Thursday, April 7, 2016

Australia’s Prize-Winning Carey Pens a ‘Love Story’ on Art Forgery (no. 39)

 by Larry Witham


IN THESE POSTMODERN times, so-called, a novel about art forgery and theft must have more than one layer. It must have some distorting mirrors thrown into the plot, forcing the reader to ask, “What is real and what is unreal?”
            Before the arrival of “postmodern” literature, a forgery-and-theft story usually had a straight-line shot. For instance, a likable crook outsmarts the establishment and gets away with the painting. Or, as an alternative, a likeable inspector tenaciously tracks down the crook. Either will do, just so long as there’s a nice, surprising twist in the end.
            The approach is quite different in the highly-praised caper novel Theft: A Love Story (2006), by Australian author Peter Carey. The novel creates a world of illusion about a painting’s worth. The story is also narrated by two voices, that of two brothers. One of them is mentally unreliable, a kind of idiot savant (whose broken speech is impressionistic, not linear).
            Within this creative, layered approach, Carey (a two-time Booker Award winner) has packaged a story about a forged and stolen painting.
            Reviewers have noted that a key line in Theft is: “How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?” In postmodern terms, the translation is: Since anything is worth only what people say it’s worth, then a fake work of art can be worth as much as the real thing. (As we’ve been told, “postmodern” means that subjective judgments create human reality).
            So, on to the postmodern plot.
            In Theft, Australian artist Michael “Butcher” Boone gets mixed up with a young, beautiful, and professional art crook. She is Marlene Leibovitz, who is married to the son of the late famous painter Jacques Leibovitz. Having worked in the dark side of the art world, Marlene knows that once forgeries are authenticated, they essentially become “authentic.” After that they demand the price of a masterpiece.
            By contrast, the big, lumbering Boone is a practicing artist who struggles with painting as it really is. If it’s not good, he believes, it won’t sell. He knows this from experience. He was once a famous artist in Australia until he lost his touch. After that, his divorced him and took his wealth.
            Author Carey gingerly contrasts the two outlook held by Marlene and Boone as they nevertheless fall for each other, producing the “love story.” As the feme fatal, Marlene capitalizes on his naivety and need for praise to pull off a few theft-and-forgery schemes she has in the making. And through it all, Boone does love her (though in the end he leaves her).
            Marlene appears on Boone’s doorstep one rainy night. As it happens, a valuable painting in a neighbor’s upscale home was stolen at about the same time. Later, the local detective questions both Boone and Marlene.
            Unbeknownst to anyone, Marlene has a history. To Boone, she claims to be an American. However, as a teenager in her native Australia, she was a delinquent, nay, an arsonist (she burned down a local school). As an adult, she has married Olivier Leibovitz, which is her entre to the world of famous artists and the art market. By the time she shows up at Boone’s house, she has left Olivier, who in his wealthy has become a Manhattan drug addict who loves and hates her.
            We learn eventually that Marlene stole the neighbor’s painting. It was a painting said to be done by Olivier’s father (her father-in-law), and it had sold at auction for millions. However, it was really an unfinished painting, a kind of fake, touched up much later by Leibovitz’s last wife.
            Therefore, who can say whether it is an authentic Leibovitz? The answer: Marlene has that legal power. Married into the Leibovitz family, she inherited the power of “droit moral,” giving her legal standing to say whether any painting that Leibovitz left behind is authentic or not. Under this cover, she has marketed forgeries, one of which is the painting she stole from the house next to Boone. The painting was about to be expert-tested for a second sale, and Marlene would lose money when it was declared a fake. So she made it disappear.
            After Boone falls in love with Marlene, she persuades him and his mentally slow brother, Hugh, to go to New York with her. Hugh is always telling the other half of the story, portrayed as Boone’s “damaged, 220-pound, brother.” In New York, Marlene—slight, blonde, and manipulative—persuades Boone to fake a Leibovitz painting that she can authenticate and sell.
            Unfortunately, in that same city her estranged husband Olivier is ready to blow the whistle on her. Hugh, a kind but mentally-off observer, watches these intrigues and ends up with a misunderstanding. From Marlene, he gets the impression that Olivier is making her sad, having “caused Marlene to weep, deep in the middle of the night, a human lost in outer space or inside a plastic bag, gulping for air, their GOOD NAME vacuumed from them.”
            So Hugh kills Olivier, apparently by accident. (Think of the novel Of Mice and Men, in which big and slow Lennie Small wants to quiet the girl, but suffocates her).
            Whether or not Marlene knew that Hugh would kill Olivier, removing him as a threat, Boone concludes that she probably had used his brother for her dirty deed. In no time, Boone packs up. He and Hugh head back to their glum life in rural Australia. No longer a wealthy artists, Boone returns to mowing lawns for a living.
            But love of a postmodern sort prevails in the end.
            Marlene has continued to take the art market by storm, and not only with her control of the Jacques Leiboviz legacy. She persuades a Japanese collector to purchase some of Boone’s once-out-of-fashion paintings. The rest of the art market takes notice. This resurrects his career, raising the value of anything bearing his name. These maneuvers are Marlene’s love letter to Boone, even if he still feels ultimately burned by her wicked ways.
            The final twist arrives: Marlene persuades a prominent gallery in Germany to buy two Boone paintings. As the artist, he is invited to visit, and in the same gallery show he sees the painting he’d forged back in New York, a supposed work by Jacques Leibovitz.
            Marlene has obviously been busy since the split up. Boone’s last words are the ones he’d said a few times already in the novel: “After all, how can you know how much to pay when you have no bloody idea what it’s worth?”

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