Book Review: The Readymade Thief, by Augustus Rose
The Readymade Thief, by Augustus Rose
The Readymade Thief
By Augustus Rose
Viking
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

The most heartbreaking thing about screenwriter Augustus Rose’s disappointing debut novel, The Readymade Thief, is precisely that it’s so good during its first half, a slow-burning character-heavy mystery story with just the lightest of supernatural elements, and that wisely takes its time in letting us get to know its complex, imminently rootable hero. To be specific, that would be teen runaway Lee Cuddy, whose compulsive need for approval led to her being her local high school’s resident drug dealer; when a deal goes bad and she randomly finds herself with a chance to break out of juvenile detention, she ends up in the community of street punks in the Philadelphia underground, where she ends up stumbling across a shadowy organization known as the Societe Anonyme, producers of an exclusive monthly “rave to die for” in the city and who are obsessed with the Modernist artist Marcel Duchamp.

Do they have something to do with the rash of burned-out teens cropping up in the city, fried on a new type of designer drug and whose eyes have expanded into the size of anime characters? It’s those kinds of questions that had me so intrigued and invested during the first half of the book. So how profoundly disappointing, then, to get to the second half and see it turn into such a scene-for-scene ripoff of The Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown has a viable claim for a plagiarism lawsuit; only instead of Brown’s conceit that Da Vinci left clues in his paintings that show that Jesus had a kid with Mary Magdalene (if that’s still a spoiler to you, you deserve at this point to have that spoiled), Rose’s premise is that Duchamp left clues in his various absurd Dadaist and Surrealist pieces that indicate that he knew the solution to the unified field theory, quantum mechanics, and how to access the fabled eleven dimensions that modern theoretical physicists insist exist all around us.

That’s the point when I found myself throwing my hands in the air and angrily sighing, because that’s the point where it felt like Rose had written half of a great literary novel and then suddenly remembered, “Oh, right, I eventually need to sell the movie rights to this sucker!,” throwing himself feet-first into the most hackneyed stereotypical cheese he could possibly dream up; it’s at that point that the plot suddenly becomes outrageous, the conspiracy theories are cranked up to 11, all the new characters suddenly become cardboard cutouts, and the technology that drives it all becomes laughably implausible. (His explanation of how Tor onion sites work has all the credibility of Sandra Bullock’s The Net; and his assertion that the members of a 4chan-like troll community would suddenly turn into the Goonies in the face of one of their members being murdered is exactly the kind of groan-inducing concept that makes me immediately think of some Paramount executive lighting a cigar after a thousand-dollar pitch dinner and boisterously shouting, “That’s gold, Augustus, PURE HOLLYWOOD GOLD!!!”)

#AugustusRose's #TheReadymadeThief starts great, before devolving into #DaVinciCode territory Click To Tweet

Rose should’ve stuck with his instincts and completed this novel with the poise and restraint he admirably shows in the first half; because by embracing his hacky screenwriter side for the last half, he not only invalidates everything that came before, he makes readers feel like fools for buying into it in the first place. (And yes, I’m aware of the response that fans of the book will have to a statement like this; see SPOILER SPACE below for more.) A book even more disappointing than if it had simply been terrible, it unfortunately does not come recommended today.

Out of 10: Usually 7.0, but dropped to 5.5 for its bait-and-switch nature

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SPOILER SPACE: DO NOT READ BELOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS NOVEL ENDS…

I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but in this case I feel like I need to preemptively prove that I actually did finish this novel, and therefore am aware that when the villains put their Duchamp Rube Goldberg machine into motion, it essentially outputs a snotty insult from the famed absurdist artist, and shows that Duchamp created all the Da-Vinci-Code-like smoke and mirrors purely as an elaborate joke for those who take these kinds of subjects too seriously. Fans of the book will claim that my criticism of it is invalid because of the novel ending this way, the reason I feel compelled to mention it in the first place; my response is that this kind of “ha ha, none of this really counted” reveal in the last ten pages doesn’t make up for 200 previous pages where the ridiculous conspiracy theory is treated at face value as real. Just because Poochie dies on the way back to his home planet doesn’t mean the terrible Poochie cartoon that came before it is any good.

Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd