Sebastian Smee

The art of the matter

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Theft: A Love Story

Peter Carey

Faber, pp. 260, £

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Peter Carey’s ropy, visceral prose casts a powerful spell. It has a swarming, improvised quality which besieges and easily overwhelms objections, including any reluctance to credit his convoluted, sometimes outlandish plots. And yet those plots remain a problem. They somehow bring a hint of affectation and conceit to a sensibility, a way with words, that is otherwise stridently free from mannerisms.

Theft: A Love Story is told by two narrators in alternating chapters. One of them is Michael Boone, or Butcher Bones, a once renowned Australian painter now enduring a humiliating slump in fortune. He relates the bulk of the tale. But his account â” boasting, impassioned, furiously honest â” is corrected, warmed and frequently undermined by his mentally damaged brother, Hugh, or Slow Bones.

Butcher looks after Hugh, a marvellous literary invention who stands at an awkward, innocent angle to the world and, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, doesn’t know his own strength. But one of the story’s many ironies arises from the reader’s awareness that it is really Hugh who sustains and enables Butcher’s life as an artist.

In far-fetched circumstances, Butcher meets and falls for Marlene, a sexy art expert who is married to the son of ‘Jacques Leibovitz’, a modern artist, now dead, who combines a bit of Chagall with aspects of the Salon Cubists. What follows is hard to summarise without seriously misrepresenting Carey’s highly contrived plot. But it is a tale of art world fraud and deception that hinges on a tangle of legalities concerning art authentication. The essence of the situation is breezily sketched in early on in the tale, but there are twists aplenty, and the main characters are led from northern New South Wales to Sydney and on to New York, via (in Butcher and Marlene’s case) Japan.

This movement, and some other aspects of the backstory, mirror Carey’s own movement from the town of Bacchus Marsh in Victoria, where he grew up (as did the Boone brothers) to New York, where he lives now, a famous author and two-time winner of the Booker Prize. A large part of the brothers’ separate accounts is taken up with what happens when provincial insecurity gains access to the nerve-centre of cultural authority.

‘Once, not so long ago,’ says Butcher, ‘I had been a happy married man tucking in his boy at night.’ Now, in New York, he is ‘a 200-pound barramundi flapping on the deck’.

Carey’s take on the provincial condition is acute. It is heartfelt and highly sensitive to local (Australian) nuance. Getting close to ‘the centre of it all’ after a lifetime at the furthest remove brings on a double-edged awareness that may sprout, suggests Carey, into obsessive, compromised, even criminal behaviour. The taunting question â” ‘Do you understand?’ â” which Marlene puts to Butcher at one point in the novel veils a ‘much sadder’ grasp of what true understanding might entail, for there are corruption, greed and fraudulence at the centre of the cultural imperium.

All this, at any rate, is tangled up in a love story, and the book’s final, unanswerable question â” ‘How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?’ â” is intended to apply as much to love as to the art market.

This is one of Carey’s better books. Far-fetched it may be, but sentence for sentence there are few writers alive who feel more real.