Saturday, May 12, 2012

More Chemistry Than Tears

This appeared in today's The Hindustan Times


Unlikely couples and wily inventiveness have often been a part of Peter Carey’s novels. One thinks of Oscar and Lucinda, of Parrot and Olivier, of Dial and Che, of Jack Maggs and Henry Phipps. His latest, The Chemistry of Tears, features another such pair, one from the 19th century and the other from the 21st.  Past and present are yoked together by a series of notebooks, while the novel deals with the interplay between the constructed and the natural.

We’re introduced, first, to Catherine, a horologist at the Swinburne Museum in London, who receives the news that the married co-worker she’s been having an affair with for over a decade has died of a sudden heart attack. This, she learns later, occurred a day before the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill, an incident that has a bearing on later events. The grief-stricken Catherine is given a new project, the restoration of an ingenious 19th century mechanical duck, during the course of which she discovers a series of notebooks written by one Henry Brandling, the person who commissioned the automaton. Henry’s notebooks become her lifeline: she obsessively reads of his hopes that this “clockwork Grail” will cheer up his ailing, bronchial son, and of his travails in getting it made.

Henry records his journey from England to the heart of Germany’s Black Forest and the strange obsessions of the craftsmen who create his device there; Catherine, meanwhile, handles superiors and assistants at the museum as she helps to reconstruct Brandling’s duck-turned-swan.  Both face the loss of life and the simulacrum of it, finding peace in “the quiet ticking of clocks”, as the correspondences between their situations and the people around them are made increasingly apparent. Catherine becomes even more enmeshed in Henry’s notebooks as they sweep on, from a father’s quest to make a device to delight his child to dramatic events surrounding the creation of a Babbage-like analytical machine.

Carey’s prose is spare, almost spiky, deftly moving between the two voices. Metaphors of the mechanical are used to describe the worlds of both characters. For Henry, he is his son’s “engine, his pulse, his voltaic coil”. For Catherine, her lover is a “creature who should be forever celebrated in marble”. London is a “suicidal engine burning in the night”; Catherine’s flat is “a jewel box”; and tear glands are “intensely complicated factories”. On the other hand, “that we were intricate chemical machines never diminished our sense of wonder, our reverence for Vermeer and for Monet, our floating bodies in the salty water, our evanescent joy before the dying of the light”.

As the novel progresses, the nature of the automated swan becomes more protean. Is it a way to explore the mysteries of consciousness, a machine with or without a ghost? Is it a Frankenstein’s monster for our age, an indictment of the Industrial Revolution? Or is it a comment on the nature of novel-writing and other forms of artistic creation? Almost all of these are teasingly hinted at. As one of the characters says of Mark Rothko’s work:  “You can look and look but you never get past the vacillations and ambiguities of colour, and form, and surface”. In many ways, this pleasing uncertainty and the novel’s intricate pattern are its strengths.

However, there’s more chemistry and less tears here: the cleverness of Carey’s design mitigates the novel’s emotional impact. The emphasis on the mechanical, and the constant need to establish links between past and present make The Chemistry of Tears appear bloodless, much like the Zeus-like swan at its core. This apparatus, on one occasion, is described as “precise, ingenious and strange”. You could say the same about the novel itself.

No comments: