Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, December 18, 2006


How could I fail to like a novel with three main characters like those in Peter Carey's Theft? There's Michael Boone, a failed painter in his late thirties, his younger brother, Hugh, and twenty-something Marlene Leibovitz, nee Cook. Michael is a scoundrel, Hugh is retarded, and Marlene is an utter psycopath. Quite a stew of characters, and Carey makes good use of them.

When the novel opens, Michael has just been released from prison. He has served several months for attempting to steal some of his best paintings, which had been declared community property and awarded to his ex-wife in their divorce. He is living with his brother Hugh on a farm 200 miles outside of Sydney, Australia, in property owned by his chief collector, Jean Paul. It is there that he meets Marlene. They become lovers and she involves him in schemes to forge and steal works of art.

The novel alternates between the voice of Michael and that of Hugh. It's a nice device, since it allows Carey to contrast the way in which Michael sees himself, as opposed to how others see him. In Michael's mind, he's a victim who is beset by a cruel and uncaring world that just seems to want to screw him over. Given that, why wouldn't he allow himself to be drawn into Marlene's schemes? It only makes sense. Hugh presents a different picture of his brother. In his narrative, Michael is a self-involved fool who tends to bull his way through to what he wants, no matter what the cost to others. Marlene is initially Michael's salvation, and she charms Hugh as well, but it eventually becomes clear just what she's all about.

Character is destiny as they say, and that's the way things play out in the novel. In one sense Michael and Hugh have the same character, though Hugh is simpleminded. They're the sons of a brutal father in a family of butchers, and both are large, strong men. They could be characterized as bulls in a china shop. It's their passions that get them into trouble. In Michael's case, those passions are love for Marlene, and the desire for success in one form or another. In Hugh's case, the passions are blunter and more mercurial. He has the nasty habit of breaking the little finger of anyone who sufficiently upsets him, but he is not a vicious soul. He likes to carry around a folding chair, and his favorite activity is sitting on the the sidewalk watching the cars and people go by.

Theft is a comedy. Not a haha, I fell down laughing comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. There's a long tradition in which the comic is used to induce the reader to identify with compromised characters, and Carey employs this device to good effect. I found myself liking Michael, though I wouldn't approve of the things that he did. The fact that he cares for his handicapped brother also gives him a sympathetic dimension that he wouldn't have otherwise. Hugh is an appealing character as well. Carey does a good job of realizing him as a person of his own, rather than as a mere foil for his brother. As for Marlene, she is the weakest of the three characters but that's to be expected. She really is a foil in the narrative. The novel is mainly about the two men.

Theft may also be read as a commentary on the world of the visual arts. In Carey's view, it is inhabited by scoundrels, thiefs, deceivers, phonies, and worse. From everything I've ever read, he's more right than wrong, but what can one expect? So much money is thrown around in the art world, that it's bound to attract the more unsavory elements. It's such an artificial world too, one swept by fads and fashions that have little to do with the quality of the work. In one brief section, Michael talks about how he likes to view works of art alone because he just wants to let it impact him free of the opinions and expectations of others. That's the way it should be too. I once read Simon Schama's book on 17th-century Holland. In it he had some reproduction of paintings by artists that I'd never heard of. They were every bit as good as the works of people like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Perhaps they had it right in earlier times, when works of art were unsigned.

Carey's writing is pretty good, though there are a few places where it didn't ring true, especially in Hugh's narrative. From time to time, he uses a turn of phrase or verbal construction that sounds too sophisticated to come from the mouth of one who is so mentally limited. A little more care in the editing would have helped.

That said though, I highly recommend the book. It is an entertaining and worthwhile read.


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