Monday, July 30, 2012

An Object of Pure Enjoyment

An Object of BeautyAn Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was am completely charmed by this book.

Full disclosure: I wasn't expecting much of Steve Martin. I haven't read Shopgirl, and I think I was secretly expecting something lowbrow and full of the outlandish masquerading as the comic, like The Jerk in novel form. But from the moment I opened to the first page, I was pleasantly surprised:
I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else.
That first sentence (okay, aside from the unnecessarily split infinitive) is practically pitch perfect. It sets forth the conceit of the book, a faux roman à clef, and gives you a glimpse of the relationship between the subject and the narrator: she is someone who has left an indelible imprint on his life, and writing this story is his attempt to move on.
I will tell you her story from my own recollections . . . [but if] you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don't. I have found that -- just as in real life -- imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.
I love how this sentence forgives the narrator for knowing too much. A curious strength of this book is the distance of the narrator from the story. For much of it he is not directly involved, and so the narrative is more third-person than first-person, despite the directed-at-the-reader exposition I've quoted above. The wonderful thing about this is that it imitates, or perhaps even symbolizes, his relationship with Lacey: she is obviously important to him (he's writing her story, for God's sake), but he is also aware that he is not terribly important to her, so too many first-person sentences would exaggerate his significance to her story.

I also love this book for what it's not. It's not pretentious, despite the gorgeous color reproductions of artwork that are scattered throughout, and some almost tongue-in-cheek use of art-world argot. It isn't overly plotted, either; the story unfolds in a natural, lifelike way, by which I mean that it's not always exciting or dramatic, but there is almost always something worth observing. It doesn't try too hard to be profound, and despite raising a few questions of ethics I'm not sure there's any big moral to take away, just food for thought. (Or maybe not so much "food" as hors d'oeuvres: small, perfect bites that fill you up without your realizing it.)

And I love, love the quiet, uncertain-but-hopeful note on which it ends. The last paragraph, like the opening sentence, is absolutely pitch perfect.

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