Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story

The battle between the Artistic Temperament and the Commercial Spirit is as old as the fight between Good and Evil. It is a struggle between the necessarily subjective and the inherently objective, between delight and profit, between love and money. Their willingness to starve for their Art notwithstanding, artists need to be paid, but this payment implies the intercession of middlemen between the artist and his audience, the creation of an industry and a market for art, complete with curator, auction houses, critics and investors. So sprawling a social organisation in turn requires rules, simple yet objective guidelines by which its business can be carried out. But how does one impose norms on an activity whose fundamental purpose is to defy all the rules, to break out of the mould? Trapped in the hands of investors who understand only its monetary value, art risks being reduced to mere fashion, but taken out of these hands and valued purely by subjective aesthetic, it rapidly becomes inaccessible and unsustainable.

It is this tension, this conflicted yet symbiotic relationship between art as business and art as, well, Art, that lies at the centre of Peter Carey’s new novel, Theft: A Love Story. It’s central protagonist, Michael ‘Butcher’ Boone, is a struggling Australian painter entirely disgusted with the business side of the art world (“It made me ill. Not so much the dirty money, but the complete lack of discrimination, the fashion frenzy. De Chirico is in. Renoir is out. Van Gogh is hot. Van Gogh has peaked. I wished I could kill the fucks, I really did.”), but also entirely dependent on it. Butcher’s motto in life is “How can you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?” and this contempt for undiscerning investors serves as a convenient excuse to rip them off at every opportunity. As a true devotee of Art, Butcher sees himself as fundamentally superior to those who fund him, and this assumed artistic ‘integrity’ means that he can justify, in his own mind, a complete lack of integrity on any other front. It doesn’t matter to Butcher how much he cheats, lies or causes damage to other people; because he is an artist and they are mere parasites feeding of his supposed genius, they deserve everything he does to them.

This might seem to suggest that Butcher is confident about his own genius. Far from it. The real wellspring of Butcher’s rage against the organised art community lies elsewhere, in his perception of being, at best, a marginal figure in this glimmering world. Butcher blames this on context,

“We had been born walled out from art, had never guessed it might exist, until we slipped beneath the gate or burnt down the porter’s house, or jemmied the bathroom window, and then we saw what had been kept from us, in our sleep-outs, in our outside dummies, our drafty beer-hoppy public bars, and then we went half mad with joy.”

but the truth is that it is his own talent that is fairly marginal, and in his heart of hearts he knows this. Butcher’s rage against the system then, his overblown almost self-destructive assertions of devil-may-care superiority, are really an expression of his insecurity. This is the old, old story – the outsider’s sense of entitlement, his denigration of a system that he desperately wants to belong to, knowing that such inclusion is impossible.

When the novel opens, Butcher has fallen upon hard times. Artistically, he seems to be past his heyday, personally, a painful divorce has shattered his life, causing him to lose custody of his own paintings (also of his child, but one gets the sense that it’s the loss of the paintings that hurts Butcher more). At the start of the novel Butcher is living as a caretaker on the property of one of his key patrons, and struggling to find the materials to paint.

Butcher’s life is changed dramatically by the entrance of one Marlene Leibovitz, wife of Olivier Leibovitz, son of the great modern painter Leibovitz, the droit moral for whose paintings his son has inherited. This son, however, detests his father’s work and knows next to nothing about it, so that it is Marlene, a self-trained art expert, who undertakes the high stakes task of authenticating her father-in-law’s paintings. The power this gives her, however, is easily employed for crooked gain, and it doesn’t take us long to realise that Marlene is a fundamentally shady operator (though Butcher, no doubt influenced by Marlene’s evident good looks, takes a little longer to catch on).

The point about Marlene is that she, like Butcher, comes from a small town in Australia and is, despite her connections, an outsider in the Art World. They are two of a kind, these two, both unscrupulous operators who justify their crimes with their own sense of injustice against the Art community. It is love (almost) at first sight. But it isn’t just his passion for Marlene that drives Butcher, it’s also the fact that Marlene’s connections help provide a boost to his career as an artist. Pursuing these twin passions – Marlene and Art – Butcher soon finds himself drawn into a world of conspiracy and crime. In truth, Butcher is little more than an accomplice here, sometimes even an unwitting dupe, but the pathology of stealing from others in the name of Art is one familiar to him – it is what he in his own small way, had already been doing back on his patron’s farm. Butcher has thus moved from petty theft to grand larceny and fraud, and as the novel progresses, his liasion with Marlene (who constantly turns out to be more scheming, more ruthless and more unbalanced than anyone suspects) will drag him deeper into a morass of crime and eventually, violence. You just know this will end badly.

