Peter Carey: Theft: A Love Story

Carey, Peter (2007), Theft: A Love Story, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23150-8

It’s quite frightening to hear that Peter Carey’s 2006 novel Theft: A Love Story is not his best work. It is frightening because it is such an extraordinary success on almost every level. Theft manages to do so much in so few pages and yet it succeeds in never sounding convoluted or dense. It’s is a funny, suspenseful read, a book sure to appeal to almost every reader. In it, Carey manages to craft a story steeped in Australian history and culture, in art and art history, a book that tells a fast, noir-ish tale, and is linguistically sophisticated and inventive, reaching as far into theory as Deleuze. Sure, there are slow moments in the book now and then, but they are an exception. Sure, too, it lacks plausibility in many places, but despite the realistic varnish and the noir genre borrowings, Theft isn’t supposed to be awfully plausible (in terms of verisimilitude) anyway. There are other minor flaws, but the good aspects dominate the reader’s impressions of Theft.

Among these, two achievements in particular stand out. The first is Carey’s treatment of othered speech, by which I mean the speech of a character marked as “slow”. The speech and the character attached to it are finely tailored to convey to the readers the complexities of having a mind that is regarded as deviant by your compatriots, without lapsing into exploitative and exotic exaggeration. The second success in Theft is Carey’s thorough and inspired discussion of art, originality and forgery. One of his protagonists speaks of art at great length, delivering several long rants. Peter Carey is not afraid to be precise and explicit about the techniques of creating and selling art, yet we never feel lectured to. Theft is evidence of impressive insights into art, artistic inspiration and the accompanying frustrations. The result of all this is a book that I’d easily recommend to anyone interested in the topic, or, well, anyone, really. Theft: A Love Story is a very, very good novel.

The basic story revolves around two brothers, Michael and Hugh Boone, also known as Butcher Bones and Slow Bones, who get involved in an elaborate, and ultimately murderous, art scam. As Hugh has it: “Phthaaaa! We are Bones, God help us, raised in sawdust, dry each morning.” The change from ‘Boones’ to ‘Bones’ is one of several absorbing, meaningful details. For one thing, “Bones” invokes a child-like, fairy-tale setting, a children’s story, which is a genre where aptronymns are quite common, where names are tailored to fit themes of the story and to suggest elements to come or destinies to be fulfilled, they also tend to add an additional layer of characterization. Changing the name of the Boones to “Bones” is relevant to the book’s major topics in still more ways: since part of the central theme of Theft is Australia, especially in relation to other countries, I’d suggest that “Boone” is an oblique reference to Daniel and Squire Boone, two famous historical figures connected to the myth of the American Frontier. In contrast, Hugh says “[w]e are the nation of Henry Lawson”, a realistic writer, often credited with dismantling the myth of the Australian Bush.

This possible reference to Daniel Boone is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in Theft. The amount of Australian references that even I was able to catch suggest that a reader more knowledgeable about antipodean literatures and history than me would unearth multitudes. As is, I felt sometimes a bit shortchanged, bewildered by names and places that Carey just assumes the reader to understand and contextualize. Some are explicit, like the mention of Lawson, but one suspects quite a few others lurking in place-names and other nooks. This is not a significant problem, however, since Theft is written with a very clear and precise sense of place. Carey constructs a version of Australia, Japan or the United States that works like a charm even for provincial, untraveled readers like me. The reader understands what any given place is supposed to signify, how it works within the story and how it interacts with the characters.

The plot is, typical for noir fiction, very convoluted and dense, relying strongly on revelations and twists. Much of it reminded me of Michael Frayn’s exhilarating and taxing 1999 novel Headlong. Some passages and plot elements in Theft contain such strong parallels to Headlong that it’s hard to imagine Carey not having had Frayn’s novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize, now and then in mind. In Headlong, Frayn’s protagonist is an art historian, who believes to have uncovered a Brueghel painting heretofore unattributed to the great Flemish master. In his manic attempts to prove his theory and acquire the painting without letting its owner find out about its supposed great value, he entangles himself in a web of lies, deceit and crime. There is no happy ending in the cards for Frayn’s protagonist, which the author lets us know early. The whole of Headlong pretends to be the protagonist’s own account, including an introduction and an afterword ‘written’ by him.

This is not the case in Theft, although Carey’s novel is similarly transparent as a written artifact. None of the Bones explicitly mentions the writing process, but they both narrate the book (first person narrators, both) and Michael ‘Butcher Bones’ Boone for example frequently employs literary techniques such as foreshadowing or flashbacks, cleanly recognizable as such. The difference between these two set-ups, despite their similarities, closely corresponds to another difference between the two books. Headlong is about art history, it’s a novel as much concerned with the interconnections of archives and memory as with the actual art. Frayn’s readers are treated to extensive lectures on the history of Flemish art, and are offered art as an object, something that you look at from a distance, something to be contextualized. The art history in it is not imaginary, it largely contains knowledge that the reader is also privy to, that he may even know. Departures from that common knowledge and the inventions are meant to create a contrast to the archived bits.

