Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About The Book
Michael "Butcher" Boones was once as famous as a painter in Australia could be.
Now he is just a down-and-out "dogsbody" [p. 11] having suffered a humiliating
divorce, a precipitous decline in his artistic reputation, and a stint in jail
for attempting to steal back paintings in his ex-wife's"the plaintiff," as he
prefers to call herpossession. To make matters more complicated, Michael is
saddled with his "slow" brother Hugh, a 6' 3", 220-lb mixture of unpredictable
violence, poetic fancy, and childlike dependence. As the novel begins, Michael
is serving as an unpaid caretaker in the borrowed cabin of an uptight art
collector, Jean-Paul, outside a swampy Australian town. As Hugh says, in one of
his characteristically deflating commentaries on Michael's narcissism: "One
minute you are a NATIONAL TREASURE with a house in Ryde and then you are a
has-been buying Dulux with your brother's DISABILITY PENSION. You are a
CONVICTED CRIMINAL a servant living on a Tick and Thistle farm."
Told through the alternating perspectives and vividly distinctive voices of
Michael and Hugh, Theft plunges readers into the 1980s art world,
with all its deceit, fraud, forgery, ambition, greed, and all-purpose sliminess.
When the beautiful Marlene Leibovitz, daughter-in-law of the late Jacques
Leibovitz, a great modernist painter, stumbles into Michael's life, they fall in
love and she vows to revive his moribund career. Marlene is in this backwater
town ostensibly to authenticate a Leibovitz paintingMonsieur et Madame
Tourenboisowned, unbeknownst to Michael, by his farmer neighbor Dozy Boylan.
Marlene has assumed the droitmoral, and has the sole legal right
to verify the real Leibovitzes from the fakes, of which there are more than a
few in circulation. But when Dozy's painting is mysteriously stolen, Michael
comes under suspicion, as does Marlene. As they travel from Australia to Tokyo
and New York, love and the raw ambition to storm the gates of the art world
draws Michael deeper and deeper into what looks increasingly like Marlene's
criminal machinations. Is she using Michael for her own ends or does she love
him and admire his art as much as he thinks she does? That uncertainty sustains
the narrative tension of Theft right up to its final pages.
As vivid a portrait of the artistic temperament as has been produced in many
years, Theft bristles with invention, its linguistic surface alive with
the textures of two of the most distinctive voices in all of literature.
Why does Peter Carey use two narrators in Theft? How do Michael
and his brother Hugh regard each other? Is one a more trustworthy narrator
than the other? What effects does Carey achieve though this bifurcated
How do the two epigraphs that precede Theft illuminate the story?
In what ways does Michael wish to be "a king" and to do just as he pleases
"in all circumstances"? Is Hugh right in declaring that "My brother had been
a King but now he was a Pig, eviscerated" [p. 265]?
The artist Milton Hesse tells Marlene that "the only secret in art is
that there is no secret. Nor should she imagine that there is a hidden
strategy. Forget about it. Real artists don't have strategy" [p.138]. What
conventional views of the artist does this assertion contradict? Might this
way of thinking about art apply to novels as well? Is Theft itself
free of a "hidden strategy"?
Hugh says of his brother: "The artist is always for himself alone,
allegedly a MONK, a PRIEST or KING, in spite of which assertion he was
always seeking a woman who would let him lie with his BUG IRISH face between
her breasts" [p. 89]. Is this a fair assessment of Michael? To what degree
does he fit the type of the narcissistic, needy, and self-inflated artist?
What does Theft suggest about the ambitions and motives of
artists, dealers, collectors, critics, and curators? Does Theftpresent a cynical or merely realistic view of the art world?
Michael and Hugh have very distinctive narrative voices. What are the
most striking qualities of those voices? How are they like and unlike each
other? What pleasures do they offer that cannot be found in novels where the
narrator is more distant and reserved?
In what ways does Marlene manipulate Michael in order to pull off her
various crimes? Why does he allow himself to be manipulated?
Both Michael and Hugh address the reader directly, for example when
Michael says "I will not bore you with the surgical operation needed to
remove those threads" [p. 115]. Who is the presumed reader of this book? In
what ways are Michael and Hugh trying to persuade the reader, and of what?
In what ways does Carey explore the themes of deception, dishonesty,
fakery, and forgery in Theft?
How does Michel's background, coming from a family of butchers from
Bacchus Marsh, affect his relationship to his own painting and to the
pretensions of the art world? How does his way of working, his attitude
toward painting, his passion for paint and canvas, the materials of art,
defy the conventional image of the artist?
Theft is subtitled "A Love Story." What does the novel suggest
about loveromantic love, self-love, brotherly love?
The novel ends with Michael's questions: "Is she taunting me or missing
me? How will I ever know? How do you know how much to pay if you don't know
what it's worth?" [p. 269]. How should Michael's final question be read?
What is he referring to? What is Marlene's likely motive for
continuing to arrange shows for Michael's work?
In an interview, Carey says that "to produce tensions which push the
language into somewhere new, you're stretching all the time for the thing
that's true and broken and strange. Like de Kooning and Rothko." [QWeekend
(Australia), April 1, 2006]. In what ways does Carey push the language in
Theft to somewhere new? How is Theft similar to what Rothko and
de Kooning attempted in their art?
Suggested Reading Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children; David Mitchell, Black
Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française;
Julia Glass, The Whole World Over.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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