The Chemistry of Tears
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £17.99
Peter Carey is our great connoisseur of exuberance. His novels acquaint us with the holiness of the fool and the riotous passions of the introvert. And he delights in finding colour in monochrome situations: in Theft, we saw the life-or-death exertions of the oil-painter; in My Life As a Fake, it was the tumult of the editor of a small poetry magazine. Carey’s new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, shows us the high-stakes world of museum curators and conservators. Well, who knew?
The primary requirement of the story set in an anomalous or rarefied context is that its characters’ concerns should be swiftly intelligible – normal. But in this bizarre new novel, Carey brings us a rare context, the museum, with emotional concerns rarer still (“My rather hysterical resistance to the studies of spectographic analysis”) and then brings to bear on all this his unsurpassable powers of suspense-making. The effect is much like having your arm gripped by a silver-tongued paranoid schizophrenic. We are very excited but have no idea why.
The novel is structured so as to house two narratives unfolding simultaneously, each informing the other. This format implies symbiosis but the stories are on speaking terms, at best. In the present day, Catherine Gehrig is mourning the death of her married lover, Matthew, a colleague at the museum. Their love was of the type you would expect of two characters whose author wishes to investigate the differences between man and machine: “Neither I nor Matthew had time for souls. That we were intricate chemical machines never diminished our sense of wonder . . .”
Catherine’s task is, with the help of Amanda, her mechanically enhanced (a hearing aid) and chemically altered (bipolar medication) assistant, to piece together the body and the provenance of a 19th-century automaton. In the process, Catherine reads the diaries of its owner, Henry Brandling, who in 1854 went on an ill-conceived journey to Germany to commission a replica of Vaucanson’s duck. The original marvel was conceived in France but Carey has already looked at France in Parrot and Olivier in America. Although this is where the hottest makers of automatons were at work in the 19th century, it’s unclear whether his alternative Black Forest setting has any justification other than his desire not to rake over old ground.
The connections between the two stories are strange. Each narrative is driven by an act of magical thinking related to the value its subject places on a mechanised bird: Catherine uses the reconstruction of it to displace her grief for a lover and Henry hopes it will keep a dying child alive. But Carey is a methodical author and the novel hums with thematic resonances. His central intellectual concern – to question the relationship between nature and machine – finds numerous expressions: in Catherine’s self-medication with alcohol, in the fact that she is a horologist who has neglected her biological clock and in the reductiveness of her grief. The cumulative poetic effect is as forceful as it is baffling.
Even so, the Black Forest scenes are magnificent. Henry lodges with the maker of his duck, aware that he is being deceived but ignorant of how. The duping of Henry’s sublime paternal innocence blends the nightmarish with the juvenile, like the silhouetted violence of a Punch and Judy show. Only a warlock like Carey can bring a grown-up reader this close to the macabre.
Novels live or die by the fine balance they strike between the writer’s observation of human madness and the degree to which he has imposed on this the organising principles of an authorial method. Madness portrayed with exquisite method has been Carey’s speciality, but his new novel is method first, with madness spread all over it, as if the human story were an afterthought, less interesting than the essay at the novel’s core. Like Vaucanson’s duck, The Chemistry of Tears is a mechanical marvel but it’s not all that much like life.
Talitha Stevenson’s most recent novel is “Disappear” (Virago, £8.99)