At the end of Shopgirl, a first novel published to cautious praise in 2000 and made into a well-received movie in 2005, Mirabelle Butterfield, a struggling artist supporting herself in a dead-end retail job, makes a vocational leap upwards to selling art in a gallery. A decade later, comedian, banjo musician, and author Steve Martin has again taken up her story’s trajectory, now moved to the opposite coast and set among different characters who play similar roles.
Martin describes his novel as operating on three not-unexpected levels: as a conventionally told story, as an essay in art criticism, and a psychological study. Each is essentially one facet of a bildungsroman, an eventful intellectual and moral biography. The story of Lacey Jeager, ambitious dealer in art, offers readers a window into the art market from the early 90s to the late “aughts”—15 years of historically unparalleled boom and bust—and the frenzy of art-making all those millions of dollars fueled. Lacey’s education in intangible value and its manipulation gives Martin an opportunity to retell the history of Modern art, with glimpses all the way back to the Baroque, bringing in undeservedly forgotten artists and crafting a new, more coherent and personal narrative, while displaying a gift for illuminating metaphors (“But when Warhol started to achieve newsworthy prices, the value of contemporary art, including art that was yet to be created, was pushed up from behind. Warhol’s presence was so vivid, so recent, that he was identified not with the dead, but as the first nugget of gold from Sutter’s Mill. The rush was on.”)
Lacey tells her story to Daniel Franks, a college friend uniquely positioned to watch her character grow and develop. He gives the story psychological, moral, and ultimately sad, if not quite tragic dimensions. If Shopgirl was emotionally remote, lacking a warm place to connect to, in An Object of Beauty Martin has found a way to tell the story that gives the human element the same warm intimacy the author evidently feels for art. The title is a pun, of course, and curiously enough in conflating the passion for art with the passion for another person neither is reduced, but both come to life. Readers will come away with a richer understanding of art and may be surprised to feel an unfamiliar sympathy for the marketplace, which turns out to be as essential a part of elevated aesthetic pleasure as the flawed persons who inhabit it.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.