Weekend Australian, April 8, 2006
IT’S astonishing in some ways how Peter Carey keeps on going with book after book, each as different as the separate moments in the Shakespeare cycle, each unmistakably his own. He is, at 62, and with the eight or so novels of the past 20 years under his belt, some of them immense tumbling colour machines of ice and wind and all things strange and alluring, the unassailable lord of the Australian patch.
If anyone at Timbuktu has heard of a contemporary Australian novel, it will be by Carey. If anyone in Stockholm is looking to honour a fiction-maker from the great down under, why would they look further?
It has been a funny progress, brilliantly handled. He begins as a small-scale writer, wry and kinky, a master of the weird twist, short-breath squiggle that makes a lot of realism look dun-coloured, partly because his black and blue coloration keeps taking on new shapes and its dark shades radiate rather than stick to the monotone.
And then, years later, he becomes something else; a travelling carnival show of literary ambition where every kind of effect, however gross or grand, is fair game because it’s a Gunter Grass and Salman Rushdie bonanza that literature offers; a canvas can be crowded with every kind of effect, grave and cartoonish, and any writer’s weakness, any kind of scribbling uncertainty, is grist to the mill of the novelist who has the courage to think big.
And so to the Bookers, and the ballyhoo. The film of Oscar and Lucinda, the instant canonisation: Geoffrey Dutton, who wrote the influential little book that proclaimed Patrick White a great writer, made the highest claims for Carey.
He writes books as if there were no tomorrow, as if there were no limits either to the imaginative fields he could plough, playgrounds he could romp through.
Think of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and the tremendous, barely in control (but who cares?) bringing together of New York and Australia and the way it reconfigures the very language of the imagined nation we inhabit. Think of Jack Maggs, which takes Great Expectations, that proto-Australian novel with its convict spectre and its convict stain, and plunges it in the blood and ordure of a very different imagining.
The Tax Inspector is full of the black crevices of unspeakable things and the titular fallen angels that crawl around them, but then the Carey books start taking on the archangels of the mighty cultural past, whenever they can be twisted into some map of Australia: Dickens, creator of Magwitch; Ern Malley, creator of the mightiest graph of Australian self-mockery — and how Carey, the maestro, will reconfigure its magic and make the tall tale but true still taller.
And then Ned Kelly, a painter’s icon, a national mystery engendering a mythology, why not Molly Maguire him and make him strange?
Carey has never been afraid of writing out of the darkest kinds of materials and he could never be accused of being afraid of ugliness. Indeed his novels play on grotesquerie as a kind of passion and part of their unmistakable vaunted Australianness comes from the author’s willingness to rub the reader’s nose in the drek and muck and madness of a very localised apprehension of what the world is.
And so it is with this new compulsion of a novel, Theft: A Love Story. This is Carey’s Bacchus Marsh portrait of the artist as an old animal novel, and he uses the Victorian country town he hailed from (an aeon before Geelong Grammar and advertising and New York) as the locus for the hero’s sense of the manure of parochial slime and sorrow from which he has sprung.
Butcher Bones is a painter who has had his days of attested masterliness but at the novel’s outset he has been taken to the cleaners by his wife (who has claimed the paintings as her assets and taken the darling son as well). The hero is groaning and grinding his way through life ministering to his 35-year-old autistic brother (he’s ”slow” but not quite retarded), in country NSW. He talks to the local landowner and ekes out an existence, plagued by everyone, including the art police.
Into this world comes like a figure of nemesis a young woman with an American accent who seeks his help. She is connected to the family of a famous European modernist, a long-dead painter who had a great period in the first part of the century and whose grandeur subsequently faded.
It so happens that the old man down the road, moneyed and educated, with whom the hero used to discuss varieties of insect, is the owner of a work by the great painter and that nemesis woman is up to her neck in the business of authenticating great works of art. The time is the 1980s and the hero is in early middle age (as Carey would have been then).
Theft becomes deeply engrossed with the subject of art forgery and, indeed, with the whole question of authenticity in art, broadly considered. It becomes, too, in a manner now familiar with Carey, a kind of skeletal half-masked highbrow thriller in which the narrative rattles with fascination the way a cupboard might rattle with bones.
The skeleton in a formal sense is the plot, which Carey makes tingle with mystery even as he impedes its progress. The exposition of Theft is muddied. Not, one suspects, in the first instance, by design, though there’s no denying that Carey makes the pas de deux he effects between narrative momentum and narrative stagnation part of the design as it ultimately stands.
Part of what impedes and, if you like, enriches the design (like so many oily blobs of darkening colour) is the fact that the painter’s first-person narrative, raw and blunt and agonised in its articulation, is constantly being interrupted by the weirdo brother who has constant recourse to CAPITALS and who has the mind (God bless him we seem supposed to think) of a POET.
At some remote level the splitting of central consciousness may owe something to White’s The Solid Mandala, which pits an inauthentic life-denying brother (arguably schizoid in a ”sane” way) against a mad brother who raves like the rainbow.
In any case, the oscillation has a strange half-legible power that makes the difficult articulation of the book at once an ordeal and a thing of wonder.
In its overall plotline, this is a novel about fakery and crime and romance. In its core of feeling and also in the animated scribble of its blotched and warped signatures (as individual in their ways as a Fairweather painting and just as weird) it is a story about the two faces of brotherhood, the two faces of Australia, which in turn mutate into the twin but contrasted faces of human striving and artistic identity.
It is, in practice, that both faces are versions of the face of the dumb ox and both are alive with human pain and human felling.
There is a lot about Theft that is wilfully unattractive; it is the shit and sweat of Australia as a cesspool, the Australia that has an affinity with film-maker Rolf de Heer in Bad Boy Bubby, that Carey is obsessed by as a man might be obsessed by the warts on his own hands.
But he makes a kind of adventure (almost a romance in the Gothic American sense) out of this which has a peculiar exhilaration that has been worked for and earned.
This is a weird kind of homecoming of a novel, a nearly bleak comic pastoral in which New York is a kind of Walpurgisnacht and joyride that can take on the shadowliness of murder and reversal.
For all its instability and disconcerting shifts of register, it is the work of a novelist willing his way into greatness minute by gritty minute.
Peter Craven is a literary critic, journalist and editor.