The art world is a foreign country; they do things differently there. The gladiatorial arena in which creativity meets commerce is one of egos, genius and eye-watering prices; cliques and niche markets; hives buzzing with collectors and dealers hunting what Philip Hook, Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art expert, termed "the Ultimate Trophy".
I've worked at Sotheby's for nearly a decade and written for this paper for even longer. It's a peculiar sensation, then, for the two worlds to collide while reviewing Steve Martin's latest novel, An Object of Beauty. His protagonist, Lacey Yeager, is a sassy, Hawksian girl on the 1990s New York art scene. Having shimmied down the Ivy League towers into Sotheby's Manhattan sale rooms, she launches her career cataloguing 19th-century pictures.
Lacey's tale is told through the prism of Daniel Chester French Franks. Daniel and Lacey had a one-night-stand at college but settled on being friendly confidantes. Daniel is an "art writer", which means that he lives off his folks and has the odd article in ARTnews. He's an amiable narrator; both involved and removed, morally sound yet oddly complicit, rather like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He wryly archives Lacey's misadventures as she climbs the ladder of ambition and slides down the trousers of collectors.
Lacey is a looker with a Cadillac mouth. "When she came into the room," notes Daniel, "there was an adjustment in the hierarchy of women." She's trouble for men and competition for girls. Yet, she's a likeably complicated anti-heroine. Arriving with a dream from the nowhere-land of Atlanta, Lacey is the arresting frieze to whom Daniel's measured tempo is the bas-relief. Her ambition both fuels and founders her. After some political manoeuvring her stock rises, only for it to crash when she is inexplicably fired. The untold reason is one of several mysteries that Martin smudges on to his canvas of metropolitan opulence. But you can't keep a bad girl down: Lacey quickly jumps ship to the shadier corners of dealing.
Martin is a celebrated polymath: stand-up, actor, playwright and bluegrass-band leader. Yet, it's his novels that truly align his personas of jester, poet and satirist. He writes prose like he plucks a banjo: pitch-perfect. His previous novels, the low-key love stories Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, saw him focus on lives peripheral to his own celebrity arena. An Object of Beauty is positioned in a more rarified realm, one he clearly knows well. His grasp on English sartorial style may be a little weak but he is astute on the differences between uptown and downtown galleries and American and European players.
Paintings and sculpture have cameo roles that prove significant to the narrative. Key works encountered by Lacey are also illustrated. It's a wise decision, as many of Martin's fans won't recognise the references, but it also acts as a walkthrough of visual delights. It is a rare novel in which you discover Milton Avery's rich colour schemes or the sensual nudes of Maxfield Parrish (whose Daybreak is pictured above). Works are captured not just in plates but also through hip-shot wisecracks. Of Avery, we learn that "his pictures were always polite, but they were polite in the way that a man with a gun might be polite".
The merit of any novel is in readers' empathy with characters and their environment. Martin succeeds in producing it here. Lacey is glacial but alluring and Daniel a clear window on the proceedings. And of the world of high art, Martin captures its schizophrenic state of hubris and happenstance: the heady voltage of buying a masterpiece or the pleasure of navigating the contemporary art hype to discover a new, genuine talent. This is the point and the fun of the scene.
To many, the art market is an alien environment, but what Martin illustrates with considerable panache is its universal, simple appeal. A Chelsea gallery opening highlights it: "A night to be smug, cool, to dress up or dress down," acknowledges Daniel, "and to bring into focus everything one loves about oneself and make it tangible." Beneath the veneer of affluence and the language of attribution and acquisition is a world powered by the most basic human impulse: the search for happiness.