I have a long-standing aversion to Peter Carey. His short stories annoy me, I count his first novel Bliss as one of the worst books I have actually managed to finish, and the bits I have read of later novels like Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang have done little to disabuse me of the notion that he is a competent but dull writer with little to say and a not particularly interesting way of saying it. This is not deliberate iconoclasm: I have tried to enjoy Carey’s books, to glean some idea of his appeal, but I have consistently come away disappointed. Given the abiding negativity of this opening paragraph, you’ve probably guessed that Theft failed to reverse this trend.
Writing about books is hard, but books like Theft are particularly problematic. It’s not like it’s an unmitigated disaster, and if you are tapped into the Carey mindset, as so many apparently are, then you will probably enjoy it. It’s not bad as in awful, but then it’s not actually good as in good either. Reviewing such a novel, it’s easy to simply descend into snark, which of course can be quite amusing, but then people get upset and the next thing you know there’s a mob on your lawn threatening to beat you with a hardback Jack Maggs – or worse, make you read it. However, that’s a risk I’m willing to take: I don’t own a pack of Dobermans, a cricket bat and an aquarium full of rare Japanese shurikenfish for nuttin’, you know.
So, on to the obligatory crap story synopsis (“crap” in this case designating both story and synopsis): Butcher Bones is a formerly-famous Australian artist charged with the care of his mentally disabled brother, Hugh. Butcher is recently divorced, estranged from his young son, and, when the book begins, eking out a less-than-honest existence with his brother on a bush property owned by his patron. Through what appears to be a coincidence, Butcher meets Marlene Leibovitz, daughter-in-law of his artistic hero, Jacques Leibovitz, and finds himself drawn into an international art intrigue. He also falls in love. Ho hum.
Theft is one of those alternating narrator arrangements, Butcher and Hugh taking it in turns to relate the tale with all due irony and parallel unreliability. It’s a device with a lot of potential, mostly potential to be screwed up. Carey does just that, and we’re left with not one, but two supremely unconvincing narrators. Given they’re also the two main characters this presents something of a problem. Butcher is an artist, but he is also a bloke, so he has to say “bloody” and “shitty” and “fuck” and even “cunt” a lot. He’s a self-aggrandising dick, and presumably we’re supposed to see the artist, the father, the brother, etc, underneath that, but what we see is more self-aggrandising dick – self-aggrandising dick as far as the eye can see! Hugh is an idiot savant with the emphasis on idiot and comes out with phrases like “We are Bones, God help us, raised in sawdust, dry each morning”. And that’s just his first line, God help us! There’s a forced muscularity (masculinity?) to the writing, lots of “we brothers” and “we two big men” and so on. I was tired of these two big men by about page thirty. Pity there was another 240 pages of them.
What else? Well, what else do you need? If the voice is broken, the novel is too. I didn’t find the story particularly engaging, the plot was slack – too much hanging around in the bush, waiting for Marlene to turn up and kick-start things. She’s another thing: a typical female character, oblique and ambiguous in the traditional manner, but only really valued for her relationship to the male protagonist, her maternal nurturing, woman as artistic and sexual stimulus: a muse crossed with a mummy (not the bandage sort). Physically she is the Hollywood stereotype – lithe, small-breasted. Why not a fat outrageous snob? An anorexic ex-porn star? A quiet mousy girl sitting in the corner knitting socks for orphaned hippos? Anything, even outright misogyny, would be better than this piss-weak male fantasy of a character.
Theft is an inauspicious start to my Booker reading. It’s not so much a bad book as a poor book, which is somehow worse. Bad books can be good books gone wrong, or even good books themselves in a perverse way. Poor books are just poor – dull, tired, flat. Theft is all this and less.