The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose

Reviewed by Harriet

A kickass debut from start to finish’ screams the cover of this highly readable, somewhat bizarre, debut novel. It’s a book that defies categorisation – perhaps best described as a picaresque coming-of-age novel, it manages to combine urban exploration, the Darknet, secret societies, the exploitation of teenagers, and the life and works of the celebrated artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in one of the most exciting and fast-moving adventure stories you could ever hope to meet.

The central protagonist here is Lee Cuddy, who is seventeen when the story proper begins. Abandoned by her musician father at seven, she has learned the pleasures of theft at a very young age, and makes a good profit from selling stolen goods at school. By thirteen she has found a new friend, Edie, who has introduced her to the delights of drugs. Caught shoplifting at sixteen, she has a brief period of reform, works hard at school, and her mother and New Age stepfather have high hopes that she will fulfil her potential by going to college, something she finds she’s quite excited about. But she’s betrayed by Edie and ends up in a Juvenile Detention Centre for something she didn’t even do.

Life in the Centre is predictably miserable, and Lee is ingenious enough to manage to escape. From here on she is on the run, homeless and friendless, sleeping rough and eating from dumpsters. A chance meeting with a girl begging on the street leads her to the headquarters of what turns out to be a very sinister secret society. The place is called the Crystal Castle, and there Lee is given food and shelter, and introduced to a man known as the Station Master, who sends her out begging. He seems kind and caring, but when Lee discovers what goes on at the top of the building, she takes off. Now she’s back on the streets, but she soon meets a young artist called Tomi who shows her how to get into disused buildings, and also works out a system by which she can squat in the properties of people who are away on holiday. He also smuggles her into the art museum and introduces her to the work of Marcel Duchamp.

From this point on – or sooner if you happen to be a connisseur of Duchamp (even the title and the cover design hold a clue) – the life and work of this celebrated artist become inextricably bound up in the story. Lee steals a Duchamp artefact from the museum – she is dressed for some time in a bridal gown, a reference to Duchamp’s celebrated artwork The Bride Stripped Bare by her Batchelors Even – she and Tomi find a secret room in the art museum which seems to hold clues to Duchamp’s highly esoteric philosophy – and the so-called Societé Anonyme, seemingly run by the leaders of the Crystal Castle, appear to be seeking her for some purpose of their own. Meanwhile Lee, sometimes with, sometimes without Tomi, dashes helter skelter through the streets of Phildelphia. She gets trained in the art of lock-picking by a seasoned Mexican fence. She is befriended by the teenage of daughter of a house she’s been squatting in and manages to stay hidden in her room for some time, unknown to her parents. And as she finds out more and more about Duchamp, she realises she is in grave danger – they seem to need her for some mysterious reason, though she can’t figure out what that might be. Can she trust Tomi or is he in league with the Societé Anonyme?

There’s never a dull moment here and I enjoyed the fast pace and frequent, unexpected plot developments tremendously. As for the Duchamp elements, which are absolutely crucial to the story, I found them both fascinating and a little odd. I’d heard of Duchamp and seen some reproductions of his work, but knew next to nothing about his philosophy and resorted to looking him up on Wikipedia. Anyone who’s not prepared for some fairly challenging intellectual puzzles might find this aspect of the novel a little hard to take, but in the end I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and just enjoy the fun. Overall this is a tremendously lively, always unexpected story and I’m really glad to have read it.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Augustus Rose, The Ready Made Thief (Viking, 2017). 978-0735221833, 374pp., hardback.

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