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The Blue Guitar: A novel
The Blue Guitar: A novel
John Banville
Knopf, 2015
272 pp., $25.95

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Betty Smartt Carter

Artists & Thieves

How to get away without setting off alarms.

John Banville is a painterly writer. He's also a writerly thief, strolling with sticky fingers through the pawnshops of mythology and history. "Call me Autolycus," begins Oliver Orme, the hero of Banville's new novel, The Blue Guitar. Autolycus, the comical "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" from Twelfth Night, was himself snapped up by Shakespeare from his Olympian status as the master of thievery, son of Hermes and celebrated stealer of cattle. From his father, Autolycus also inherited the ability to make music and transform one thing into another through song—to exercise, in other words, the magical power of art.

Orme is an artist in crisis, having followed his central idea that "There was no such thing as the thing itself, only effects of things, the generative swirl of relation," to the paralyzing conclusion that the world he wants to paint—the world he has been trying like a boa constrictor to swallow whole—cannot be possessed. Essence is unattainable; the things he desires most will never let him in. Orme spends much of the novel musing on past failures and griefs: on his tenuous relationship with his father; his inadequacies as a husband and lover; and his loss of a young daughter who seems to have only made a superficial impression on his imagination. But imagination—the two-dimensional painter's imagination—is Oliver's primary means of perceiving and affecting the world. At one point he considers his last painting, a blue-grey guitar that his lover first thought was a whale and then an airship, and he thinks "what's the difference between a blimp and a guitar? Any old object serves, and the more amorphous its shape, the more the imagination has to work with."

Like Autolycus, Oliver is also a thief, though mainly of small objects that are only significant to their owners: a tube of zinc white, a golf ball, a green figurine, a glass mouse. At the center of the ...

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