What gets stuck in the eye of the beholder?

An Object of Beauty
Steve Martin

It’s been a while since there has been a book report on Monochromatic Outlook. It’s bad enough that I haven’t written the book reports; what is worse is that I’ve read so many fewer books. It’s not even that I’ve started books that I haven’t finished, but reading itself has fallen away dramatically.

I have been reading again—not just for work and not just for fun. Perhaps like many things one must step away to renew one’s interest or take a break in order to come back stronger. So now it is time to start catching up on the book reports. To my chagrin, I have to reach back to the end of 2010 to find the earliest book that I failed to write about.

Steve Martin’s 2010 novel, An Object of Beauty, is about many kinds of beauty. It’s a story that takes place in and around the industry of fine art—the high-end auction houses, the galleries and yes, even some artists.

There is an irony to the title because the world Martin portrayed is a bit ugly, but the unpleasant business around fine art is itself in service to beauty. Perhaps Martin was working around the idea of beauty and what lies behind it, that which surrounds beauty and which surrounds itself with it, and who and what covets those things of beauty.

The novel is as much about authenticity as it is about beauty or at least about the hidden natures of those things of beauty and how the value that we put on beauty is something that we attach more than it is an intrinsic attribute of any object we call beautiful.

The story is about a an art student turned art dealer turned art collector, told through the eyes of a classmate of hers who is attracted to her. Though it should be said that this attraction to the protagonist is not an attribute which makes him unique. As Martin describes her she could well be the thing of beauty to which the title refers.

Martin’s narrative «voice» is pleasant and easy to follow. He draws the reader in to the world he weaves as though making a friendly invitation. I’ve enjoyed reading whatever I’ve read of his. Though the world he spins is a bit sparse. His characters and situations, and the sense of the environments in which they dwell, are all thoughtfully fleshed out. Yet it feels as though there is nothing behind it, no context. It is as if the world outside the immediate surroundings of the story doesn’t exist.

This quality works for Martin in a way. There is a sort of stage-theater quality to Martin’s writing. What is presented to us is lush and complex, but always with a sense that the story is here for our entertainment and amusement, or edification if «amusement» has a cheap quality to it.

There isn’t anything wrong with this approach, and I’ve come to appreciate it as part of Martin’s style, but it is in some ways limiting. As compelling as his stories and characters can be, without being grounded in a larger cosmos they can lose relevance and impact.

Mr Martin has successfully stepped out from his own shadow and carved a niche for himself as a writer, not just a former comic. An Object of Beauty is much more ambitious than Shopgirl was, and more rewarding as well.

Reading interval: 
Tuesday, 30 November 2010 to Saturday, 5 February 2011
Apple Product ID: