It amuses and repels Peter Carey, but above all stirs his angry empathy, to remember that his country was founded in a cruel experiment. The first citizens of what came to be known as Australia were mainly convicts and paupers, tossed from Britain starting in the late eighteenth century, shipped to an unfathomable land of crumbling stone, and forced into labor. Starvation was a periodic threat. So must have been grief, paranoia, and bleak feelings about the murder of aboriginals that from this distance are hard to imagine. Rum figured prominently in these early years. When Captain Macarthur rose up against Captain Bligh and took control of the rum supply, Carey relates in his idiosyncratic 2001 travelogue 30 Days in Sydney (a travelogue because Carey has lived since the early 1990s in New York, and wrote as someone returning), he might as well have commandeered the national mint.
What kind of society grows from such a bizarre start? What kind of individuals grow up in such a society? These are the questions Carey asks in much of his fiction. For the fallout appears to live on, like factory dust that has penetrated the cloud layer, transforming the weather itself. Two of Carey’s most acclaimed novels, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, take place a few generations after the colony’s founding, in the punitive Victorian era, when recent Irish immigrants were much oppressed, and play up the clash between propriety and private compulsion, official legalism and civic neglect. In works set in later periods like Illywhacker and Bliss, Carey combines unusual powers of description with a behaviorist’s eye to show how Australians flirt, work, love, and disappoint each other, and define ethics and culture for themselves in a country with fraught legacies of tradition and freedom. He gives us puffed-up provincials who exploit their arbitrary good fortune, wives with chapped hands who endure and women who flee so that they might do more than endure, inarticulate men who tinker with engines, bullshit artists, and variants on the Tall Poppy, a familiar national type who strives to succeed in the outside world. Australia is no longer a mere imitative appendage of England—as if that had ever been possible. But it is not yet the hip global destination with the sleek opera house and strategic proximity to Asia that the country advertises itself as today.
Carey can be very funny, and he writes with justified confidence in his ability to entertain. This, combined with his penchant for writing about liars and pranksters, and for raiding and rearranging well-known literary texts or famous real events in a way that has earned him the label postmodern (the latest of many examples is his novel My Life as a Fake, which reinvented the details of an actual literary hoax), can lend a quality of virtuoso gamesmanship to his work. But the repression he explores is by definition hard to put into words. So, in addition to historical, behavioral, and playful storytelling dimensions, there is an emphatically physical dimension of conflict to his work, conveyed not through words but in between them. The air in his novels can feel charged and changeable, thinning to ghostliness or thickening to sluggishness, as before a storm.
Carey’s latest novel operates on all these levels, and a couple of new ones. The story is set in 1980 and 1981 and narrated in turn by two adult brothers, Michael and Hugh Boone. Like Peter Carey himself, they were born and raised in Bacchus Marsh, a little rural town outside of Melbourne. The younger brother, Hugh, is mentally damaged and intimidatingly large and has hair, according to Michael, “that looked like cattle had been eating it.” A creature of habit, he takes a lumbering daily promenade, and likes to sit for hours observing passersby.
The driving of the plot and the greater attention go to Michael, the older brother, who is supposedly Hugh’s caretaker. As a self-absorbed, shaved-headed alcoholic painter with a shattered personal life, he is poorly equipped for the job. Eight years ago he was a rising art star in Sydney. As the novel opens he has just been let out of jail for attempting to steal back paintings that his hated ex-wife won in their divorce; along with his life’s work, she got custody of the couple’s son and a restraining order. Broke, disreputable, and charged once again with looking after the pathetic Hugh, Michael takes up the offer of his art patron, the owner of a chain of nursing homes whom he mistrusts, to stay in a cantilevered house on the Bellingen River.
Carey takes just a few paragraphs at the beginning to give us what feels like a parody of Australia’s traumatic birth. There is the crime and punishment, the abrupt erasure of Michael’s previous identity, the unwilling exile to a backwater paradise. Michael has an intense relationship to nature, appreciative in rare moments to the point of ecstasy, but also slightly barbaric. Indifferent to the house’s pretentious aesthetic, he proceeds to drive screws into the rare-wood floor and block the river view.
It is nature, awesome but in no way romantic, that triggers the plot. During a violent rain, a rental car suddenly appears on the property. The driver, an attractive young blonde, is trying to get to a rich man’s farm down the road. Her accent is American, Michael guesses, maybe “old money, East Coast.” But then he is only an Australian who has seen movies, and “if she had been Hilda the Poisoner from Spoon Forks, North Dakota, I would have had no clue.”
It turns out the woman, Marlene, is married to Olivier Leibovitz, son of the famous painter Jacques Leibovitz—an iconic European modernist who was part of the 1913 flowering of Cubism. Michael is floored by this connection, since in his meager, bumpkin education it was a cruddy reproduction of a Leibovitz, shown to him by a German-refugee teacher who appeared like a miracle in his high school, that first inspired him to paint. Even juicier, over a shared bottle of wine Marlene gives Michael the scoop on a scandalous art world tale. On the night that the great master died in France in 1954, his young wife colluded with a lover to move unfinished canvases out of the house before notifying the police. Over the following decades, with the aid of an authenticating committee, they altered and backdated paintings to sell them at auction as valuable earlier works. Years later, when the greedy widow was murdered, her son Olivier (Marlene’s husband) inherited the droit moral—in other words, the legal and lucrative right to declare what is and is not an authentic Leibovitz. This even though Marlene freely admits her unserious husband knows and cares nothing about the work.
Carey makes of the droit moral an overarching comic and tragic theme. In the wrong hands, this tool of authority can validate mediocrity, invite profiteering, even rewrite history. For Carey’s purposes, it also provides a neat allegory, parallel to Michael’s story, of the absurd burdens of inheritance. Olivier owns art without wanting it. Michael, who desperately loves art, was pressured to take over his father’s butcher shop. Though he ran away to Melbourne, he has never recovered from the guilt or the consequences of abandoning the family trade.
Michael’s voice is that of an aggrieved ironist and excuse-maker. Hugh, when he starts to speak in Chapter Three, adopts a different mocking tone. His voice is studded with funny malapropisms (the teacher Michael adored came from the “so-called BOWER HOUSE”), Joyce-inflected scat (his sentences sometimes end in a flourish like “oo wop bop da”), and a low-grade hysteria that Carey humorously conveys by putting certain thoughts in capital letters. Though limited, he is honest, with greater insight into Michael than Michael possesses, and the fool’s courage not to be ashamed. In bits and pieces we gather that the brothers’ father drank and was abusive, and in response their mother retreated into grim, end-of-days warnings. The most skillful effect in Theft is Carey’s complex weaving of this harsh emotional legacy into the grown men’s thoughts, behavior, and spasmodic jokes. It is as if anxiety and rage were a nose shape or a hair color passed on by the parents, living on in the children, recognizable, but with a difference.
After Michael’s first encounter with the chic stranger Marlene, he begins a period of intense work inspired by the past—particularly lines from his mother’s terrifying, apocalyptic homilies. Here is the artist at last, processing his strange, painful material. The two paintings from this period, huge canvases of devoutly mixed colors (Carey dwells at length on the ritualistic preparation of tools and supplies) are the closest he will come to greatness. But the creative idyll comes to an end when his rich neighbor’s prize Leibovitz—the painting Marlene was in town to authenticate—is stolen. The police suspect Michael. Evicted, Michael and Hugh end up back in Sydney, where a despondent Michael drunkenly demeans himself at art receptions. At one of these he runs into Marlene. And at this point she is discovered to be no American at all, but another small-town Australian nobody who has put in time in New York and learned a trick or two. After having mistrusted her at first (when he thought she was “working for the other team, the market, the rich guys”) he falls in with her and starts to fall in love.
