- Theft: A Love Story
Just as his previous novel, My Life as a Fake, fictionalized Australia's most famous literary hoax, Peter Carey's ninth novel, Theft: A Love Story, attempts to offset similar pretensions of the art world by adding some theft and fraud. Dubbed "Butcher Bones" by the people in his hometown because of his father's trade, Michael Boone, Theft's primary narrator, was once the toast of Sydney's high society as an up-and-coming abstract painter but has now been reduced to painting with common house paint while playing housesitter for former collector Jean-Paul Milan as well as caretaker of his childlike but perceptive younger brother, Hugh, the novel's alternate narrator. When Marlene Liebovitz enters the brothers' lives, she eventually lures them out of their home in remote New South Wales with the promise of resuscitating Butcher's flagging career, to travel to such art-collecting capitals as Manhattan and Tokyo. Marlene is married to the son of Jacques Liebovitz, a deceased French modernist of Carey's invention, and Butcher's idol. Her husband has inherited the droit moral (the right to have final say on the authenticity of all of his father's paintings) from an unscrupulous mother who tinkered with Liebovitz's unfinished works to sell them as posthumous originals. When his neighbor's painting is first authenticated and then stolen a few days later, Butcher's return to the art world effectively begins.
Butcher initially narrates, with an intriguing comic and subjective voice that longtime readers of Carey's novels will recognize. "I don't know if my story is grand enough to be a tragedy," Butcher begins his tale, "although a lot of shitty stuff did happen." Meanwhile, Hugh, Theft's alternate narrator, reveals his eccentricity whenever Carey has him narrate words or phrases in all capital letters. "I proceeded [End Page 173] homewards," Hugh says at one point, "in great distress, a fly, a wasp, an ENEMY OF ART." As a narrative device this can get somewhat tedious, but the real problem with Theft's alternate narrators is that their voices are not distinct enough to counteract each other effectively. Even worse, Carey's artist narrates more like an art critic, whereas Carey's idiot savant, aside from his capitalized moments, is simply unremarkable. In a novel that relies so heavily upon voice, as artist or savant, neither brother gives too convincing a performance. Theft treads water; it does not swim.
When Peter Carey delves into the past of his native Australia, as in Oscar and Lucinda or True History of the Kelly Gang, his narratives improve, as does his proficiency as a prose stylist. Moreover, Carey has demonstrated, in his novel Illywhacker, his ability to create unreliable or comic narrators whose narratives command the reader's attention because of, not despite, their author's lively subjectivity. But recently, with My Life as a Fake and now Theft: A Love Story, the intrigue of literary hoaxes and art thefts has not been enough to sustain and make up for uneventful narratives. Whether they be musicians, visual artists or writers, artistic protagonists have populated novels since at least the time of Joyce and Mann. Yet authors who write about art with a capital "A" run a much greater risk not only of artistic decadence but also, at times, of complacency. For an author of lesser merit, this would simply be unfortunate; for one of Carey's caliber, it is truly disappointing.