In contrast to that, Peter Carey’s approach is different. He invents everything, the artists, the relevant sections of art history and so on, but more importantly, his protagonist Butcher Bones is not an art historian, he’s an artist, one who used to be quite famous, actually. Released from prison after serving a sentence for burglary he is content to get back to being a painter. His crime was having broken into his old house, now inhabited by his ex-wife, and Butcher Bones attempted to forcibly retrieve some of his own paintings, since “my own best work […] had been declared Marital Assets” (italics his) and had been lost in the ensuing divorce. This crime, as happens a few times in this dense and interlaced novel, already contains in nuce the tensions and questions that preoccupy the whole book: what is the economic and historical relationship of an artist to his work? What happens after a painting is finished, how does it end up in other people’s hands? How does this tie into questions of authorship, ownership and originality? One of the strengths of Theft is that it doesn’t present answers, merely suggestions.

In a patron’s house in a rural area in northern New South Wales, Butcher Bones sets up shop, builds a studio, nails a canvas to a wooden frame, buys colors and starts painting. This whole process is told in admirable detail. Butcher tells us about the types of colors he uses, about the types of nails, screws and wood utilized in his endeavors, but we are never overwhelmed. Instead, he involves us in his art, lets us be part of the small world he constructs in the house he doesn’t own. It’s a bit like listening to the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (my review here). Unlike Baker’s lonely poet, Butcher’s not alone, he never is, Hugh always accompanies him. Hugh is a bit slow, hence his nickname ‘Slow Bones’. He is obsessed with chairs and quick to wreak violence, with a special predilection for biting fingers. He has trouble reading or understanding maps and is very quickly lost in any kind of urban setting. But his apparent slowness and supposed mental deficiencies are much less pronounced in the book than they seem in this summary.

This is because Hugh and Michael narrate the story in alternating chapters. The chapters don’t overlap, there’s no cute ‘alternative view’ of events. Turns out, Hugh’s part of the narrative is not more obtuse or simple-minded than Michael’s. It’s different, but not in a “slow” way, if anything, it’s more complex and nuanced. Michael’s narration is maudlin, self-obsessed and a bit depressed. He uses low and high brow language both, equally at home in talking about art, talking to buddies or relating “shitty stuff”. These chapters do most to advance the story because they are conventional and told in a linguistically lean way, quickly stringing together events, except for the occasional monologue. Hugh, in contrast, uses a more sophisticated language that contains insights about art, about personal relationships as well as blunt retellings of events. Michael, exasperated over his brother, exclaims once “[w]ho could explain the dark puzzle of Slow Bones’ folded brain?” This sentence, meant to disparage his brother, to show impatience with his being too slow, not functional enough, is, however, revealing and helpful in understanding Hugh and through him, much of Theft.

See, Hugh’s language is much more careful than his brother’s, it displays a much greater awareness of words and syntax. Instead of relating linguistic platitudes like Michael, common in conventional speech, he tends to quote platitudes, not by using inverted commas or other markers (although he does capitalize words now and then, a fact that emphasizes the ‘written’ quality I mentioned earlier), but by speaking/writing in a pastiche of the person, book or statement quoted. Hugh’s chapters are the most fun to read, they are open and almost without guile. Evil and suspicions are quoted, distanced, looked on askance. Now and then he displays cunning, but its never terribly clever. Yet a comparison of Hugh’s and Butcher’s credulity shows us two people almost equally likely to be duped, made fun and taken advantage of. Hugh’s cunning, his naivete and wisdom are not that of how we often suppose the mentally impaired to be, but that of child’s literature. Personally, I’ve long considered the best prose work written for children to have qualities that approaches very good poetry or the work of a writer such as Samuel Beckett.

In all these cases one is likely to find a certain delight in words and an independence of simple conventionalisms, as well as a mixture of lightness and bleakness, which in Beckett’s work is often mistaken for absurdity. I think it’s a paying of close attention to the cog wheels of language, thought and of the structure of images and an awareness of the difficulty of unmooring our actions from conventional patterns and a false implicitness of common sense judgments. Much of that kind of thinking is implicit in those of Theft‘s chapters which are narrated by Hugh. Butcher’s difficult brother has, as Michael said, a “folded brain”. To most readers, this will immediately recall Deleuze’s concept of the fold, elaborated upon specifically in the marvelous book-length essay Le Pli: Leibniz et le baroque (1988) and his book on Foucault (1986). Hugh’s narrative is actually the revealing, clear one, in it you can find the outside and its sounds and shouts folded into his own meandering ruminations. The end result of this is a narrative that seems at times like adult child’s patter, straight out of some strange, slightly surreal tale.

