Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A book review

This review was to appear in the September issue of ABR, however at the very last minute it was omitted due to "space restrictions", which I translate as "Peter Craven demanded an extra page to waffle on about that PEN Anthology."

Stealing Picasso
Anson Cameron

Stealing Picasso is an art heist caper based on the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986. The crime, attributed to a nebulous gang of militant aesthetes calling themselves the Australian Cultural Terrorists, remains unsolved. Cameron, a Melbourne writer perhaps best known for the novel Tin Toys (2000), takes this historical loose end and runs with it, discarding all but the most cursory details of the source story.

Cameron’s merry disdain for the quasi-academic rigour of the ‘based on a true story’ genre is admirable. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with heavily researched historical novels, yet there are times when such fiction can feel like little more than research notes in fictional clothing. The uncharitable conclusion to be drawn is that writers sometimes stress the factual because their imagination isn’t up to the job. The risk Cameron has taken in Stealing Picasso is in saying to hell with the crutch of historical authenticity and giving his imagination free rein.

The story begins deep in the bowels of the NGV – depicted here as a kind of taxpayer-funded Gormenghast, ‘a mediaeval fortress, complete with moat’ – in the rooms of the National Gallery School of Art. This is a grungy, testosterone-heavy institution, presided over by Turton Pym, an erstwhile peer of Brett Whiteley and John Olsen. Pym’s talent fell short of his potential and he now seeks to assuage his bitterness by launching a generation of Pym-schooled painters.

Harry Broome is Pym’s most promising student. Ambitious but lacking direction, Harry falls under the spell, and into the arms, of Mireille, a beautiful older woman. After various twists and turns Harry, Turton and Mireille conspire to make off with the NGV’s recently acquired Weeping Woman and sell it to billionaire Laszlo Berg. (Almost every character in Stealing Picasso is burdened with a zany – but not especially funny or clever – name, eg. Harry’s School of Art classmates include such unlikely personages as Sedify Bent, Pasquale Knapp and Roland Loader. The effect is more Tom Sharpe than Thomas Pynchon.) Naturally, the crime doesn’t come off as planned and the conspirators are drawn into a convoluted adventure involving betrayal, bikies, and an out-of-work Michael Jackson impersonator.

Stealing Picasso is assembled with enthusiasm but it must be said that the result is a mediocre concoction. Cameron’s figurative language is often clumsy: ‘A guy like this, with a broken dream, has a head full of shards of reminiscence sharp as glass.’ ‘In Melbourne on a good spring day a sun sits on every car along every street.’ Cameron’s use the present tense, presumably to generate immediacy and pace, has a paradoxical distancing effect. The narration often reads like a running commentary, an effect that renders unwieldy Cameron’s efforts to imbue his narrative with greater intellectual depth.

The sketchy characterisations wouldn’t be a problem if they contained an ounce of vitality. Protagonist Harry is purported to be brilliant and thoughtful, but he is really a bit of a dill. Mireille is two parts Susan Sontag to three parts femme fatale, amounting to an unconvincing fantasy figure. Despite her alleged experience and sophistication she is given to na├»ve Euro-English syntax, for instance describing a bikie gang as ‘a motorcycle gang of hoodlums’. The native English-speaking characters’ dialogue is clunkier still, especially when Cameron tries to evoke criminal cool. ‘I’m in the same boat as Coke,’ a bikie chief announces. ‘You advertise you’re the real thing, you got to be the real thing or they close you down. You advertise yourself as a brutal son-of-a-bitch, you got to be carnage personified.’ Lacks snap, you might say.

Turton Pym is a potentially interesting character; even his name, redolent of Poe, is fitting. Pompous, libidinous, Pym ‘speaks with the authority of failure’. Unfortunately he also speaks with the same weird hollowness as Cameron’s other characters. ‘As soon as you shape up to the canvas the fight begins,’ quoth teacher Turton. ‘You either win or Failure wins. There is no honourable draw.’ Oddly, Turton’s students don’t spontaneously abandon class en masse but this is, as noted, a work of imagination.

Stealing Picasso’s satire is feeble. Cameron’s caricatures of institutionalised complacency and corruption are tepid: the NGV director is a preening alpha-male (named Weston Guest, natch); the gallery’s ruffian packing staff play a stoned game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with a minor Giotto. It is often difficult to know what, if anything, is being satirised. At one point Harry is working on a portrait of Mireille. ‘[M]aybe he should strip her off, paint her bare-breasted, then surround her with bears and have her laughing at them. Not circus bears, angry bears from the deep forest. Sit her outdoors, bare-breasted, laughing at these bears with their furrowed muzzles.’ To you and me it might sound like the worst visual idea this side of an Iron Maiden record cover; to Cameron’s supposedly super-snobby NGV director it is ‘an extremely clever trope’ that he might consider purchasing. Is he taking the piss? Is Cameron?

Uncertainty of this kind pervades Stealing Picasso, the result of a niggling discrepancy between Cameron’s apparent intention and his accomplishment. Humour is signified but rarely delivered; the plot is elaborate but too sluggish to be suspenseful; the flimsy characterisations and stilted dialogue undermine Cameron’s excursions into sincerity. Stealing Picasso raises the occasional smile, but it isn’t art, not even close.

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