Sunday, June 03, 2007

Theft: A Love Story

Having just finished Peter Carey’s latest novel, Theft, I have mixed feelings.
I liked the book, and simultaneously, found it… difficult.
First off, in the “liking it” department, well… it is Peter Carey!
You don’t win the Booker Prize twice by writing poop even once! He is an incredibly good writer.
I loved his Oscar & Lucinda, and My Life As A Fake.
But this one, Theft. I did not love it, per se. I liked it.
Hand it to Carey though, he trusts his reader! He just didn’t count on the likes of me showing up!
I needed help. Parts of it got away from me, like a lifejacket floating out of reach, and I often had to rely upon my Reading Partner to haul me into the boat, as it were.

Theft is sub-titled “A Love Story” and it is!
The story of Michael Boone, an ex-“really famous” painter, born 1943, in Bacchus Marsh, Australia. [← As was Carey himself, in both time and place. Let the reader interpret!]
Newly divorced and down on his luck, Michael retreats to the unoccupied house of his patron, Jean-Paul, in an effort to here, perhaps re-invent himself.
With him is his near-autistic brother Hugh. Michael takes care of Hugh in lieu of the only other option, which would be abandoning him to an institution.
And so Michael sets out out to work on a series of new paintings.

But into this peaceful backwoods setting, a beautiful woman appears one rainy night, her car stuck in the mud.
28-year old Marlene Cook is not only vivacious, but also an art expert.
Michael soon discovers she's married to the son of the now-deceased 20th-century artist, Jacques Leibovitz, and is involved in the authentication of Leibovitz’s works.
Michael has been a fan of Leibovitz since his high school years.
Needless to say, his interest in Marlene knows no bounds!
Soon he will wish there were bounds to his interest, as she involves him in a web of thievery and chicanery that threatens all he has ever stood for, in the production of authentic, genuine ART!
Not to mention, he loves her. And she, him, apparently.

Scamming, double-crossing, faking, severe cheatitry.
In many ways, this novel is rip-roaring good. Roller-coastery good!
Funny, too.
In style, Carey is as subversive and non-generic as ever. The narration alternates, chapter by chapter, between Michael and Hugh. Hence, we are given dual perspectives of simultaneous events, and this keeps the reader [if the reader is me] fully engaged and on the edge of their seat. Or the edge of the boat, as it were.
But a few times I fell into the lake.

I got a bit lost in the intricacies of exactly what is done in the art world as presented, regarding counterfeit painting and related forgery activities. I think that Carey is counting on a real savvy reader here.
It’s not the kind of book you read while driving a tractor along a straight furrow. Or while stirring a pot of soup with one hand and changing a diaper with the other.
You’re just not going to get it unless you are paying attention.

Throughout the book this one sentence is, themewise, center-stage:
How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?
Hmmm…. a good question. As for me, I like to pay nothing!
My own walls are filled with laminated posters I stole from Starbucks, so what do I really know about the higher realms of art?

Because I needed a friend with this book, I suggest it as a Reading Group selection. In the multitude of voices, this book has gemstone potential.
Getting your paws on your own authentic and legally-obtained copy of Theft is as easy as doing THIS!




meli said...

I admire Carey, but I can't say I like him. I found reading Oscar and Lucinda a very traumatic experience. Yes, it's brilliant, but so cold hearted! Everyone I know raves about The True History of the Kelly Gang, so maybe you would like that one. It's written in the funny language's of Ned's actually diary. But, to be honest, I never managed to get into it...

Soph said...

Though I have read only three of his novels, I find that with Carey – I suppose with any author - it all depends on what you're looking for in your reading. I too found Theft to be challenging. Maybe even calculating in the degree to which Carey controls the narrative, embedding motifs that seep furtively through the chapters.

But that’s what I loved most about this book: the very fact that when I finished it, I realized that I hadn't finished it. In fact, I had hardly started. It was at this point that I too, meli, began to “admire” or appreciate his work. As you say, Cip...Carey trusts us to know stuff: this I appreciate; I want to be worthy of his confidence in me.

I tend to prefer a book that I find myself a bit adrift in. I find it refreshing – exciting even - to reach for it. As soon as I read this book, I thumbed back through it...and, honestly, I found a whole new novel.

I don't think that Carey could have drawn a more complete or delightful picture of a character than he has done with Hugh...and he does it not only through Hugh’s actions, but also through his language – which is fabulously innovative, clever, funny, and suggestive of subtextual mood and perspective. No small accomplishment.

Weaving back and forth between the two narrators always felt to me like I was grabbing at a flapping sail in gale force winds; I would just pin down one corner and the other one would come loose. But I liked this. It wasn’t until the second time through that I felt the storm calm.

Marlene. Ah, she was an enigma right up to the end. What price love, indeed. Carey offers no real answer and it is this complexity that I find to be most appealing. Things are never simple; people are never one thing: Carey unfolds this fact in an absorbing, artful text.

Thanks for the tip on Ned Kelly, meli. I want to read it.

As always, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog, Cipriano.
Go, Sens!

stefanie said...

