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Read Theft: A Love Story (2006)

Theft: A Love Story (2006)

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3.41 of 5 Votes: 1
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0307263711 (ISBN13: 9780307263711)
alfred a. knopf

Theft: A Love Story (2006) - Plot & Excerpts

I read Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake and Wrong About Japan, and didn’t like either of them. I just couldn’t get hooked into the effusively praised My Life as a Fake, and Wrong About Japan, though it had a few clever insights, seemed too slight to be a book.So I wasn’t planning to read any more Carey, but a review of Theft made me waver. I like books about fictional artists, and the subject of art crime and fraud has long interested me. The fine art trade is very lightly regulated, but places a high premium on authenticity. So many crimes are crimes of falsified authenticity—forgery being the best known, but deliberate misattribution, misdating, and so on are probably more common. Theft deals with forgery, misattribution, and misdating, and uses the authenticity endowing concept of droit morale as the mechanism.Butcher Bones (actually Michael Boone) is an Australian painter who had his day in the sun in the early 70s, spent time in prison for trying to steal his own artwork from his recently divorced wife, and by 1981 is living with his retarded brother Hugh (“Slow Bones”) at the vacation house of a former patron. He is painting very high quality works when he meets Marlene Liebowitz, the daughter-in-law of a great cubist painter, Jacques Liebowitz. Her husband has no interest in art, but does have droit morale—he can authenticate Liebowitz paintings. So her deal is to find questionable works (particularly ones that Liebowitz started, abandoned, and then were later finished by his scheming wife) and, usually working with a dealer or collector or some other partner, get Olivier, her husband, to officially authenticate them.Butcher is somewhat appalled by this, but he sees all collectors and dealers as immoral scum anyway. He and Marlene start an affair, and Marlene uses him in her complex scheme to get a Liebowitz out of the country to Japan, thence to New York. Part of her plan is to establish provenance—a key aspect of authentication. If you can track where the painting has been since the painter created it, then you have the real thing.Her plan is so complex and worth so much money, that part of it requires a Japanese collector to buy Butcher’s entire new show for $200,000. In other words, the potential profit of the scam is so great that $200,000 is a small capital expense in comparison.In New York, Butcher hatches his own plan to forge a Liebowitz—partly for the challenge of doing so. But Olivier is no longer cooperating with his faithless wife, and she murders him (or so it is implied). Suddenly the game of art crime, which Butcher played along with because it seemed a way to revenge himself on the art world, was too much.One out of three is a start. What can I say—this was a thoroughly entertaining book. The characters were deeply unpleasant and yet fascinating. Carey has some fun with the idea of people who have the eye for great art and those who don’t—Butcher, Hugh, and Marlene all do. (When Butcher intentionally paints a bad painting, Hugh can’t understand why.) The point being made is that “the eye” has nothing to do with intelligence or morality. Perhaps the bigger point is that art itself has nothing to do with these qualities. I embraced this sort of belief when I was younger because I thought it was cool. I still believe this, but I don’t comfortably embrace the idea of the artist who is beyond morality. On the contrary, I wince with guilt when I learn that an artist whose work I love turns out to have been a rotten sort of fellow.

To say Peter Carey has a way with words would be to do him a grave injustice. As with True History of the Kelly Gang, the reader relies on language to tell the half of the story not told by the two narrators. Carey is a craftsman, and language is his material. As has been said in many other reviews, the novel is narrated by the Boone Brothers, Michael and Hugh. The first shares a cynical view on the world, whilst the second is a man of 'childlike emotional volatility'. Hugh's narrative is difficult and intermittent. Carey follows Hugh's stream of consciousness to a certain extent, mirroring Benjy in the opening chapter of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury - although his narrative is not nearly as difficult as Benjy's. What Hugh tells us is not always what Hugh thinks; on a number of occasions Hugh repeats statements previously said by Michael, which leads the reader to doubt a number of expressions Hugh uses and to what extent that are of his own thinking. The sayings he uses are generally followed by 'AS THE SAYING GOES'. Hugh is likeable, not only does the reader come to feel a certain bond between themselves and Hugh (one similar to that felt by his older brother and guardian, Michael), but we feel sorry for him when it appears Marlene (the novel's femme fatale) which break this brotherly bond to take Michael on a round the world trail of artistic glory. Hugh's childlike nature means that despite all the transgressions throughout the novel, other characters are easily able to persuade him to either not talk about them, or make them seem rational and therefore acceptable. Michael, on the other hand, is easier to read, despite his numerous digressions into memories of other stories. This breaks up the chronology of the narrative, as the reader is taken back to the experiences that have shaped his cynical outlook on the world. He is secretly as reliant on Hugh as Hugh is on him; as having lost everything, Hugh is the one person who has (through necessity rather than choice although their bond leads the reader to think Hugh would chose to stay with Michael) stuck with him as his world collapsed around him. Michael's narration is made questionable by what Hugh tells us he has said, without him ever having said it during his chapters of the book. The influence Marlene has over him over such a short amount of time is terrifying to witness, as she leads him, through love, into a tale of transgressions which remain secret from us (and, we must assume, Michael) involving murder, forgery and, as the title suggests, Theft.

