Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written ca. 1136, mixed fact and fantasy in such a delightful way that it fooled historians for centuries. Raphael Holinshed included its nonsense as truth in his 1577 Holinshed’s Chronicles, which Shakespeare used as a source for the plays Macbeth and King Lear. This weave of history and fiction, of the real and the imaginary -- sometimes now dubbed "faction" -- can be so nimble that it is nigh impossible to sort out.
A new novel in this vein is Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty, which chronicles the dramatic expansion of the New York art world from the early 1990s into the 21st century. The book brims with real artists, critics, dealers and galleries, all so well conflated with fictional ones that I was repeatedly made to feel the fool as I checked unfamiliar names through Google.
An Object of Beauty contains insider descriptions of the Serra installation at Gagosian Gallery, tours through the Robert Miller stable, discussions of Exit Art and 303 Gallery. It has a consideration of literary theory with Peter Schjeldahl, a lament on the Cedar Tavern, comment on Chuck Close and Florine Stettheimer, and a note on the correct number of Joseph Beuys’ edition of felt suits.
Martin certainly launched his career as a "wild and crazy guy" and is undeniably a comic genius still, but he has his fine art credentials, not least as a former trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a collector specializing in American art, who sold an Edward Hopper painting at auction in 2006 for a record $26.9 million.
But Martin has an abiding interest as well in the hero as con man, as in comedies like Bowfinger (1999) or the thriller Traitor (2008), for which he co-wrote the story. Martin’s novella Shop Girl (2001) prompted reviewer John Lanchester to note "Martin’s steady drift toward seriousness," and his taste for Gatsby-like pretenders is reflected as well in An Object.
Our Nick Carraway here is a self-effacing art critic for ARTnews named Daniel Chester French Franks, who tells from a great distance with some omniscience the tale of one Lacey Yeager, whose maturation drama takes her from the enthusiasms of art history to the pinnacle of the Chelsea art world. Her name shares homophony with a Shop Girl supporting character, the promiscuous Lisa Cramer, who used sex "for attracting and discarding men." Lacey, for her part, sees men as "pesky annoyances, small dust-devils at her feet," a sentiment that might be common enough in chick lit or even Harlequin Romance but somehow seems more complex coming from a male writer like Martin.
Indeed, one of the more memorable scenes has Lacey having sex in an art dealer’s back room underneath a Matisse, which provides some sort of transport the dealer cannot. Not to give too much away, but the plot also involves a possibly purloined Vermeer, a scam involving the Hermitage and the forgotten 19th-century painter Ivan Aivavzovsky and some funny business with a work by Maxfield Parrish.
Martin doubles down with the wisecracks after Lacey moves from uptown to open her own space in Chelsea, where "new galleries sprouted overnight lacking only fungi domes." The fictional artist Pilot Mouse -- I mouse with the Pilot Mouse brand -- is a grifter who smears truffle oil on his stretchers to engage a collector with "an odor best discerned by a pig." Art jargon is merely the "smarty pants version of car dealer’s" hustle. At dinner at a collector’s house, one savvy dealer gets an advantage when another, the thin one, heads for the loo to throw up. Brutal.
The storm of art world money dissipates in the third act as the recession takes hold and the "only things missing in Chelsea were tumbleweeds." The novel has become a morality tale for those who pawned their "object of beauty." It's a bit sad, and a letdown, too similar to what happened in real life. Steve Martin, the comic, has written a serious novel, a work of literature with the dalliance and detours of a living experience of a time and place.
JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.