In 1986, a million dollar Picasso painting disappeared overnight. A neat white placard informed patrons of the National Gallery of Victoria that the artwork had been removed by the A.C.T., which many presumed to mean that it had simply gone on a road trip to a be displayed in the Australian Capital Territory… when, in fact, it was being held ransom by the Australian Cultural Terrorists, who threatened to keep and/or destroy the famous painting if the government didn’t raise the abysmal funding it gave to the arts. The painting was found, safe and sound and in fact strangely well cared for, in a locker in a train station some weeks later, and the thieves were never caught.
This is their story, or at least, a story that could have been theirs, tangled up with the stories of several other ordinary people and a South American ghost legend in a great dramatic fishing net and flung into the Yarra River.
The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex (picked up from a charity second-hand book fair for $5, attracted by title first—much as was the case with Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers) is not as much about grand theft art-o as you would expect from its premise as historical fiction. In fact apart from the preface informing the reader about the mystery of the vanished painting and the Australian Cultural Terrorists, there’s no mention of Picasso or even paint until 29 pages in. If you skipped the preface, you may have assumed that you’d picked up a regular literal YA novel, one seventeen-year-old protagonist (The Guy… named Guy) a hacky-sack champion who lives in fear of disappointing his overbearing parents, and the other (The Girl, mercifully named Rafi and not Girl) focussing on her studies so she can avoid noticing her mother slide back into delusional behaviour.
Then we get The Artist, Luke, who has “the ‘fuck-its’ in spades” and despite actually making money off the Melbourne art scene kind of likes the idea of giving it the middle finger, and so has joined an art dealer—Rafi’s uncle, by chance—in the ploy to steal Picasso’s The Weeping Woman. His Ex, Penny, is a would-be rock chick journalist who’s still in love with Luke even though she’s aware the wreckage of their relationship is slowly poisoning her. They’d most likely be out of each other’s lives, except that they have a baby son. Luke’s version of child support, as far as I can see, is making abstract art for the kid to appreciate when he gets older… ah, and stashing a stolen painting in Penny’s flat, assuring her that it’s a copy he’s made, while he makes an actual fake to replace the actual Picasso and get filthy rich.
I’m a sucker for stories that play on the weird and beautiful interconnections between people’s lives, whether it’s on a cosmic scale like Cloud Atlas or a mushy one like Love Actually. It’s a small world, but such a large one at the same time, and it’s fascinating to shift your perspective through fiction’s fish-eyed lens and remember that every stranger on earth is living their own intricate life, all connecting like neurons and weaving together into the great fabric of cities and the world and life itself. With these kinds of stories, it’s always entertaining to wait and see how they will inevitably cross over and knot together to make the bigger plot.
There comes a point, though, where the world begins to feel a little bit too small and these connections a little too convenient, as I think this book walked the line of. In some situations it was quite clever, unexpected crossovers of storylines creating problems that wouldn’t have been there before and looping back in on themselves to reconnect with other storylines… in others, it began to get a bit unbelievable that all these people would really know each other and bundle together into the schemes and plots, or at least, significant build-up wasn’t entirely present.
Perhaps some of the book’s problems are due to its length— after all, if you have four different narrators and essentially four different personal plotlines to switch between, that’s a lot to cram into a short novel, and it can leave some things adrift or not properly fleshed out… and of course there’s the issue that if two narrators are in one place having a very important plot-moment, the other half of the book’s core cast is effectively off in the nothingness. Unless you double back and toy with time and explain what they were doing all the while, you must resort to a “and that’s what you missed on Glee” introduction that boots that character into the present while justifying their nine-chapter absence.
That being said, the four main characters all had enough development, background and emotional oomf to get you interested in them, my personal favourite being Penny (who honestly could have a whole book about her, and her cool-big-sisterly friendship with Rafi, which was precious) and personal take-or-leave-them being Guy, who, while his struggle is real (you didn’t want to disappoint your parents but you want to slack off, and now there’s lots of people having a big party in your house? Oh no) it pales somewhat in terms of tension and depth compared to the emotional turmoil of a young single mother, a family’s struggle with grief and mental illness, and an art heist.
Though funnily enough this was not the art heist novel I was expecting, though I probably shouldn’t have had that in my head in the first place. It’s about a guy, a girl, an artist and his ex, after all, not about Picasso’s Weeping Woman, though the painting is what eventually kicks the drama into gear. On one hand, I’m disappointed that we only got a flashback glimpse of the theft and the whole business of the Australian Cultural Terrorists, on the other, it never promised to be an art heist story, and if it had been it would have been all about Luke, and I really couldn’t make myself want that.
He was really not my favourite, though oddly I feel like, apart from him being the Bastard Ex from Penny’s perspective, he really could have been a lot slimier and full of himself than Gabrielle Williams made him. Perhaps the intention was, as these interconnecting-web-of-life stories are best at, to show how different he is from how she perceives him, but really I don’t feel as though an attempt to really make you ponder and polarise him is there, and he just ends up somewhere in the middle ground.
Apart from him being, obviously, a self-entitled hipster art thief, adulterer, and sometimes absent father (and referring to Penny with the phrase “glom”, how dare you), you’re forced to wonder if Penny’s truly justified in her adoration or her hatred for him. I actually thought his friend Dipper was going to be The Artist when his first chapter rolled around, because Dipper immediately had so much more life and character than the self-entitled, vaguely philosophical but mostly bored and thoughtless Luke.
All I’m saying is, The Artist getting dumped on his ass (minor spoilers, though to be fair in Penny’s case she’d already broken up with him) would have been even more satisfying if the author had let him be a darker shade of douchebag; as indeed the kerfuffle around Rafi’s mother would have been miles less awkward had she had more to her than a spiteful, motherly mess constantly raving about horse-headed ghost women drowning babies, so, so easily pushed from everyone’s lives for the better and declared “crazy” and “nuts” by absolutely everyone. And also if Melbourne itself had been more of a vivid setting—disappointingly little was done to breathe life into the historical setting, but that is possibly due to assumed knowledge of the Great Cultural Hub, because if you’re interested in art you must know Melbourne so well it barely needs describing beyond street names, right?
This novel was something like its central Picasso painting, honestly: kind of a multi-faceted, multi-directional mess, but with artistic merit and genuine emotional heart if you’re looking for it, and quite generally enjoyable if you’re looking for a fun little story. It sure as hell didn’t give me as much of an existential crisis as Aphrodite.