Not Quite a Genuine Likeness

‘Steve Martin doesn’t feed off the audience’s energy—he instills energy in the audience,” the movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote. “And he does it by drawing us into a conspiratorial relationship with him.” Over the past decade, Mr. Martin has diverted some of that energy into writing three rather serious novels. Are readers as prepared to collaborate in Mr. Martin’s storytelling as his legions of fans were in his stand-up?

“Shopgirl” (2000), Mr. Martin’s debut novella, was a pensive Beverly Hills romance with a varnish of foreign-film sophistication. But its spell was ruined by a hectoring omniscient narrator who repeatedly flouted the Novel 101 rule of characterization: Show, don’t tell. Three years later, “The Pleasure of My Company” showed much improvement, enhanced by the affecting voice of its emotionally challenged protagonist, who sought and eventually found human connection despite his fear of leaving his Santa Monica apartment. Here the narration succeeded in creating an alliance with readers instead of a barrier against them.

How disappointing, then, to note that voice and character have become obstacles for Mr. Martin once again. “An Object of Beauty” is the tale of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious young woman navigating her way through the Manhattan art world. The novel’s narrator is an old friend of Lacey’s, an art critic named Daniel, who chronicles her rise to prominence from an entry-level cataloguing job in the basement of Sotheby’s auction house.

Problem No. 1 here is Daniel, whose role as narrator so eclipses his presence as a character that he seems more voice-over than earthling. In fact, he is not physically present for most of the novel’s key scenes, though he can describe them in detail. “If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don’t,” he admits. “I have found that—just as in real life—imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.”

Readers may be willing to go along with this contrivance, up to a point. That’s when they realize that all the novel’s characters are nearly as insubstantial as Daniel. Lacey, for instance, is a one-note song of self-interest, willing to engage in all kinds of deceitful behavior to realize her dreams of buying and selling art. To inject some complexity into her personality, Daniel remarks on her “joie de vivre,” her “openness to adventure,” her “sense of fun.” Yet all we see of her in action is a grim, calculating climber, outlined in such broad strokes that we are not moved to feel anything for her at all.

If the characters are so flimsy, then what holds this novel aloft? It turns out that the main event is a series of disquisitions about modern art, accompanied by reproductions of the works—by the likes of Milton Avery, Andy Warhol and Robert Gober—under discussion.

Occasionally these orations come from characters, including Daniel the narrator, but more often they seem to appear from on high, like leaflets from a helicopter. Sometimes they are incisive (“All great pictures flow toward museums”); at other times they are prosaic (“The Guggenheim Museum is Frank Lloyd Wright’s questionable masterpiece that corkscrews into Fifth Avenue”). Together they tell a coherent story about the art market of the past several decades: its booms and busts, speculators and crooks, triumphs and fiascos. But despite Mr. Martin’s diligent efforts they are, by fiction-writing rules, only information dumps, distracting readers again and again from Lacey’s story.

Readers looking for more seamless collaborations with art-world novels might turn to Michael Cunningham’s “By Nightfall” or Fernanda Eberstadt’s “When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth.” These authors don’t allow their books’ milieu to engulf their characters, a predicament Mr. Martin has not been so fortunate, this time, to avoid.

Ms. Rifkind is a critic in Los Angeles.


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