A year or so ago, I began announcing to various parties that I no longer had much interest in mainstream literature, that I seemed to be reading exclusively in the science fiction and fantasy fields, with an occasional weird slipstream thrown in. This was a bit of a surprise to me (the various parties I made my announcement to more-or-less shrugged), but I should have seen it coming.
What I have found over the years so attractive about sf and fantasy is that stories in these genres tend to be About Something, and they are about something less self-consciously than their mainstream counterparts, and they aren’t afraid to transport and entertain while they do so. They can be inquiries into science, politics, war, society, individual quests, religion, supernatural, psychology, humorous, adventure, and sometimes do almost all of the above within the covers of one book. Mainstream, lit-fic, seemed so bland, so two-dimensional by comparison.
Before I made the above shrug-inducing comment however, my husband gave me a new novel by Steve Martin. This was Christmas, 2010, and the new novel was An Object of Beauty. For reasons unknown, I picked it up and read it last week, and it turned out to be just what I was in the mood for.
Years ago I read Shopgirl, found it fresh and subtle, and so expected I would like this. I did. An Object of Beauty is About Something.
It is set on planet Earth, on the island of Manhattan, in the last decade of the twentieth century, and the first of the twenty-first. But with those two decades past us, hidden behind major historical and economic events, New York City in the 1990s seems as exotic as any alien planet, and its inhabitants as odd as any extraterrestrial life form. I follow our main character, a Manhattan Human named Lacey, and her friends, and I observe how they live: how they feed themselves, how they mate, and what objects they find sacred. Our first-person narrator, Daniel, understands the difficulty the reader might have entering this alien world, and is a faithful and reliable interpreter of the customs, totems, codes, and mores of this strange place and time.
The novel centers on a subculture of this alien land: The world of art, of galleries, auction houses, and money-laden collectors. It concerns the alliance, and the war, between beauty and commerce. It is all about what it means to be a sentient human in a very big universe with overwhelming forces pressed up against you. Some of those forces come from outside oneself, but many originate within. One can become a monster here without even realizing it.
Martin sees fit to include reproductions of some of the art that appears in the story. These are not glossy plates grouped in the center of the book, but simple cuts, reproductions of paintings placed precisely as they come up in the book. This makes for less-good resolution and picture quality. I found squinting, straining to see detail in these pieces. I assume, however, that this was the only way to achieve proper in-the-narrative placement, and that placement is dynamite. These pictures assault the reader. Lacey encounters them, we turn a page, and they jump out at us like highway robbers.
Reviews I glanced at were mixed. Some liked what I liked about it. Some were “disappointed.” One said (I think) that the setting overshadowed character. Aha, but for me, setting is character. These people cannot be who they are outside this setting. Some told me there were more sophisticated novels about the New York art scene. I’ve no doubt that’s true. But…for this alien to the art world, An Object of Beauty was just right.