Peter Carey doesn’t want to talk about Australia. “Christ,” he laughs, “I only gave you four mentions in this book and you’ve picked up on all of them already!” That’s because I do want to talk about it. My parents are Australian and I’m fascinated by the place – particularly by its fraught history and seeming inability to stem the cultural drainage. A distressingly high percentage of the country’s greatest minds, Carey among them, leaves. (He has lived in New York for over 20 years.) They may write about their homeland – both Carey’s Booker winners, Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), focus on the colony in the 19th century – but from a distance and some of them, it appears, don’t even want to discuss why.
The book in question is The Chemistry of Tears, his 12th novel – or possibly his 13th, but I’ll get to that. It’s the many-layered story of a Victorian Englishman, Henry, pursuing a crazy idea: that a mechanical duck, an automated wonder capable of simulated life, might somehow save his consumptive son. He travels to Germany in search of a genius to build this contraption from plans Jacques de Vaucanson used a century before. Once there, he falls into the clutches of Sumper, who doesn’t so much agree to work for Henry as kidnap him. A hundred and fifty years later, the results of this peculiar partnership, plus the diaries that Henry writes throughout, will fall into the hands of Catherine, a horologist at a stuffy London museum, who takes on the bird’s reassembly to distract herself after the death of her lover.
Naturally, it’s all rather more complicated than that. (“I always pity people who have to write my plot synopses,” Carey says, and I agree, until I remember that I’ll have to do precisely that.) And it seems to have very little to do with an enormous former colony miles from anywhere. But let’s not be isolationist. Sumper, that garrulous, overbearing lunk, is the animating spirit of this novel (literally, since he is building the all-important automaton); he is also a convict manqué, who narrowly escaped deportation to New South Wales.
Why is Carey so fond of these lurid, self-aggrandising lawbreakers? Most of his novels contain at least one. “I have a bad character.” What, “Sumper, c’est moi”? He’s joking, I think, and anyway, all characters are partially “moi”. But this does seem an odd way to deflect my attention from his roots.
I can understand his reluctance: geographical stereotyping is reductive and Australians have suffered from this more than most. Until recently, white Australia was a fledgling, trying to emulate, overtake and detach itself from the mother country all at once; then there’s the fraught history of white Australia’s mistreatment of the original inhabitants. This book is partly about the difficulties we all have in seeing what we do not wish to see. Carey cites the New South Wales Aboriginals failing to register the incoming ships of the First Fleet “because they did not know such things existed”; a stunning piece of wilful blindness mirrored by the Englishmen, who then nearly died of starvation while surrounded by the indigenous notion of plenty. There is no tree of knowledge in the sunburned country – on the contrary. It occurs to me that if your homeland’s original sin is all about obfuscation and you have ideas you wish to present clearly, it makes sense to take to your heels. Still, only an Australian would turn coming from Australia into the conversational equivalent of a crime.
But then, Carey writes incessantly about crime. His second book of short stories is entitled War Crimes; his first, The Fat Man in History, posits a post-Marxist world where being obese is a criminal activity. He invents thieves and liars and gambling addicts and, yes, convicts. As for Ned Kelly, Carey’s extraordinary act of ventriloquism had the dubious distinction of making Australia’s most notorious crim an international sensation. Of the central trio in The Chemistry of Tears, one, as we have seen, almost wound up a convict (he narrowly escaped becoming a parricide, too); another is a thieving, dipsomaniac horologist, and, while Henry seems the soul of probity, he might be said to be guilty of plagiarism – a favourite Carey sin.
The first time I interviewed Carey, he described his countrymen as experiencing “the rage of the periphery”. This is only partly geographical. Kate Grenville, author of The Secret River, told me that her university professor (in Australia) dismissed the idea of Australian literature as a contradiction in terms. Carey has said that “thinking of two countries is a colonial habit”: the real country is somewhere else, “a green place we had never visited, where our own success and failure would ultimately be judged”.
Sumper, too, looks longingly towards London, “the jewel of the world” – and he is far from the only character raging from the sidelines. Catherine was a married man’s mistress: there’s a fair amount of peripheral rage inherent in that job and her attempts to douse it with vodka are notably unsuccessful. Even Henry is a mere parody of that fulcrum of the family, the Victorian paterfamilias. He’s forced by his wife to abandon his loved ones for what is almost literally a wild goose chase.
But there’s another aspect to the rage of the periphery. This book, Carey says, came from “thinking about the Industrial Revolution, its wonders and benefits and where they have taken us – how polluted and calamitous it all is now”. There is grief here but also fury. “When they invented the internal combustion engine,” Carey writes, “it did not occur to anyone that we would not only change the temperature
of the air but turn the oceans black as death.”
Until the world sees what it can’t see and humanity engages its considerable capabilities to prevent its own destruction, those bewailing our current behaviour will remain peripheral Cassandras, raging at the oblivious centre.
Which invites another question: where is that centre? “I think I would originally have used the word to signify an Australian’s colonial response to the cultural might and judgement of England,” Carey says. “Now it’s harder to answer – I might think of the decaying US but given the fragmentation of nation states, I have a growing sense it’s really corporations that are the centre – yet corporations have no centre. That’s a confusing answer, I guess, but it’s honest.” Now, there’s a shameful admission for a self-declared man of bad character.
Carey is as uncategorisable as he is prolific. He has written modern and historical fiction, short stories, a children’s book and a travelogue, 30 Days in Sydney, so abrasively funny and inventive that I would throw it in with his novels, bringing the total to 13. (Carey says he rarely rereads his work but 30 Days is an exception: “I think I got away with it!” He did.) His next book runs from 1943 to the present and is set in Australia. Carey, too, began in the same year, same place. But he probably doesn’t want to talk about it.