Reading Theft is an odd experience, by turns impressive, fun, and beleaguering. On the surface Carey’s embittered prose pulls us forward in an atmosphere of antic noir. But the book turns out to be nearly as dense with themes, subplots, and embedded details as a more capacious and ambitious work like Oscar and Lucinda. In the second half, Carey continues to be his own, independent kind of historical novelist, resistant to plodding realism but ready when he feels like it with passionately researched particulars—and even open to didactic explanation. The period backdrop starts to make itself felt. Marlene pluckily responds to Michael’s despair by getting him a show in Tokyo. Carey does a drive-by portrait of the city, including a visit to the office of a collector in the back of a famous bar. This is at a time when Japanese money, often with either illicit or soulless corporate backing, is swooping down on the international art market, moving around fortunes and reputations.
After this it’s on to New York’s SoHo, still sleazy from the city’s 1970s troubles but starting to gentrify. It is now 1981. Three years later, fellow Australian Robert Hughes would parody the art scene in his mock epic poem “The SoHoiad” in these pages:
Frivolity extends her flittering hand
O’er the distracted, fashionable band,
And Youth sustains its present coalition
‘Twixt vaulting Arrogance and blind Ambition,
Whilst rubbing shoulders with the newly-great,
Impartially selling Smack and Real Estate.
To show this New York scene, a more obvious novelist might introduce an exemplary young art hustler and show people competing over his silly work. Carey instead gives us a minor but neatly drawn Balzacian character, Milton Hesse, a bitter, aging, also-ran painter who in his youth was an eager beneficiary of the GI bill and wrote the authoritative monograph on Leibovitz. Later, when Hugh arrives in Manhattan, his daily promenades and outings with the corrupt, pill-popping wastrel Olivier expose him to New York’s seamy side. But it becomes increasingly clear that while Carey has worked up some set pieces that are worthy of a major novel, especially in Hugh’s poetic voice, the second half is fairly schematic.
This is “the reign of Ronald Reagan,” as Michael puts it. In the art world as in so many other domains of public life, the notion that markets should determine ultimate value is taking over. At a Sotheby’s auction, Michael is appalled to see bidders flip over a lesser Léger and a blatantly suspect De Chirico. “It made me ill. Not so much the dirty money, but the complete lack of discrimination, the fashion frenzy. De Chirico is in. Renoir is out. Van Gogh is hot. Van Gogh has peaked. I wished I could kill the fucks, I really did.” In Tokyo, Michael witnessed the Leibowitz expert Marlene’s scheming in the back alleys of this world. Now, his despair curdling to cynicism, he himself will take up a mischievous brush. He will resurrect a lost, World War II–era Leibowitz, an intricate project involving, among other things, a thorough knowledge of the chemical composition and properties of old paint, to which Carey brings his considerable, if digressive, gifts of tactile description.
Is Michael in any way right to do this? He offers a justification that sounds oddly like identity politics. Like Marlene, he knows the Australian provincial’s backwardness and the hunger to overcome it, and in this shared outlook he sees love. Whereas, to us, Marlene is cunning and pretty, kind and gentle with Hugh up to a point, but otherwise a cipher. When Michael says, early on, “If they had ever glimpsed this lovely Rembrandt woman reaching out to swab Falstaff’s lovely dark abrasions, they would have understood everything she did thereafter,” it sounds like a cliché. Of course, this itself may well be deliberate on Carey’s part. He is capable of giving us a thought from Michael that sounds like Carey smartly editorializing, followed by a second thought that reflects the self-serving judgment of the needy artist.
Back in Bellingen, Michael was proud to have dug deep in his artistic well and produced a painting that was “an argument both within itself and against itself.” That’s a fine description of the approach Carey clearly aims for in this novel. In the early, Australia-set monologues of Hugh and Michael, which fit together like an interlocking yin and yang of clear-eyed suffering and self-preservation, Carey achieves this quality of rich argument. The invitation is not extended as generously as it could be to other places or people in the novel. Neither is it extended fully to the Boone brothers, when they leave home and are asked to stand for Australia in the world.