A review of Theft by Peter Carey

Although the truth theme continues to be compelling, it never takes precedence to the original and natural integrity of the story, which is overwhelmingly entertaining, first and foremost. On pure plot and characterisation alone, Carey is a master. That Theft like all of Carey’s books, is also linguistically beautiful and full of the kind of transcendency that makes literary fiction so much more than light entertainment, is icing on what is already an excellent cake.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Theft: A Love Story (Hardcover)
by Peter Carey
Random House, $aud45.00 hb, 288 pp, ISBN: 1740512561, April 2006

Peter Carey’s novels have always traversed the line between truth and fiction, trading action for intent, and forcing the reader to re-examine what we understand as truth. He’s done this fairly overtly in his last two novels, My Life as a Fake and True History of the Kelly Gang. Both titles call attention to the truth theme and by following a thread where fiction and truth overlap and twist in so many ways that fact is no longer the underlying key to truth, the novels shake up the reader in a pleasurable but unexpected way. Although the title isn’t quite so overt in Theft, there is a similar theme on reality versus truth in Carey’s latest book. Although the truth theme continues to be compelling, it never takes precedence to the original and natural integrity of the story, which is overwhelmingly entertaining, first and foremost. On pure plot and characterisation alone, Carey is a master. That Theft like all of Carey’s books, is also linguistically beautiful and full of the kind of transcendency that makes literary fiction so much more than light entertainment, is icing on what is already an excellent cake.

The story follows a heady period in the life of artist Butcher Bones, an Australian painter who has fallen out of favour after a nasty divorce and term of incarceration for trying to “retrieve” his best work “which had been declared Marital Assets. Set in 1980, the novel opens on Bones’ release as his lawyers and a wealthy collector ‘exile’ him to a country property in Bellingen with his challenging brother Hugh where he attempts to begin painting again. One wet evening he meets Marlene Leibovitz, daughter-in-law of one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, and Bones and Marlene begin a love affair which takes them deeper into the political machinations of the art world as they travel to Tokyo and New York in a complicate thread of sexy intrigue, real and fake art, murder and a certain amount of chaos. The story is well plotted, and as is always the case in Carey’s novels, is fast paced enough to push the reading forward, while the writing and characterisation are so rich and powerful that it’s an almost necessary effort to continue slowing the pace to savour and re-read the gorgeous prose.

Right from the start of the book, Carey sets up the paradox between real and fake as he begins sipping a non-alcoholic beer with his patron Jean-Paul, which is “Like the real thing.” (6) The house is almost like the real thing too, although impossible to paint in until Bones destroys it, and his neighbour Dozy Boylan owns a real Leibowitz painting. Marlene, a would be American, whose real Manolo shoes Bones ends up washing mud off, is a classy art savant, whose delicate beauty and sophistication contrasts with Hugh’s brutish childishness. Between The Magic Pudding and Benalla High School we learn that the truth isn’t always as obvious as formal certification (or “droit moral”).

The narrative is told in alternating chapters of first person singular between Butcher and Hugh. Carey links the separate paragraphs with shared memories and a rough ocker vernacular which bisects, but it is Hugh’s chapters which are almost startling in their vivid intensity and the raw truth they emit:

I have been informed that there is no-one else on earth who could part those threads for nine feet without an error. But then again I do not care, all is vanity, and many times I think I am nothing but a big swishing gurgling pumping clock, walking backwards and forwards along the road to Bellingen each day, spring, summer, flies, mots, dragonflies, all fluttering flittering tiny clocks, a mist of clocks, each moment closer to oblivion. Impediments to art. Who will remove us with the tweezers? (46)

The difference between the two narratives is a gulf between perspectives and is often funny as the narratives describe the same situations in absolutely different ways. The relationship between brothers is almost as much of a love story as that between Butcher and Marlene. It isn’t a perfect love affair by any means. The filial tension is almost unbearable at times as both Hugh and Butcher see themselves as subservient to the other and jealousy, love, need and resentment all collide.

Butcher’s own description of the power of colour and quality is immediately accessible to the reader, taking words beyond their usual medium:

But let me say only that I rubbed at it and buffed and scraped and sanded until it was an argument both within itself and against itself. Jesus it would put the fera of God in you, to see the skeins of secret black, it could choke you, and fuck you,and put your naked toes onto the fire. (53)

The ride is hysterical at times, and the reader will often grimace, or laugh outloud following Hugh’s exploits with his metal chair, or the feverishly naïve attempts of Butcher to try and control the events which take him over and still maintain a sense of bravado and artistic integrity. The line between self-creation, deception, crime, and reality start to blur with a rapidity that can be dizzying. It’s the best kind of dizzy. However crazy the story gets, and however tricky the relationship between true and false in the end, it is as clear as the title makes it that there is simply one truth that underpins the story – love:

My saviour? A murderer. Actually, it’s worse than that, because even though I once walked away from her, I was still a Bones, and all the blacks and whites, so clear that morning in New York, were destined to be wet on wet, slow drying, ambiguous, a shifting tide between beauty and horror. It swelled beneath my skin, filled my mouth. (269)

Like Carey’s other masterpiece, Oscar and Lucinda the fantastic, easy to read plot almost masks the fact that the work is an ode to the non-discursive nature of love. There are many thefts in Theft including the theft of a child, of a life, of a painting, and of a heart, but the final theft is one where the ultimate thief is unclear, and there is only one truth. The painting is beside the point. This is a stunning novel and one which certainly lives up to Carey’s claim as a modern master.

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