No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 03, 2007

#48: Theft: A Love Story -- Peter Carey

I could not see why she would tolerate him but of course this is the LIBERTY given to those of so-called genius that they are permitted to act like TOTAL MORONS.
This novel reminds me of being cornered by the personable drunk at a party: the voices are loud and distinctive and larger than life, and one can't help nodding and smiling regardless of whether one actually, in the cold light of day, likes the characters at all.

Carey is an Australian writer through and through; every facet of country, history, culture fascinate him and is spun large. Theft is his take on the Australian art world. The novel's protagonist, Michael Boone (a.k.a. Butcher Bones), is an acclaimed Australian artist recovering from a divorce in which the Plaintiff won custody of their son and -- possibly worse -- of most of Boone's paintings, necessitating a criminal act and subsequent stay in prison. Released, Boone once more shoulders the burden of his 'damaged' brother Hugh, an idiot-savant whose voice is compellingly clear and who is wholly reliant on his brother.
...not since the bawling screaming murderous year I ran away to study life drawing at Footscray Tech had it ever once occurred to me that it might be possible to be ever free of my brother's bony elbow, his stinky breath, his sweaty sudden arrivals in the middle of my sleep.
The brothers are holed up in the back of beyond, abusing Boone's sponsor's house and his credit at the local store in order to produce Art, when Marlene squelches across a flooded creek and into their lives. She's gamine, clever and married to Olivier, who has the dubious distinction of being the son of famous painter Liebowitz, and morally entitled to verify his dead father's works. Boone is a great fan of Liebowitz, and one senses that this connection, as much as Marlene's plans to resurrect his career (a department-store show in Tokyo, a trip to America), that greases the slippery slope on which Boone finds himself.

The novel's told in alternating voices, Michael and Hugh. Michael is driven by opinions, ego and a brash bravado that begins to seem hollow once he leaves his native land and finds himself a nobody in the dog-eat-dog American art scene. Though of course he has Marlene ... Hugh's voice is a delight, reminiscent of Carey's take on Ned Kelly: capitalisation, repetition, a skewed yet sane and perspective on the world ("The turning indicator was flicking ticking at an awful rate like the heart of a sparrow or a fish -- how can they bear it?"), and underlying it all a devotion to his brother, a devotion that's reciprocated to an unexpected degree.

The subtitle of the novel is 'A Love Story', but like the title itself it's open to interpretation and reinterpretation. Is the love story only about Marlene? Is the theft is only about the missing Liebowitz? I can think of several answers, and the one I like the best has to do with the strength of the bond between Michael and Hugh, and how it's tested, and what matters most in the end: not love, not even art, but that bond. (Marlene gets away with a great deal, as long as she doesn't pose a threat to Hugh.)

Boone's sheer delight in his art and his media is infectious: this novel made me pick up paintbrush and acrylics for the first time in ages.

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