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Art journalist Daniel Franks tells the story of Lacey Yeager, who works in Manhattan art galleries and auction houses, selling modern art. He views her with a jaundiced eye although he used to have a crush on her. They are now in their forties, but Franks goes back to the start of her career in the 1980s. She is very ambitious but she is new to the art world and has to learn her way. Franks paints Lacey as a beautiful monster: early on, she says she wants to get a dog -- an old one because it will be less of a commitment. At some crucial points in the novel, she shows herself ready to lie and cheat, and she never forms a permanent loving relationship with another person. She likes sex on the first date, but not on the second date. She takes drugs with hardly a second thought, and never gets hooked. When talking to her, Franks feels boring while she talks about her "salacious and determined" adventures. As the years pass, she becomes increasingly successful, until she opens her own gallery: she is set to become one of the big players in the Manhattan art world, but she ultimately does not achieve what she wants.
So there's a question about how Martin intends for his novel to be understood. Is it a satire about the art world, or a morality tale? Is it a serious novel or a comedy? In the unabridged audiobook, Campbell Scott reads with full soberness, with no hint of Franks's anger, bitchiness, or schadenfreude. But it could be read in a very different voice, aiming for far more humor and archness. It is far from clear that Scott made the right choice -- the performance might have been considerably more enjoyable in a livelier, breathless reading. I would like to hear David Sedaris or Seth Rogan doing the audiobook as a comparison.
There are signs that Martin himself is earnest as an author here: the print copy of the book contains many color reproductions of the artworks mentioned in the book. In the publicity surrounding the release of the book at the end of 2010, he appeared in Manhattan art galleries and made clear that he is friends with the owners. While this is a story about one person's amorality, there's little suggestion that Martin thinks that the modern art world is particularly morally corrupt. For most of the novel, the beauty of the art rises above the pettiness of the people selling it. No artists feature significantly in the story, and all reports of them by the main characters take them seriously, with no doubt cast on the sincerity or worthiness of their projects.
Yet if Martin is full of admiration for modern art and those who deal in it, then why write a novel in which the main protagonist is such an unsympathetic character? Does Martin want to have his cake and eat it too, both showing solidarity with his art friends and also saying it is not all perfect? It's hard to say. If he had wanted to poke fun at modern art, it would have been very easy to do so, and he chose not to. The result is a curiously sincere work about art combined with a drama about art dealers. It's an unusual novel that may not appeal much to most Steve Martin fans, but is in fact quite memorable.
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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