Friday, April 06, 2012

Theft: a Love Story by Peter Carey

One of Peter Carey’s biggest faults is that he is so good you can easily lose sight of just how good he really is. He draws you into the fictive dream so readily and so completely that you are lulled into complacency. You finish a Carey and think “I enjoyed that”. You probably ought to be thinking: “that was outstanding”. Like William Boyd, he is such a good storyteller it is easy to be swept away by the rollicking nature of the narrative. And among contemporary writers, Carey’s control of voice is possibly unmatchable. From his earliest short stories – and an extraordinarily varied read they provide, highly recommended – he has always relished playing with voice. In Theft: A Love Story this can be seen to great effect.

Theft is the story of the “Bones” boys, Michael “Butcher Bones” Boone and Hugh “Slow Bones” Boone, his younger brother with learning difficulties – "doughy, six foot four, filthy, dangerous-looking" – of whom Michael acts as guardian. The story is told by each brother in turn, in alternate first person chapters, thus giving free rein to Carey’s experiments with voice.

The novel begins with Butcher – an artist newly released from a prison sentence for stealing his paintings from his ex-wife – taking up residence with Hugh in his patron’s house in rural New South Wales and trying to resurrect his stalled career. Enter Marlene, an art dealer and femme fatale whose background is as murky as the art world she introduces Butcher to. For hers is not the art world he knows, full of artists painting great artworks and committed to their craft, but the financially-manipulated shadow-world behind it, replete with fraud and intrigue and criminal exploitation.

Marlene is married to Olivier Liebovitz, son of the world-famous Cubist painter Jacques Liebowitz. Olivier has inherited the droit moral, the right to authenticate paintings by his late father. It is Marlene, however, a woman with a superb eye for artistic genius, who truly exercises the function of droit moral. This is the reason for her arrival in the story, to authenticate a Liebowitz in the possession of one of Butcher’s neighbours. She duly declares it authentic and two things happen: the painting’s value soars, and it is stolen.

Butcher, of course, is immediately suspected, on account of being practically the only person within a radius of, say, five hundred miles who would understand the importance of the painting’s authentication. Having previously made himself highly unpopular with the locals anyway, he now decides it is time for him and Hugh to leave and they decamp to Sydney, where they come into contact, once more, with the mysterious Marlene. Now, her artistic eye is turned on Butcher, and she is impressed enough by his newest work to arrange an exhibition of it in Tokyo. If all that sounds improbable, you’re absolutely right. Marlene is not what she seems, and the exhibition is not what it seems. Increasingly, we come to realise that nothing in Marlene’s art world is what it seems.

Gradually it is revealed that Marlene is involved in a major scam. Liebowitz’s paintings can be divided into two phases: paintings from the earlier phase, up to the First World War, are immensely valuable; those from the later period are signficantly less so. Therefore, any painting that can be authenticated as belonging to the early period becomes massively more valuable. Paintings can, of course, be doctored, re-dated, made into something they are not, given the appearance of a genuine Leibowitz. And who better than the holder of Liebowitz’s droit moral to do such a thing? And to ensure that, once done, those judgements cannot be questioned? The story continues in Tokyo and New York as Butcher, by now totally in love with Marlene, is drawn deeer and deeper into her intrigue.

On this level alone, as a thriller set in the art world, Theft would be a fine novel. But it is much more than this. The Bones boys are wonderful creations. Butcher is irascible, a hard-drinking, argumentative, self-absorbed art obsessive. He is consumed by anger that he is no longer a great Australian artist and that his legacy is being lost. He simultaneously know his worth and rails against the world’s inability to grant him more. And Hugh, Slow Bones, our second narrator, is in a different category altogether.

Hugh presents us with an alternative view of what is happening, from the perspective of a mentally damaged individual, although as the novel proceeds we come to realise that his understanding of events, naïve and kind-hearted, is actually not that much more limited than that of his angry and cyncical brother. There is a wonderful rhythm to his speech patterns, emphasised by the FREQUENT USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS to draw his thoughts to their blunt conclusion. The challenge of maintaining a consistent, credible, but above all interesting voice for a character like Hugh would be beyond most ordinary writers. They would turn him into a caricature of what we imagine people with learning difficulties to be, with bizarre or disjointed language and convoluted thought patterns and crazy non-sequiteurs. Increasingly, they would play it for laughs. Carey avoids this pitfall and, as a result, we laugh with not at Hugh, being given privileged access to his, in its own way, highly logical, world. When talking to Butcher about his releationship with Marlene, for example, he tells us: "when I asked him whether she permitted him to put it up her bottom he smacked me across the lughole. I WAS ONLY ASKING."

The most important sentence in this novel is so important it is stated twice: “How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?” This, in effect, is the theme of the novel, and it beautifully links the corrupt art milieu in which it is set with the human relationships which reverberate within it. Butcher initially asks the question about a work of art, but by its second airing the question has taken on wider resonance: the first iteration, then, is about the theft; but the second, more importantly, refers to the titular love story. But whose love story are we talking about? The most obvious one, naturally, is that between Butcher and Marlene but, in the end, that is shown to exist only in Marlene’s shadow-world of fraud and make-believe. So no, the real love story in Theft is that between the two Boone brothers, and it is this relationship which is the most fascinating aspect of the novel, the element which makes it a great piece of writing.

In this, it is Hugh who is the foremost character. He adds a humanity and warmth which Butcher, in his anger and single-mindedness, has completely repressed. Without Hugh, those aspects of humanity and decency which genuinely reside in his brother would necessarily remain hidden: necessarily because Butcher himself is largely unaware of them. It is only through the prism of Hugh’s honest, open-hearted descriptions of events that we see the true strength of the bond between the brothers. This is truly a love story and it is a wonderful thing to behold.

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