Peter Carey: Art and lies - and money

In his new novel Peter Carey brings the global art market to the marshes of New South Wales. He tells John Freeman about his obsession with fakes and fiction
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The Independent Culture

For the past decade and a half, Peter Carey has lived in New York City, one of the handiest towns for an art-lover. If he steps out of his apartment, the two-time Booker Prize-winner can walk to the 6 train and in 15 minutes be standing at the doorway of the Museum of Modern Art - where a king's ransom of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko canvases hang under reverentially high ceilings. If he stayed on the train a moment or two longer, Carey could pop out at the Whitney, the Metropolitan, the Cooper-Hewitt, or any number of small private galleries along Park or Madison Avenues, where works the size of bathmats can sell for the price of a Bentley Continental GT - sometimes more.

When Carey first moved here, he planned to spend a lot of time visiting these collections. "But I had kids," says the 63-year-old author over lunch at New York's SoHo House, dressed in a black sweater and stylish jeans. Now, almost two decades later, Carey's mind leaps to a less glamorous art world: the Australia he knew growing up in the early 1960s.

"It's very difficult to sort of imagine how extraordinarily isolated Australia was then," he says. "It was like growing up on the other side of the moon. All this amazing stuff was happening here in New York, and none of it was there, and anything you might see was a reproduction."

This westward migration of culture lies at the heart of Carey's latest novel, Theft: a love story (Faber, £16.99), a dark, cackling tale about an ageing painter and the sexy authenticator who hauls him back from the lip of obscurity. The novel takes place in New South Wales, where Carey lived for some time, and the book is steeped in descriptions of the place. The sentences ooze and suck like the marshland that surrounds the rivers. Michael "Butcher" Boone, the book's foul-mouth "dogsbody" hero, is going to have to be yanked out of this place, even though it's not really his to begin with.

As the novel opens, Butcher has been allowed to babysit a rich man's home in exchange for the privilege of working there. Pretty quickly, however, things go south. Butcher's mentally handicapped brother, Hugh "Slow Bones" Boone, loses a puppy and grows unstable; Marlene, a comely young authenticator/dealer, shows up on Butcher's doorstep and seduces him; and then a neighbour's painting vanishes. This is just the beginning of a devilishly clever tale, in which Butcher happily uses his own work as a matador's cape for Marlene's schemes and makes a little money on the side, too.

Carey has several friends in the art world. "I used to have lunch with this guy who used to be [the Australian painter] Kenneth Nolan's assistant," he says, and "he had all these amazing stories." Simply by listening to this fellow's tales, Carey gleaned a lot about the incestuous relationship between dealers, authenticators, and widowed spouses. He soon snagged on an idea, but not without a quick glance to make sure he wasn't simply embroidering a tale about publishing into drop cloth. "What I was most concerned with was not to make painting in some way a sort of replacement for a substitute for writing, because they're not the same. I was much more interested in getting the act of painting, the business of selling paintings, and painters' reputations, onto the page and right."

Carey has always been interested in provenance. His novels teem with people who lie about who they are, and where they're from. But Theft represents slightly new terrain. "I thought about all the things I'd done about lies and faking, and whether they were the same," he says. But they're not, he has discovered, because what is faking to one culture is theft to another - and vice versa.

Theft shows how this idea plays out in the global art economy, where the periphery must always gravitate to the centre to become authenticated. "The 'art world' in the novel is actually the art market," writes Australian writer Peter Robb, who has written on Caravaggio, "and getting authenticated is wonderfully and comprehensively shown as a money-driven and murderous legal fiction. Recognition of your art means nothing more in Theft than making vast amounts of money for yourself & others. The account of this is exhilarating because it's utterly disabused."

Carey's village of Bellingen is 200 miles from Sydney, which at the time of the book was a few thousand miles from anywhere. There are "blokes at the Dairyman's Co-Op", and the neighbours visiting on their tractors. It is the sort of place that distrusts the city, and couches its "inferiority complex" against cosmopolitan ways in rough talk. "You can say it goes right back to, you know, being the sons that didn't inherit," says Carey, "and being the convicts, being of the lowest quality who were sent to Australia, because if you had connections you weren't going to be sent to Australia."

Butcher, and by extension Carey, clearly identifies with Bellingen and its wild energy - its machines and their grinding differentials, the river's mercurial violence. There is great rage and beauty in the sentences of Theft as it describes these forces. Butcher's art ritualistically feeds off the energy of this earthy place and its people, then sublimates it. "The floor of a painter's studio should be like a site of sacrifice," says Butcher at one point, "stabbed by staples, but also tended, swept, scrubbed, washed clean after every encounter."

Thanks to the fact that Carey recently divorced and the words "alimony whore" appear in this novel, questions of art and artistry have temporarily been eclipsed by speculations on his former domestic relations. Carey's ex-wife, Alison Summers, has given several interviews in relation to the book. Carey says he would be willing to talk about his divorce but legally, "I'm not even free to talk about that," adding that questions about an author's work and life should be beside the point anyway. "Journalists seem to believe, or their whole training leads them to believe, that there's a real story," he says. "They've gotta get it. And all my technique is to get as far away from my life, to be other people, to be not myself."

Carey laughs: "I used the house I lived in in Bellingen... well, it's the pleasure in using a place I loved, but what happens in it? I mean, Butcher destroys my house in this book! You know, someone can say, 'Do you really think this is a deep sort of hatred of the house or something?' No! I'm using it because it's available. So yes, of course my life will always manifest itself somehow, but not in any way that even I will necessarily understand. You have the river of your life and then you have the sludge on the bottom, and the sludge on the bottom's what I'm interested in dealing with."

Carey has always gone after the figurative truth through his own peculiar angles. It's worth remembering that his two memoirs both featured fictional characters, and that one of his greatest novels, Illywacker, announced itself as the most ridiculous cock-and-bull story. My Life as a Fake drew on the story of the Ern Malley affair - in which two poets collaborated to invent a third and an entire body of his work - to play a big joke on postmodernist poetry. Making things up isn't just Carey's job; it has been his obsession.

In a way, Theft is the story of a man whose very ability to do that - to move, to illywack, to invent - has been stolen from him, or so he feels. Butcher's brother hampers his freedom of movement; Butcher's patrons buy his art so cheaply that it feels like theft; the global art world devalues anything that comes from too far away; and then his ex-wife steals his son from him.

Of all Carey's novels, Theft feels closest to the bone, not because Butcher is recently divorced, but because Butcher lives out the pressures Carey must feel as an artist of sorts from Australia on a landscape which was once dearly familiar to him. "I've never really engaged with places in this particular way before," says Carey, sipping a glass of wine after we've polished off lunch, "and I discovered I had a great memory of it, the stuff you need to write with - I know all about river and flood. And also the language thing, that sort of language, particularly, that Butcher uses." He pauses as if to take in the surroundings - the dim tasteful lighting, the posh lacquered tabletop - and register how far away we are from where he once lived. Then he adds, "By now, it's a little antiquated."

Biography

Born in 1943 in Victoria, Australia, Peter Carey studied science at Monash University and then worked as an advertising copywriter. The short stories of his debut War Crimes (1979) and The Fat Man in History were followed by the novels Bliss, Illywhacker and the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988). Later novels include The Tax Inspector, the Commonwealth Writers Prize-winning Jack Maggs, True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), which gained Carey his second Booker Prize and another Commonwealth Prize, and My Life as a Fake. His non-fiction includes 30 Days in Sydney and Wrong about Japan; his new novel, Theft: a love story, is published by Faber & Faber next week. Divorced, with two teenage sons, Peter Carey has lived for the past 15 years in New York City.

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