What gets stuck in the eye of the beholder?

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.