“What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context. This was London, 2016. My friends and I had lived our adult lives in flats with living rooms made into bedrooms, kitchens into pop-up cocktail bars and gallery spaces; we worked in pubs and shops and school and clung on to our lives as artists and musicians and skateboarders. For too long I’d suspected that I would have been more successful if I’d spent less time talking to my friends, if I’d had been more discerning about who they were, if I had put to another use the ten thousand hours in which I had discussed the meaning of love with the lunatics who wouldn’t leave my sofa.”
That’s the opening quote from Luke Brown’s sly, witty novel Theft, a story set in an unstable Britain pre and post the Brexit vote. The novel explores the murky, quicksilver motivations of 33-year-old Paul, a self-professed “minor alcoholic” and sometime dabbler in illegal substances who is at a bad place in his life: he’s underemployed, his longtime live in girlfriend has departed (just what went on there?) he’s being booted out of his flat, and his mother recently died. Paul is beginning to see the future, and it’s not bright, plus his marginal existence is being pulled out from under his feet. According to Paul’s upwardly mobile, energetic sister, Amy a “serial dater in the American style that Tinder has made standard,” Paul is “aimless,” and he’s certainly directionless, hanging desperately on to some semblance of a career amidst the impossibly high rents of London. He’s at a crossroads in life:
I suppose I will have to transform myself. Get a sensible job. Marry a sensible woman from the Home Counties. Produce babies. Get a pension, Buy a Motorbike in ten years to let off steam. Take prescription pills for my anxiety.
Paul works in a bookshop three days a week and writes for a magazine called White Jesus. His “two pages” per issue, a job which provides “little more than beer money,” is composed of one page devoted to books and another page devoted to haircuts, and naturally the latter, which at least affords opportunities to chat up women, is the more lucrative part of the job.
It’s through White Jesus, that Paul lands a “coup” interview with “cult author” Emily Nardini. Paul is intrigued with Emily even before he meets her, and in Paul’s subconscious, she becomes the solution to his many problems. He fantasizes about moving in with her even before they meet, and the interview, handily, takes place at Emily’s well-appointed flat. Too bad the flat belongs to her boyfriend, but it’s just not any boyfriend; Emily lives with Andrew Lancaster, a left-wing professor and author, a divorced man who’s considerably older than Emily.
Paul has one thing over Andrew: age, so it’s not too surprising then that age becomes the issue that Paul orbits around. When Paul begins hanging out with Andrew’s outspoken daughter, Sophie, a Marxist sex columnist who shoplifts in order to write (supposedly) a piece on White Privilege, Andrew suspects Paul’s motives. Andrew isn’t comfortable with Paul, and their encounters are barbed duels.
I watched Andrew, trying to get the measure of him. He cared about his appearance, that was clear-you’d have to if you had a girlfriend more than 20 years your junior. You wondered how the pontificating old Jeremies of this world could bear the photos that were taken with them and their young women. The contrast was too great to be explained by charm and intelligence, even if you didn’t already know that the men concerned had been punished by the moral universe with exactly the faces they deserved. Did they revel in the contrast or look away from the snapshots? The photos of these older men and younger women together looked like they belonged in plastic evidence bags, documents of the continuing crimes against women.
This darkly funny, engaging novel explores Paul’s odd, undefined relationship with Emily, Sophie and Andrew. He becomes part of their circle, but it’s not clear what he wants, what he’s up to. While Paul seems to be dating Sophie, he’s clearly got his eye on Emily. As the months roll by, Paul and his sister Amy prepare to sell their mother’s home–an “unsellable terrace in a half-alive Northern town,” and it’s the sale of the house–a literal break with the past–that becomes the turning point in the tale. The novel includes several lively secondary characters who careen from one problem to another. There’s Amy, who is going through a crisis of her own as she “inflicted something exhausting on herself. Deferred immediate comfort for future comfort,” Jonathan, a workmate who moves into Paul’s tiny flat after being booted out by his wife, and Susannah, another victim of the May-September romance:
“Replaceable,” she sighed. She was fifty-four and her husband had just left her a year ago for a fucking 35-year-old. “Well, of course at that age and childless, if you haven’t found someone you can be attracted to anyone. The bloody fool. He thinks he’s escaping into some youthful vita nuova; he’ll be changing nappies in a year or two, mark my words, and pretending to be happy about it.”
Paul is an enigma–a man of the brink of middle age who’s panicking about the future without really acknowledging his fears. The sale of his mother’s house, and a fascination with an author who’s out of his league, combine into a toxic, twisted cocktail of appalling behaviour, male competitiveness and stunted ambitions.
“Andrew’s a terrific lover,” I said. “He first made love in the 1960s and has been practising ever since.”