Throughout this moderately intensive workshop I’ve been working my way through Peter Carey’s wonderful new novel, Theft: A Love Story. Now, I’m a Carey fan, so naturally when the book came out I read every review I came across, in the daily and Sunday papers, the literary journals, and so on. One of the common complaints about the book, which surfaced in several of the reviews I read, was that though it is subtitled ‘A Love Story’, the love interest doesn’t enter the novel until about a quarter of the way through. Well, it is true that Marlene, the manipulative criminal with whom our central character, jailbird and artist ‘Butcher’ Bones, becomes infatuated does not enter the story until several chapters in, and does not become a strong central character until about a quarter of the way through. But to imagine that Marlene is the love interest is such a superficial reading of the novel that you have to wonder whether any of those reviewers got any further than the jacket blurb.
This is not a story about the love affair between Butcher Bones and Marlene; that is just the incident which throws into relief the real love story of this novel: the relationship between Butcher Bones and his overweight and backward brother, Hugh. They fight, they bicker, they spend most of their time each complaining about the other, but the affection which binds them inescapably to each other is one of the most beautifully drawn relationships I’ve come across in fiction for a long time. Frankly, anyone who doesn’t see that shouldn’t be allowed to read anything more complex than Janet and John, but most of the ‘serious’ reviewers seemed to spend most of their time complaining about Hugh’s contributions to the narrative.
True, we never quite understand the nature of Hugh’s backwardness. He can be awfully lyrical for someone with autism, he is not always as slow as his nickname, ‘Slow Bones’, would suggest, and he is constantly revealing truths that Butcher has conveniently overlooked. At the same time, Butcher provides a fuller picture than Hugh can do. They complement each other, it is a clearly deliberate structural device to show how much they really rely on each other. And when, about half way through, we start to notice that Butcher’s narrative voice isn’t really all that distinct from Hugh’s repetitive and CAPITALS LADEN voice, is also when we start to realise that Butcher isn’t anywhere near as clever as he thinks he is. They are two innocents who, without really recognising the fact, use crime and violence as a way of surviving in a world they can’t quite understand. That Butcher is a talented artist only compounds their problems with the world.
But the reviewers – I keep coming back to what seems to me to be a collective misreading of the novel – direct their attention away from Butcher and Hugh and towards Butcher and Marlene. This is because their sexual afffair is closer to what we commonly think of as a love story; and because their story circles around an actual theft (though the theft is really a small and incidental part of a much bigger and more complex fraud). But all that really is just the surface incident which precipitates the deeper story, and I would have expected at least one of the so-called serious reviewers might have noticed that. So far as I’ve seen, none of them did. Now I don’t think I’m reading anything especially deep into Carey’s novel, but nor do I think I am grossly wrong in my reading. Try the book yourself, it’s well worth the effort, then see which you think has come closer to what Carey was trying to do: the reviewers or me.
First published at LiveJournal, 20 July 2006.