Jim Morphy reviews Peter Carey’s captivating tale, The Chemistry of Tears, and asks; what defines us as human?
As conservator Catherine Gehrig, one of the two protagonists in literary behemoth Peter Carey’s latest novel, is told, when we cry, the tears produced are chemically different from those we need for lubrication. Tears of sadness and hurt contain a natural painkiller, Leucine enkephalin. The body is an unknowable, unfathomable, wonder.
But this hasn’t stopped – indeed, it has more likely fuelled – the ageless race to create a machine able to act like man. This contest is now fought between engineers and computer geniuses. But, in the 19th century, automation makers were the kings of life-like machinery. As Gehrig says ‘anyone who has ever observed a successful automation…remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and what cannot be born’.
Examination of this relationship between man and machine is at the centre of The Chemistry of Tears. Do the two exist on a sliding scale or one of distant categories? What of us is science and what of us is soul? What defines us as human? It is a captivating novel.
Carey’s masterful storytelling abilities smartly bring together two narratives, which, while set 150 years apart, are linked by themes and objects, if not by style. Swinburne Museum horologist Gehrig has been tasked with re-constructing a birdlike automation, which, it is hoped, will wow the crowds and, more importantly, the Museum’s benefactors. Her boss also hopes that the lengthy project will give Catherine peace and purpose following the death of her senior colleague, and secret-lover of thirteen years, Matthew.
The spell-binding automation was first created by a German clockmaker, having been commissioned by the rich, if rather dim, English gent Henry Brandling. Brandling had travelled to Germany’s Black Forest in search of a craftsman able to bring to life an intricate drawing of the creature that had dazzled his family. He hopes the toy will bring joy to his ill son, and that his endeavours will, in some way, fix his troubled marriage.
Brandling recorded his journey in a number of lengthy notebooks. Gehring discovers the diaries, finding mystery, solace, and a kindred spirit, inside. ‘Did he really expect his wife to fall in love with him again? Or was he, without knowing it, building some mad monument to grief, a kind of clockwork Taj Mahal? Or was that me?’ Catherine asks herself. The Chemistry of Tears
The book’s chapters switch between the first-person narratives of Catherine and Henry. The dual narrative is a precarious business for any author – often, one tale will be more engaging than the other, and attempts to bring the stories together can seem forced. As could be expected of a double Booker prize-winner, Carey adeptly avoids these possible missteps. The two stories feed off each other, with more and more parallels becoming apparent.
Catherine’s tale is one of loss and distraction. Unable to publicly grieve for her married lover, she undergoes a near-private descent into the ‘nesses’ of the recently bereaved: sadness, loneliness, drunkenness and even a touch of madness. But, as she says, ‘What can we do? We must lead our lives.’ So she finds ways to function. She hides herself away in her Swinburne annex soothed by the slow, precise work on her ‘clever, soul-less, creature’ – Carey revelling in the technical language of conservation and automota. However, unearthing the mysteries of Henry’s notebooks becomes her true obsession.
Her few personal interactions are filled with irrationality and awkwardness. Catherine feels her well-intentioned, quietly-in-the-know boss is an interfering corporate brownnose, and her highly capable youthful assistant is an in-the-way irritant. Matthew’s emails and Henry’s diaries offer her only real human connection. Of Henry, she imagines that he had anticipated her, that ‘he had bequeathed these words personally’. She says ‘I took refuge in Henry. His was, in the best and worst sense, an intriguing narrative. That is, one was often confused or frustrated by what was left out.’
Thankfully, we, also, are able to read Henry’s off-kilter narrative of impotence and desperation. While Catherine’s largely straight story contains modern language, new technologies, and recent news events, Peter Carey runs free with Henry’s fantastical tale. Almost-dreamlike scenes, oddball characters and tall stories abound in what often seems certain to be a futile mission in the land of fairy tales and cuckoo-clocks. Indeed, in this book of storytelling, a fairytale collector even appears to remind us of the power of wild imagination.
Both narratives build towards the completion of works on the automation – works that have been hampered by human failings more emotional than practical. But both arrive at points that bring some degree of closure for Henry and for Catherine: they have their perfect contraptions, their projects are over. But now it is back to the dangerous unpredictability of everyday life.
The book’s swan – for that is what the clockmaker delivers, after being asked for a duck – ‘had no brain. It was as glorious as god’ believes Catherine. Indeed, it may be glorious, but, for all its mechanical perfection, it does not breathe, love or err. The genius of mankind, with all its faults, is the real wonder of the world, as Carey’s captivating tale reminds us. The Chemistry of Tears