What i love so much about your reviews Cip is how gosh darn enthusiatic and good natured you are even when the book didn't knock your socks off. I have Carey on my TBR list but have not read him yet. I know, I know :)

Isabella said...

I'm STILL not finished, but almost. Yes, that one sentence really sums it up — and in many ways sums up My Life as a Fake too.

One thing that's bothering me: as the novel progresses, I find it harder to identify whether the chapter is told by Michael or Hugh. I mean, of course, I can TELL, but in the beginning I could tell before the first sentence was over, and where I am now it takes as much a paragraph. I wonder if anyone else has experienced this, and if so, do you think it's deliberate on Carey's part and what point he's trying to make with it.

cipriano said...

What terrific comments here. I am still reeling from the Senators losing the hockey game tonight, or I would have something halfway erudite in response to ye all.
Yes, Theft is definitely what I would call a convoluted sort of a book, folding in on itself a lot, like a big pile of intestinal tract [<-- God, my imagery, huh?]... but it is definitely a worthwhile, colorful read!
Carey is the kind of author I just WANT to read... same as I feel about McEwan or Saramago, I would just BUY whatever they write and worry about what it is about, later.
Isabella, what happened as I read the thing was that toward the end I had to sometimes stop and look back at the last chapter and see whose turn it was to speak. And towards the end, it does quit alternating? Or does it?
Carey is a pro! The real thing.

Soph said...

Isabella and Cip,

I’m going to jump right in here like the fool that I am!

First, Cip…No. I don’t think it stops alternating at the end, but Hugh does take on a lot MORE of narrative that conveys what Michael is/has been doing. He sort of takes up the reins of the plot. Really almost becomes more lucid than he was earlier, I thought.

Plus, Michael seems gradually to be using capital letters (which is Hugh’s hallmark) more frequently and it kind of throws you off. Or it did me.
The chapters don’t perfectly alternate anyhow. Generally, yes. But you can’t really count on it going one for one. At the beginning, for example, it’s more Michael, chapter-wise and volume-wise.

That's a very interesting observation, Isabella – about the difficulty of separating the narrative voices. I found the same to be true. Of course, like you, I sought out the capital letters to be sure who was narrating. But there were chapters where they were sort of few and far between.

But the way the book speaks of both brothers in very connected ways – for example, how Hugh helps (though he is not acknowledged much) with the paintings – seems quite important in a book with art as its focus.

For example, in Chapter 14, Hugh says, "If I lost my brother I was lost myself..." and there are other similar connective lines that almost suggest something like a doppelganger motif. Almost a picaresque theme with the journeys of the two – both physical and metaphysical.

Hugh brings the practical no-nonsense side of art (he even does some of his own drawing later in the book)...even though he is the idiot, so to say. And he tells us that though Michael signs only his own name to the paintings, they should be signed CROSSED BONES (meaning that they both have had a hand in it.) (Chapter 7) Of course BONES are also extremely important (the metacarpal thing at the end…)

Reversals occur everywhere: Hugh seems to be kind of a shadow figure that has to always be dealt with by Michael – and yet Michael, when the story opens, is dependent upon Hugh’s disability payments to live. Hugh’s brain – perhaps his subconscious – is always more open to us than Michael’s.

I think this closeness of identity is key in the end of the book; I won't spoil it for you but there is an important decision that Michael has to make...and it is almost like (I thought) he doesn't want to betray Hugh...because it would be betraying himself.

There's a lot about maps and journeys in the book too, and I related those to an identity search theme. In a way, the book - like all books, I suppose - is about finding oneself.
It's a very meandering journey! This all sounds very sterile, but it certainly isn’t….I am just making it sound that way inadvertently! The first thing we are told (by Hugh) is that they are Bones…and that his brother took his “true and rightful name.” If you actually trace it, you can see all kinds of little clues like this that pull the two men really closely together. Flip flop them, in fact.

When the two are separated (Hugh is with Olivier), the style turns almost fantastical, dreamlike, very incomplete; I thought the drugs added to this theme. The fractured self…the disconnectedness in that ending section seemed to imply to me a closeness of the two brothers (even alter-ego-ish). It's important how Michael NEEDS his brother’s presence…whether he realizes it or not. And, you are right, I think…this is even more the case as the book progresses.

I feel I should apologize for the length of this response…but there’s so much to this thing that I find it hard to be succinct. Most enjoyable to read your thoughts - all.

cipriano said...

Your comments are as gorgeous as a glass slipper left behind on the steps. Someone picks it up and imagines how wonderful the foot must be.
[Hey, as long as you're not a guy, and "soph" is the short form of "Sophbert" or something!]

First of all, this is not the commentary of a "fool" as the first sentence suggests.

What a close reading!
I am breathless.
Please drop by more often, and teach me to be as observant and lucid as you are.
I read the book, and I saw none of this crap you are talking about!

And lastly, no need to "apologize", as the last paragraph suggests!
Your comments are magical, all.
Notice: They came in at the stroke of midnight.

Is this because you turn into a pumpkin a second later?

danielle said...

I have this book and am supposed to be reading it for a book group, but I am not sure I will get it read in time. I have never read anything by Carey. All the comments make this sound tempting...maybe I should go home and start it tonight.