But Butcher is not the only protagonist of this novel. A good half of the narrative load is shared by his brother Hugh. Hugh is a kind of idiot savant, a great hulk of a man who’s not all there in the head (he’s aptly nicknamed Slow Bones) but who nevertheless is capable of surprising insight, and who serves, in the novel, as a dramatic counterfoil for his brother. By inserting Hugh into the narrative, Carey exposes Butcher to constant scrutiny, introducing an alternate and somewhat subversive perspective on the action. The basic plot of the story is common, of course, but the details that each brother will share are often different, and Hugh’s interpretation of events is often at odds with that of his brother. Carey thus constantly forces a reexamination of our assumptions about the narrative, making us question the story that Butcher is telling us rather than taking it for granted, and leaving it to us to decide where in that gray zone between the two versions of the plot we are hearing we want to draw the storyline.

All of this makes for interesting reading, and Carey supplements it with a great deal of stylish, exciting prose. When it comes to Art, Carey lays it on thick, applying layer after layer of vivid detail until you can almost smell the paint leaking out of the book. Most of the technical details in the book were beyond me, but they certainly sounded authentic enough, and Carey lays them out with energy and flair. Add to this Carey’s well-established gift for capturing verbal nuances and creating distinct but authentic voices for his characters, and you have a book that, stylistically at least, is a true pleasure to read.

The trouble is that the vitality of the prose isn’t matched by the quality of the plot. For the most part, the plot of Theft seems hollow, implausible and unengaging. In some ways, Theft is like one of the paintings Marlene is trying to pass off as a genuine Leibovitz – flawlessly executed but at the same time undeniably fake. There’s none of the epic vision of Carey’s best novels (Oscar and Lucinda, True History of the Kelly Gang) here – the story seems contrived and fidgety, and ultimately petty. There are, I think, two reasons for this. The first is that for all Carey’s attempts to make the plot seem complicated and suspenseful, this is not, in any way, a credible thriller; what surprises there are in here are mild at best, and all Carey’s overwrought plot twists conceal little more than a tale of simple fraud (we have the droit moral, we’ll authenticate fake Leibovitzs and make money). There is certainly Theft here, but it’s far from exciting.

The second problem is that Theft: A Love Story isn’t much of a love story either. Oh, Marlene and Butcher are a pair, all right, a sorty of Bonny and Clyde of the Art World, but the chemistry between them never comes out. Their connection is too clever, too plot-driven, it almost feels like they saw each other’s role in the narrative and realised that it made sense for them to get together. Butcher makes the obligatory noises about how (and why) he loves Marlene, but we never really get to see how he got to this point, and Marlene’s feelings for Butcher remain almost entirely unexplored and unexplained. The two end up seeming more like co-conspirators than a couple therefore, their relationship a light, temporary thing, easily tossed aside. This deprives the book of almost all emotional power, so that while it’s a clever enough book it leaves you almost entirely unmoved. The characters themselves are engrossing, and they manage to sustain your interest in the story for a while, but after a point you get used to them (and to Carey’s prose on their behalf) and by the mid-point of the novel you find yourself wishing that Carey would get on with it and finish the book. Always a bad sign.

Let me also say that after a few chapters I found the character of Hugh wearying. Not that Carey doesn’t do a game job of bringing Hugh alive, but the basic premise of his role seems like a cliche – like a mish mash of The Sound and the Fury and Of Mice and Men – and after a point Hugh’s narrative style, with its randomly capitalised words and its jumpy flow gets a trifle annoying.

Overall then, Theft: A Love Story is an enormously entertaining read, without being a particularly deep or compelling one. There is some great writing here, and some truly delicious dark comedy, but the eventual sense you come away with, especially from the second half of the book, is one of disappointment. It’s a good enough book, but it’s far from being on Carey’s best, or from being one of the best books of the year.

[part of the Booker Mela 2006]

See also Paul Gray’s review in the New York Times