Theft: A Love Story.
Random House. 2006. 269 pp.
ISBN 1 74051 256 1.
"Whatever you want to invent in the art world has been done," Peter Carey is reported to have said in a recent Sydney Morning Herald interview. So, is that why the main character in his new novel, Theft, is an Australian version of Gulley Jimson in Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth?
"Theft," says the publisher's blurb, explores "ideas of art, fraud, responsibility and redemption," and Michael Boone, who is the chief narrator of the story, is, like Gulley Jimson, an "artist, con man and aging lover" (to pick at random from some Internet synopses of The Horse's Mouth). Like Gulley, he has just been released from jail when he begins to tell his story. Like Gulley, he is scornful of normal, polite conventions, and he lets nothing stand in the way of his art. Michael Boone's art is unconventional and "Modern," and the masterpiece on which he works has the Biblical title "I, The Speaker, Ruled As King Over Israel." Gulley Jimson, too, was painting a huge, modern work on a Biblical theme. And, like Gulley, Michael Boone (or Butcher Bones as he is called throughout most of Theft) is in dispute with his ex-wife over possession of his own work which, as Butcher Bones puts it, has been declared by divorce lawyers to be "Marital Assets." More than anything else, it is Butcher Bones's attitude towards the law, art dealers, art collectors, fashions in art, the gullibility and ignorance of the general public, and his own unquestioning belief in his own artistic genius, which exactly reflects that of Gulley Jimson. Jimson's saving grace, however, is his Blakean vision and his ability to see through the surface ugliness of the world and the people around him to the essential beauty beneath. Butcher Bones has no such spiritual depth. As his brother tells us, he does not believe in God or in miracles, and he relies solely on his own judgment, especially in his estimation of his own worth.
In spite of all this, Theft is also very different from A Horse's Mouth. Most obviously, its narrator is as true-blue Aussie as any uncouth, foul-mouthed, alcohol-fueled, football fan can be. If you choose to spend time with him as he tells his story, then there is no point in getting prune-face and prissy about his attitude toward women or about his scorn for all those he robs, sponges on, and deceives. In his eyes, they are all fools. His greatest admiration—his enduring love, as he proclaims poetically at the end of the book—is given to the equally ruthless and immoral young woman in whose art fraud he becomes embroiled, and whose own selfishness ultimately exceeds his own.
Theft is different from Joyce Cary's book, too, in that it not only raises questions of authenticity in art through the words and actions of its main character, but it also embodies them in its creation and publication. Peter Carey may, or may not, have stolen Joyce Cary's artist idea (this book is, after all, entitled "Theft"), and perhaps a court case like that involving The Da Vinci Code is a possibility, and he may or may not have imitated some of Cary's brush-strokes, so-to-speak, but this book is also distinctively Peter Carey's own work. Much of this is due to his creation of Hugh, Michael's "damaged two-hundred-and-twenty-pound brother." "Hugh the poet and Hugh the Murderer, Hugh the Idiot Savant," as Michael describes him, is the second narrator in this book, and he is a fine creation.
Hugh became Michael's responsibility after attempting to murder their father. He describes himself as "Slow Bones," and much of the time he is lucid and amiable, but he is prone to uncontrollable fits of rage, and he tends to speak in CAPITAL LETTERS. Hugh makes a wonderful foil for Michael; both are mad in their own way (as was the whole family, it seems), and often their "voices" are not easily distinguishable. At times I could only determine who was speaking by the sudden eruption of capitals in the text. Nevertheless, Hugh is uniquely valuable as an observer and as a recorder of family history which, in his parroted phrases and borrowed opinions, can be very funny. He may have spent his time from fourth grade on sitting on a chair in the school playground, but he knows that "MAKING ART" is very much like being a butcher (which was the family business in the small Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh): "the labour never ends, no peace, no Sabbath, just eternal churning and cursing and worrying and fretting and there is nothing else to think of but the idiots who buy it or the insects destroying TWO-DIMENSIONAL SPACE." Hugh's job, whilst Michael is painting his masterpiece in a borrowed, bug-infested studio on a New South Wales country property, is to remove the bodies of dead flies, "the fluff and bumph and snot of life" from the Dulux-painted surface, and to fetch and carry and be, as he plaintively complains, "his MANSERVANT."
The third important character in Theft is the young woman, Marlene, wife of a famous artist's son and (due to her 'eye' and her husband's total disinterest in art) effective wielder of the droit morale by which paintings are authenticated. She erupts into the Bones brothers' lives, becomes Michael's lover, manipulates art sales and art thefts and art frauds, and in the end shows herself to be as untrustworthy and mad as they are.
As for being a love story, as the sub-title claims, there are many ways to interpret that. There is Michael's love of Marlene, which may be love in his terms, but which seems very much more like lust, admiration, and puzzlement. There is Michael's love for Hugh, which is equally often an onerous duty. And there is his love for his art, although he is not above forging a piece of work by another artist, copying his brush-strokes exactly, adopting and adapting his style, and then revelling in the art-world's acceptance of what he clearly regards as his own masterpiece. At least Gulley Jimson forged an early Jimson and could be rightly proud that it was all his own work.
The twists and turns of the plot in Carey's book keep you on your toes. The book's Australian flavour, too, is strong, although some of the action also takes place in America and Japan. But this book does Australia no favors, feeding instead a popular caricature of Australia as a cultural desert inhabited by ex-convicts, frauds and uncouth, boozy larrikins. Interviewers, so far, have concentrated on trying to establish a biographical link between Peter Carey and his main character (both were born in Bacchus Marsh, both are divorced, both have young sons, both are creators) but Carey has been fiercely dismissive of such suggestions. Maybe, however, Michael Boone is Carey's alter-ego in a rather different way. Maybe both are masters of artistic theft.
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