An automaton is at the heart of Peter Carey’s latest novel, which is approached through two narrative bivalves – one set in contemporary London and the other in an obscure region of Germany famous for clockmakers.
Catherine Gehrig, a horologist for the fictional Swinburne Museum, is given a special project when her lover, a fellow of the same institution, drops dead from a heart attack on the tube. Her boss, Eric Croft, hopes the scheme (to assemble the aforementioned automaton, which she fervently hopes isn’t a monkey) will at the very least take her mind off her grief. And in a way it does because Catherine discovers a series of notebooks tucked away in one of the tea chests that recount the story of how the automaton came to be.
Henry Brandling – a man who ‘would see the glass half full even when it lay in shards around his feet’ – a rich man, or at least the son of a rich man, travels to a place called Furtwangen in order to persuade a clockmaker to build a replica of Vaucanson’s infamous duck (an automaton that served as the inspiration for Jeff Vandermeer’s story ‘A New Face in Hell’, a story that also reproduced the duck in outline as Carey does here) – only to find himself led on a merry dance by a strange genius called Sumper (‘a large man, with a neck as wide as the gleaming head which he kept completely bald’), a man who spent time as learning his trade from Albert Cruickshank in England, building an engine for Queen Victoria that may or may not have employed an otherworldly spectral power provided by aliens – a man, perhaps crucially, who cannot bring himself to construct a mechanical duck, choosing instead to fashion an elaborate swan.
Like Michael Cunningham’s most recent novel By Nightfall, this is a world constructed and understood through art, a world in which ‘the sky was black and bleeding like a Rothko’, in which Catherine understands herself to have ‘become a whirring, mad machine like that sculpture by Jean Tinguely built to destroy herself’, her perceived ownership of Brandling’s notebooks like ‘that created by my first viewing of Fellini’s 8⅟₂’. The novel reads, in some ways, like a curious amalgam of the restrained (Catherine’s sections share the subdued mood of His Illegal Self) and the unfettered (Brandling is a more typical Carey hero – we’ve seen his kind in Oscar & Lucinda and Parrot & Olivier in America).
Carey can be a blowhard, a boor and a bore. His muse seems drawn to boors and bores – they litter novels such The Tax Inspector, Jack Maggs and Theft. But there is more to it than this: Carey often writes boorishly when writing of boors, is boring in regaling us with bores. There is something inflated, pompous and overbearing about his creations – and Carey writes about them as if he is a gout-suffering Dickensian character himself, a Michael McIntyre busy laughing at his own jokes so hard it can be difficult to understand quite where the joke lies. Stylistically, there are things to dislike about the way he writes – from the incessant list-making (Catherine doesn’t just get drunk, she is ‘slaughtered, trolleyed, slashed, shedded, plastered, polluted, pissed’; the swan eventually produced and reassembled is ‘familiar but uncanny, sinuous, lithe, supple, twisting, winding, graceful’; a Brandling, we learn, ‘is also the name of a salmon before it has gone to the sea, a parr, a pink, a smolt, a smelt, a sprag, or brandling’) to the habit Carey has of constructing his narratives from rags and patches. Catherine informs us:
‘Reading in this way did not require that you interrogate the unclear word. In fact you soon learned that what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how you stared and swore at it. One learned to live with fuzziness and ambiguity in a way one never would in life.’
Later she explains:
‘I had peered between the lines looking for codes and signs, staring into the blur of descending strokes where, in a sea of ambiguity, delusion, wonder, possibility, amongst all the murk and confusion, there was one solid piece of evidence…’
Each of these comments shed light on what it is like to read Carey – not just The Chemistry of Tears either but Carey more generally. Perhaps the most interesting (strange, puzzling, disappointing, perplexing, curious) thing about the relationship between the two halves of The Chemistry of Tears is that, while the Brandling narrative is compelling (arresting, suggestive, seductive, intriguing, enthralling) enough to hook Gehrig – it isn’t compelling in a strictly narrative sense (not a great deal happens in dear old Furtwangen). This in turn serves to undermine the Catherine chapters because you can’t help but be frustrated by not seeing what she sees – which itself comes to be one of the apothegms of the novel.
Andrew Motion, whose Silver published at the same time as The Chemistry of Tears is an infinitely better novel, is quoted on the back of the cover saying ‘Carey is one of the writers, personally, that I feel most pleased to be alive at the same time as. It is like being alive at the time Dickens was writing. I think he is that good.’ One can only follow that by asking for a glass of whatever it was Motion was drinking.
Any Cop?: Although nowhere near as irritating as Parrot & Olivier in America, The Chemistry of Tears retains many of the hallmarks of what makes Carey’s renown inexplicable.