The fact of the matter is, Carey puts quite a strong emphasis on the genres of folk tales, fairy tales and child’s literature. Evidence of this is, for example, his foregrounding of Norman Lindsay’s classic children’s book The Magic Pudding (1918). Several characters in the book self-identify with characters from the book. Hugh especially uses other people’s knowledge of The Magic Pudding as an indicator of their soundness of character and taste, and it should have been a warning to him (and us) when a new acquaintance expresses sympathy for the book’s villains, the pudding thieves. The Magic Pudding is a book about three friends who walk through the world, dining each evening and each morning on a steak-and-kidney pudding which is not only alive, but can also never be depleted. Regularly they are set upon by a pair of pudding thieves, who manage, with the help of trickery and cunning, to steal the pudding a few times. The three friends manage to get them back due to the fact that one among them is equally cunning and devises clever plans to steal the pudding back. The other two then proceed to punch the thieves “on the snout”.

It is significant that Hugh is adamant that he and his brother are “like Barnacle Bill and Sam Sawnoff”, the two punchers of snouts. Clever people around them tend to outwit them and it is pure strength and stubbornness that propels the Bones forward through all the complications, the crimes and the occasional bout of misery. But, unlike Headlong, Theft never really gives in to that misery, the darkness of the noir genre. The subtitle of Carey’s novel is “A Love Story” and, in an oddly satisfying way, it is, in fact, a love story. The love interest here is Marlene, an art connoisseur who’s married to the son of the widow of a famous mid-century artist. In the time-frame of the book, the artist (Leibovitz) is long dead, so is his widow Dominique. Her son, Oliver, has inherited precious little, but one important thing he does own: the right to authorize Leibovitz pictures. He has the right to say which picture is a ‘real Leibovitz’ and which isn’t. The twist is this: Dominique proceeded, immediately after her husband’s death, to hide unfinished canvases, and doctored them later on to make them more expensive. Marlene, an ambitious but provincial woman with a criminal record, refined Dominique’s methods and acquired connections to art dealers all over the globe.

She meets the Bones when she visits the countryside to try and steal a Leibovitz original from one of the Bones’ neighbors. A nimble weaver of intrigues and tricks, she quickly draws the Bones into her machinations, seducing both of them: Michael sexually and Hugh emotionally. As she drags them into her plans, plans that finally result in murder, we can’t help but be fascinated by this amazing woman. Like the pudding thieves, her resources seem endless, her energy and dedication to the task is undeniable. Marlene is not a criminal who happens to do art scams: after decades of doing what she does, she has become a lover of art and an expert not just of the work of Leibovitz, but of modern art in general. Marlene is a self-made woman, an incredibly strong female character and while both narrators have limitations and weaknesses, fixed and slowed down by the narrative attention and tasks, Marlene glides through the story, stronger, and far more magnificent than either of the brothers.

On the one hand, Theft belongs to books like William Gaddis’ momentous The Recognitions. Its treatment of art and originality is rather similarly inspired and strong. There are similarities, too, to noir art tales like Headlong. But the heart of the book is staggeringly different from either of the book. These elements are additional elements on a dish that has a very peculiar, unique taste, because, when you get down to it, the Bones brothers, simple, and successful due to sheer patience and endurance finally seem to represent Australians. Not because Australians are necessarily simple or patient or stubborn, but because at the end, their art is shown to endure. It doesn’t triumph, it doesn’t vanquish other art, but it is equal to other cultural productions. In a way the book mellows out at the end. The first half throws ideas, references and places at us, but as soon as we catch our breath and have caught up with the book, it kind of peters out, but not in a bad way. Peter Carey wrote a book with an Australian story, with Australian means and references, but it’s a book that takes place all over the world, a world that accepts the odd antipodean couple into their midst.

The book (published in 2006) is set in the 1980s, and this historical purview, this gesture towards the archival dimension suggests a broader significance of the story. How far off the mark would it be to read this book, in a way the story of a convict redeeming himself through his own hard, original work, as a metaphor for the rise of the Australian nation? That may be going too far, I don’t know, but fact is, the book’s power is such that this kind of reading might just be possible. Peter Carey is an amazing novelist, if this book is any indication. With a frightful ease he weaves different, disparate threads together to weave a distinctly Australian story that has meaning and relevance for all his readers, and his prose is never less than superb and controlled. Read this book.


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One thought on “Peter Carey: Theft: A Love Story

  1. Pingback: Booker Longlist Boredom « shigekuni.

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