Guardian Saturday May 27, 2006
“If you are MAKING ART,” says a character in Peter Carey’s magnificent new novel, “the labour never ends, no peace, no Sabbath, just eternal churning and cursing and worrying and fretting.”
Carey is an artist who churns and curses and worries and frets. His novels roil, threatening at any moment to erupt impolitely all over the carpet. He is formally ostentatious, often inventing fabulist characters with equally fabulist voices and generally remaining allergic to adjective-free naturalism. Perhaps this is why, despite being one of the world’s leading novelists, he is more respected than loved. Too emotionally dangerous to be fully embraced by doe-eyed lovers of The Time Traveler’s Wife, too much fun to be taken entirely seriously by the dour acolytes of JM Coetzee (the contemporary whose career his most resembles), Carey ploughs his own dogged, compelling, fantastical furrow. For these reasons alone – that he frightens those who want their fiction easy and annoys those who want theirs portentous – a new Peter Carey novel is cause for joy.
Theft is the story of Michael “Butcher” Boone, an Australian artist whose career is having an early and comprehensive twilight. He is guardian, babysitter and caretaker for his “damaged two hundred and twenty pound brother”, Hugh. “There is always Hugh,” Butcher says, “and you cannot take a slash or park the truck without considering him.” As the novel opens, Butcher is fresh out of jail for robbing his ex-wife of his own paintings, paintings that became hers when the marriage ended. Exiled to a remote house owned by a fussy former patron, Butcher is trying to get his career back on track, avoid his creditors and manage Hugh, when – on a stormy, flooding evening – he receives a visit from the mysterious Marlene, described by Hugh as “a GAMINE with tiny boobies and a silk dress you could have fitted in your pocket with your hanky”.
Through marriage to Olivier Liebovitz, Marlene is the holder of the droit moral, the hereditary right to authenticate paintings, in this case those of Olivier’s dead father, Jacques Liebovitz. Somehow, Butcher and Hugh’s farmer neighbour has recently acquired a Liebovitz of mysterious provenance, and Marlene arrives, a vision in Manolo Blahniks tramping through knee-deep mud, to put a validating stamp on it, immediately sending its worth into the stratosphere.
Or does she? The painting is soon stolen, for which Butcher receives the automatic attentions of Jouvert-like Inspector Amberstreet, causing Butcher to flee to Sydney, where he and Hugh again encounter Marlene. She recognises the marketability in Butcher’s recent work and approaches him with an interesting and increasingly dubious proposition, one that moves them on to Tokyo and then New York, where we slowly come to understand that a scam is being perpetrated. But by whom? And on whom? And will it even matter when Butcher finds himself falling in love with Marlene?
Carey lets both Butcher and Hugh tell the story in alternating chapters, and there is no better writer of voice working today. Butcher’s is an Australian wonder: profane, quarrelsome, self-aggrandising, yet capable of some of the most passionate and electrified prose Carey has ever committed to paper: “How can you know how much to pay [for art] if you have no bloody idea of what it’s worth? If you pay 5 million dollars for a Jeff Koons what do you say when you get it home? What do you think?” As in his last novel, My Life As a Fake, Carey questions the very nature of art, here suggesting how not only art can be faked, but the very process of validating art, too. What value then can “value” possibly have?
Hugh, meanwhile, is a world unto himself. With liberal use of capitalisation, his voice manages to be both uncontrollably fluent and believably mentally damaged. Similar to the extraordinary book-long ventriloquism of True History of the Kelly Gang, Hugh’s voice rocks and reels to its own rhythms, ticks and vocabulary. He is also what makes this Carey’s funniest novel by far: Hugh says of Olivier that “the skin of his eyelids was soft as a penis freshly bathed”. He visits a park filled with “TREES FROM THE COUNTRIES OF OUR FORMER ENEMIES”. He talks to Butcher about Marlene, but “when I asked him whether she permitted him to put it up her bottom he smacked me across the lughole. I WAS ONLY ASKING.”
This is also probably the grumpiest, rudest and stinkiest novel Carey has ever written. A page rarely goes by without someone cussing or farting or smelling very bad. In this and in its subject matter, Theft most resembles Illywhacker, Carey’s early epic about an Australian liar. Yet it also comes at the end of a chain of novels in which Carey has taken other literary and cultural touchstones as his starting points. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Jack Maggs were Australian retellings of Tristram Shandy and Great Expectations; Kelly Gang reclaimed the Ned Kelly myth; My Life as a Fake took on the story of the Ern Malley artistic hoax in 60s Australia. And now we have Theft, which bears a key resemblance to a novel by the late, great Australian misanthrope Patrick White.
White is the only Australian so far to win the literature Nobel. His novels are psychologically brutal dissections of human relationships. At their best (Voss or The Tree of Man) they reach a transcendence on what it means to be human, what it means, most of all, to suffer the blessing and curse of living alone in a godless universe. White wrote a novel about a painter, too, The Vivisector, whose paintings exposed every excruciating weakness of his subjects, but it is an earlier White novel to which Theft seems, in part, a response. The Solid Mandala is the story of Arthur and Waldo, twin brothers, one of whom is a would-be artist (in this case a writer) and the other mentally damaged. They live out their lives bound together by Arthur’s social retardation in what White calls “more of a harness than a relationship”. Like Hugh in Theft, however, Arthur sees much more than Waldo ever expects and regards himself as the protector of his “smarter” brother.
It seems inconceivable that Australia’s premier living novelist would echo Australia’s only literature Nobel laureate accidentally, and the comparison is useful for the light it sheds not only on the differences between the two artists, but also on how Australia itself has changed. The overwhelming feeling of the first half of The Solid Mandala is hate. Told through the allegedly more normal brother’s point of view, this is White at his most vengeful, furious both at his countrymen’s obsequiousness to colonialism and at the snobbery of pre- and post-war Australians towards anything that White regards as truly Australian: the working of the land, the endlessness of the sky.
Carey feels some of that same anger, but his sympathies are entirely with his compatriots. Where White never hesitates to destroy his characters, Carey uses his to rebut the world that dismisses them. Australia no longer kneels at the foot of the empire, but neither is it allowed proper standing as a source of world culture. White blames Australians, fumes at them, punishes them. In Theft, Carey – using every blagging trick his country is famous for – instead produces a particularly Australian form of high culture, taking an ostensibly crude, piss-taking and jocular exterior and backing it up with piercing intelligence and uncomfortable questions about who decides what is art and the often stupid and senseless consequences of those decisions. At the end of White’s novel, one brother kills the other, leaving a corpse whose genitals are eaten by dogs. Carey’s novel ends with the brothers still side by side, still grouchily optimistic, still laughing at how easily the rest of the world is duped.
Carey would certainly be Australia’s second literature Nobel laureate if the prize didn’t seem to reward obscure ponderousness at least as often as true excellence. Carey is probably too vital, too churning a writer to win with the present prize committee. He refuses to avoid good jokes, and cannot resist taking the piss out of his readers and himself. For let me be entirely clear about this: Theft: A Love Story is a novel that will get right up your nose. Carey has produced a humane, gloriously Australian book of grand passion, bad breath and high mischief. It is a rudely brilliant, infuriatingly beautiful, belligerently profane work of art.