‘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 dunnies, our draughty beer-hoppy public bars, and then we went half mad with joy. We had lived not knowing that Van Gogh was born, or Vermeer, or Holbein, or dear sad Max Beckmann, but once we knew, then we staked our lives on theirs.’
The time is ripe for a little catch-up methinks, what with my having read and read in recent weeks (eleven novels/collections in total) but without the posting and posting that should accompany it. Indeed, it’s been so long since I put fingers to keys that there are still several Booker long-listers I haven’t pondered over. Like, for example, Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story, which provides the opening quote for this post and which I finished a full month ago.
Dealing with issues of fraudulence and authenticity in the modern art world (and in life more generally), the novel is constructed from the voices’ of two stylistically eccentric narrators – Michael ‘Butcher’ Boone, a once-famous modern artist, and his learning-disabled brother Hugh ‘Slow Bones’ Boone. As they begin their parallel narratives the brothers are living off the charity of Michael’s only remaining patron in a ranch in the wilderness of New South Wales, struggling both emotionally (Michael has just had a traumatic divorce; Hugh has caused it) and financially (his paintings no longer sell). While Michael spends his days creating, and obsessing over, vivid and violent new 'word' canvases, his dependent brother finds solace hiding in the holes he digs and in languid pints in a local bar. Into this relative harmony and solitude comes the Manolo Blahnik-wearing ‘accidental’ of the novel – Marlene Leibovitz, the magnetic and charismatic daughter-in-law of Jacques Leibovitz, a seminal (and fictional) French Cubist painter. Much to Michael’s surprise she claims that his hick-of-a-neighbour owns a ‘lost’ Leibovitz, which she has come to authenticate in the name of her husband, Olivier, and which is almost definitely a fake. What follows is a good deal of crime – fraud/blackmail/theft/murder - as Marlene steals the painting and engages in attempts to a) sell this ‘most famous’ of Leibovitz’s images to a gallery, and b) resurrect Michael’s failing reputation in the art world. The brothers, hypnotised, fall quickly into step with her, determined to rediscover something of the essential passion lacking from their lives.
The creative thrust of the novel is inconsistent, peaking stylistically and dipping somewhat with regards plot: Carey exhibits his ever-fine talent for ‘doing voices’ and for customising language but his action feels a little (dare I say?) small for his purposes. The extraordinary question of reality vs. representation in art or literature, and of the individual vs. the narrator, feels squashed in its not-particularly-wily heist and romance setting. Perhaps I felt claustrophobic too, because of the modernity of the action (the present is too suffocatingly mundane?), and also because of the stark coldness of the modern art world at the centre of the novel. I hesitate to place a finger on it, but certainly it was Carey’s ear for patois that impressed me most: both Michael and Hugh have strong voices. The former, with his salty language (lots of ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’) and focus on the material physicality of his painting, is always aware of the drama inherent in his role as the modern artist – irreverent, rebellious, careless and untamed, he is dogged by an awareness that painted and personal images are pale replicas of the real thing.
But the latter is the real richness of the book: Hugh Boone, who speaks in a kind of disjointed, violent poetry that oscillates between extroadinary tenderness and gargantuan tantrum, is the unveiled, the entirely authentic. Incapable of guarding his thoughts or censoring his feelings in an environment that represses and remoulds everyone else, he spews rants honestly out over the page. He hates his brother for not loving him best, for caring more about his art, for being sexually active… even while he adores him with a sort of sublime and dangerously possessive love. It is these unique riffs of his, veering wildly one way and then another, that best express the novel’s literary quality:
‘Our father Blue Bones was much the same and we brothers cowered before his fury when TRACKED-IN SAND was detected on the carpets of the VAUXHALL CRESTA and then there were such threats of whippings with razor strops, electric flex, greenhide belts, God save us, he had that mouth, cruel as a cut across his skin. As a boy I could never understand why nice clean sand would cause such terror in my dad’s bloodshot eyes, but I had never seen an hourglass and did not know that I would die. None shall be spared, and when my father’s hour was come then the eternal sand-filled wind blew inside his guts and ripped him raw, God forgive him for his sins. He could never know peace in life or even death, never understood what it might be to become a grain of sand, falling whispering with the grace of multitudes, through the fingers of the Lord.’
The central theme of the book is, typically, the hoax of ‘identity’ and authenticity – Marlene fakes paintings even as she fakes herself, and Michael mythologises his own artistic origins. None of the books’ actors have an ‘authentic’ life, as such. Hugh, with his vocal squits, is authentic in the sense that everything he says is literally 'true' for him, but his state of internal chaos can never build into a coherent identity. He is nothing but a mirror: he reflects what he sees and feels but nothing essential or 'real'.
Arguably these meditations aren't particularly hard fought or won by author like Carey (who has already flogged the 'identity' horse repeatedly), but still there is something moving and worthy about them nevertheless. Read as a series of stylistic episodes, and for its narrators rather than for its silly frame of a plot, Theft: A Love Story is even quite enjoyable.