The first book I read by Peter Carey was Illywhacker and I was intrigued enough to read Oscar and Lucinda. But since then I haven't picked up any of his books. If you had asked me why I wouldn't have been able to give you a real reason, save there were other books I was more interested in reading, or that he wasn't on my watch list for new releases.
It wasn't that either Illywhacker or Oscar and Lucinda were badly written or anything, or even that they weren't readable and likeable, it's just I wasn't particularly moved by either one of them. The real problem was that I had no real memories of either book save that both started to feel like a chore to wade through in order to get to the finish.
But it's been a number of years since, and with the release by Vintage Canada of his latest book Theft I decided to take the plunge again. Once more Mr. Carey takes us to that strange land of Australia so that he can show off the local fauna in its natural habitat.
On this occasion we are dealing with the sub-species of Australian known as a visual artist, or painter if you will, and the misadventures that befall him as he attempts to win back his place in the pantheon of "importance". It seems that the star of our erstwhile protagonist, Michael Boone by name, had been on the rise back in the seventies, with his work making sizable chunks of change among the artistic set.
But it all went bad, his marriage ended, his wife took possession of his paintings, and for breaching a restraining order he ended up in jail. Unlike death, it seems that jail does not appreciate a modern artist's work either in terms of cash or in terms of recognition, and he is quickly relegated to the scrap heap of the passé.
While he may be forlorn and forgotten, Michael is not forsaken. Upon his release from jail he is set up in country retreat by his patron/former neighbour so he can paint and be kept away from his ex-wife and child. Any work he produces now will be outside of the "martial possessions" so he will be able to keep whatever monies he earns.
Aside from that being a modern artist with no selling power anymore, Michael has another burden to bear – namely, his brother Hugh. Adult in body, Hugh's mental health has been stunted and he is unable to live on his own. As long as he take his meds, and allowed his routine, he's reasonably contented and manageable, but he's large and can be dangerous both to himself and others.
For a while it looks like the Boone brothers will be able to set up a routine and that things might work out for them. But out of a storm-torn night there comes the shape that will make their lives anything but routine for a good deal of time to come. In spite of the fact that, according to Hugh, she's "a gammon" — a tiny bit of a thing — a new force in the form of the domineering Marlene manages to take them down a path that will nigh on ruin them both.
Judging by the title of the book one could be forgiven for thinking that, once we meet Marlene, the story will be one of art theft. But in the world of international art, theft appears to be a minor transgression. Compared to some of the other "activities" described in Theft there is something nice and straightforward, almost honest, in a good old-fashioned robbery.
The back-stabbing, lying, cheating, fakery, lust, envy, and even gluttony that goes on behind the closed doors of the auction houses, galleries, and dealer's doors would be enough to make the devil blush. After all, he only managed to come up with seven deadly sins, while these folk seem to delight in inventing new one on a daily basis.
I have to hand it to Peter Carey on this one; he has done a wonderful job in a number of areas. First, his depiction of the world of international art is a delight in its inventive larceny. With the amount of money that is now at stake when a work of art is on the market, all it takes is a whisper of doubt in the right ear from the right lips to shake foundations worse than an earthquake.
To tell his story of the Boone Brothers Carey covers the same territory twice, once through the eye of older brother Michael and once through the eyes of Hugh. We learn just how fragile Hugh is from his own narrative and how much he really does depend on his brother. But he also inadvertently gives us insight into both his and his brother's characters and how they were formed through his relating of their childhood.
Michael was an outsider to the world of art and when the novel opens, he still retains vestiges of his naiveté. Only as Maureen exposes him to the seamier side of the art world does it finally begin to dawn on him that it will never matter how brilliant he is, unless he is willing to play the game he'll get nowhere. While nobody does anything out of pure altruism, he does find out what people, including himself, will do in the name of love.
Theft was a far more memorable book than either of the other two I mentioned, as Carey has honed his wit to razor sharpness. Instead of wielding it like a blunt instrument, as he formerly did, he's inserting it deftly and making careful cuts to deflate oversized egos and whittle things down to a proper perspective.
Art should be about how much it moves the spirit, not how much it will move for. But the reality is unfortunately the latter more often then the former. Dangle dollar signs in front of people and some of them will contemplate anything for the opportunity. At some point, though, a line will be reached that — if you cross it turning back — will no longer be an option.
Theft is full of such lines that people cross, justifying it in the name of art. But greed and selfishness are still greed and selfishness, no matter how you colour them. It's not a pretty picture that Carey sometimes paints in this book, but it is a valuable one.