’ Any prosaic infelicities, however, are soon forgiven as Martin unfolds his ingenious plot and craftily reveals the depths to which his heroine is capable of descending.

Alec Solomita, a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville, can be reached at alecsolomita@ymail.com.

AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY
By Steve Martin
Grand Central, 295 pp., illustrated, $26.99