Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Carey hits again with charming, disturbing novel
MACHINE or alive? Hard on the heels of Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), Australian Peter Carey -- who has twice won the Booker, and whose Oscar and Lucinda (1988) stands as one of the great novels of the 20th century -- has written a charming and disturbing novel in which a museum clock expert restores a self-operating machine shaped like a swan.
The Chemistry of Tears begins the moment the horologist, Catherine Gehrig, hears of her lover's death. She would much prefer to descend into grief and live there alone.
However, her superior, Eric Croft, assigns her the restoration of the automaton swan as therapy, then unloads the posh and slightly off-kilter Amanda Snyde into Catherine's lap as an assistant, unwanted of course.
In her rage against death, Catherine tumbles outside her usual boundaries, and (rather unorthodox for a curator) sneaks historical notebooks out of the museum.
Through these notebooks, she uncovers the curious events associated with the swan's 19th-century manufacture. An Englishman, Henry Brandling, estranged from his wife, departs for Germany, searching for a clockmaker to craft an automaton Vaucanson duck, which he hopes will make his dying son happy and well.
A machinist, possibly unscrupulous, lures Henry into the Schwartzwald. There the machinist gives him a book, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, to show him how properly to be a patron to an artist, and informs him, "You don't want a duck." Actually, Henry wants a duck.
Henry's misadventures (and Catherine's too) can be quite funny. Henry is often obtuse, Catherine less so, but both are blind-sided by emotion into unwise actions. Yet even in the novel's funnier moments, her grief and his incipient grief are never far away.
In the historical sections, Carey takes liberties that initially may seem quite arbitrary. The automaton silver swan does, in fact, exist, housed in the Bowes Museum near Durham. However, it was created by John-Joseph Merlin in the 18th century, not by some mysterious German in the 19th. Don't worry: a less subtle novelist would have been unable to pass up the name Merlin; Carey has bigger game to chase.
Given Amanda's tendency to pry more deeply into things than is strictly necessary, the novel risks falling into Da Vinci Code silliness. In Carey's sure hands, however, it isn't a conspiracy, but real trouble that we can't get a handle on that forms a menacing background to the novel.
Catherine's lover dies on April 21, 2010, the day after BP oil began spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, a doomsday sign that Carey intertwines with the automaton swan. "Who made the machine that kills the ocean?" someone emails Amanda.
Without giving spoilers, a careful scrutiny of historical dates will tell the reader who among the characters is technically right and who is wrong about conspiracies (and why Carey thanks computer pioneer Charles Babbage in his acknowledgements).
But only the heart will know what to say to the more vexing questions about whether humans are souls or chemical machines, and about whether machines were made for good or ill.
"These counterfeits of life," Catherine calls automata. Explicitly rationalist at first, she is convinced that Descartes would have called humans automata, were it not for the threat of torture. Later, her position is more ambiguous.
And the novel itself, duck or swan? One could say what Mark Twain said in 1867 of the swan automaton: he saw the thing "swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller's shop."
Brandon University professor Reinhold Kramer's most recent book (with Tom Mitchell) is When the State Trembled.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2012 J8