What do You think about Theft: A Love Story (2006)?

I somehow thought, when I had the book in my hands, considering the praises on its cover, that it would be a fun ride, a journey of guffaws and cunning smirks but alas, deceived and dejected! In a single sentence, I didn’t find anything great about the story.So, Michael ‘Butcher’ Boone is an artist, a cranky profane one, is recently divorced losing a substantial count of his paintings and his child to the “Alimony whore” as he puts it. And Hugh ‘Slow’ Bones is his brother, slow in the mind and Michael is the one responsible to take care of him.Marlene Leibovitz walks into their lives one fine evening as the divorced, devastated and exiled Michael is trying to get his career back on track painting one of his geniuses. And Marlene, whom the Boones discover, more so the elder Michael Boone, is a wily art authenticator, a crook, a lovely one though as they generally are. She is the wife of the great artist Leibovitz’s son. A ‘Leibovitz’ is stolen from Michael’s neighbor and somehow Michael knows that the sly Marlene is responsible for the theft. He is cognizant of her chicanery, yet indulges himself in the strength of her mind and beauty. And the more he discovers her through their closeness, the more he slips into her contrivances, the bigger and uglier get her deceptive and guileful plans, eventually leading to his grudging realization as she parts with him finally that a thick wad of cash always weighs heavier than the irrepressible pumping of the heart and the inscrutable feelings thus generated.Peter Carey’s writing appears ostentatious and loud almost throughout the book. The carefree language didn’t go well with me, I guess, since I was more eager to finish it than to savor it.
—Soumen Daschoudhury

I believe the narrative 'flaws' in this book were meant to be intentional, but the reading experience was just so simultaneously vulgar and bland I'm not sure how I could rate this more than 2 stars. I don't know how to describe this book except "gross," which normally wouldn't bother me so I'm not sure why it does in this case. The commentary on art as a way of making money is somewhat interesting, as I heard this book was written because Peter Carey needed money at the time. Intentional or just confused? I'm really not sure what to think.

Michael Boone, alias Butcher Bones, is a once celebrated Australian artist who’s just got out of jail for various crimes that resulted from his divorce and what he sees as the appropriation of his work as marital property. His reputation is in the toilet and he’s broke. His only benefactor, a collector named Jean-Paul, provides a rundown rural house in the far north of New South Wales and, there being no alternative, Michael and his retarded brother Hugh (for whom he’s legal guardian) light out for the territory to become caretakers. Once there Michael leverages Jean Paul’s property and credit to provide himself with minimal art supplies and begins to paint.The novel is narrated by Michael—and sometimes by Hugh—and those voices are almost as great an achievement for Carey as was that of Ned Kelly. Michael and Hugh are both big men, violent and crude and funny. If you start the novel disliking them, chances are the further you read, the bigger fans you’ll become. Michael is a careless guardian but staunch defender of Hugh. Hugh, whom Michael frequently calls an Idiot Savant, provides commentary, often moral commentary, on Michael’s activities as well as carrying out his own shenanigans, which include the need to carry a chair with him at all times. They come from a pretty violent working class family (father a butcher; mother hid the knives at night) and haven’t modified their attitudes or behaviors much since entering the “art world” which seems artificial and anemic in comparison.One rainy night a sleek sophisticated New Yorker (as Michael assumes) Marlene Liebowitz turns up looking for a neighbor’s house which is virtually inaccessible across a flooded creek. Captivated, Michael manages to get her there with Jean Paul’s mowing tractor. Turns out she’s come to authenticate a genuine Liebowitz owned by the neighbor. From there the plot twists are truly gargantuan. Marlene is not a New Yorker but an Aussie girl who burned down the high school after she was expelled and married the son of the famous painter in New York where she influenced him to use his droit moral (hereditary right to authenticate his deceased father’s work) to financial advantage. The Liebowitz owned by the neighbor is stolen that very night and because Michael’s current canvas turned out to be the exact same size, he’s soon raided by the art police who confiscate his work on the assumption that he’s hidden the valuable work underneath. And that’s only Act 1. The major theme is the value of art and how value is determined. A difficult enough question in itself but complicated immensely by the fact that the entire art world in this novel is out to maximize profits and schemes to do so are perpetrated, usually at the expense of the artist. Marlene is clearly one of the thieves, but she’s a refreshingly candid one, and Michael’s obsessed with her—until she goes too far.

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