Friday, December 24, 2010
An Object of Beauty
“If Yeager has a true love, it is art, not men.”
Everyone must know a Lacey Yeager. The main character in Steve Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty (Grand Central Publishing, 2010), is a self-involved, brazen, sexy young woman who uses her wiles for professional gain. She’s the kind of woman who leaves her female competitors in the dust and leaves her male onlookers dumbfounded. Good things befall her, from real estate to art investments. When a friend questions her financial success that accompanies her upward mobility from the bowels of an auction house to international travel as an art consultant, she attributes it to magic. A cynic looking closely might notice her batting her lashes, but would fail to detect her cutting corners professionally—such is the combination of cute and cunning.
Several pages in, I concluded that I needn’t continue reading for a fuller understanding of Yeager’s character because there simply couldn’t be one. Understanding Yeager is impossible except by constructing a composite of her relationships and seeing her impact on those around her. Take, for instance, the narrator Daniel Franks. A reserved art critic, he is her former classmate and one-time lover. Tired of his boring relationships, he lets Yeager use him to provoke jealousy with extra-long hugs in front of her suitors. The reader can empathize with Franks, but not with Yeager, which is the case with at least one other male character in the book. An example is when Yeager, in a drug-induced state, fondles Franks and he describes his awkwardness, to which she is utterly oblivious in the moment and thereafter. Interestingly, Franks only surfaces intermittently, making him part omniscient narrator, part character who is directly involved in the protagonist’s life. His intermittent appearance also emphasizes Yeager’s inability to get close to anyone. If Yeager has a true love, it is art, not men.
The starring role that art plays in the novel is the main reason I read on, though I persevered for other reasons too: because of confidence in Martin’s creativity; because of a promising plot that delivered; and because of a disturbing impulse akin to staring at victims of an automobile accident (I was curious to see what kind of havoc Yeager would wreak). Aside from the usual reasons to indulge in fiction, there are incentives for art lovers. The book is peppered with colour reproductions of works of art integral to the story. For those less familiar with art, Martin’s Art History 101 is stellar. He also encapsulates the quirkiness of the contemporary art world with gem-like descriptions such as ‘high-craft OCD.’ The expository sections aren’t overly long, nor are they obvious in performing this function. Two notable examples are Martin’s inclusion of 9/11 and the 2008 recession. Both of these driving forces in the art market coincide with Yeager’s major career moves, one being the opening of a gallery and the other being a major investment in foreign art; this strategy allows Martin to explain their substantial effect by tracing the fallout for Yeager. She is such a spitfire that these factors can’t suppress her for long. Ultimately, she falls from grace not because of these external forces, but by her own doing, which turns the book into a morality tale.
With the New Year approaching, and with it requisite self-assessment, I tried shifting the question from whether I know a Lacey Yeager (I do) to whether there is some Lacey Yeager in me. Here’s my admission: we share an appreciation for contrivance. Every move she makes is calculated and loaded, even down to her wardrobe choices. My approach to my blog is similarly controlled. If I know I’m going to attend a certain exhibition, I tailor my reading materials so I can write a post that is enhanced instead of disjointed. Thus, you can imagine my disappointment when I only made it two-thirds of the way through An Object of Beauty on my last road trip two weeks ago. It was my first time returning to New York since I moved in September, and it would have been the perfect complement since the book is set in Midtown, Uptown, and Chelsea. Alas, I was unable to get back to the book right away because I was immersed in papermaking and book binding at Sheridan. I had to face the disappointing reality that I would be reading the New York-based book on a flight to Hawaii, which was totally mismatched. As the flight was about to descend, I stowed the book because turbulence was expected and I felt it would make me an irresponsible librarian to cling to a hardcover that was a potential projectile. I picked up United Airlines’ publication, Hemisphere begrudgingly. And there it was: synchronicity. An interview with comedian Judd Apatow described how he met Steve Martin as a teenager and ended with the line, “Steve Martin is the funniest man in the world.” Mahalo, Steve Martin. (That’s ‘thank-you’ in Hawaiian).
Mele Kalikimaka! (Merry Christmas!)
Source: David Carr, “The Hemi Q & A: Judd Apatow”, Hemisphere, December 2010, pp. 64-67. Print.