Not such a miraculous machine
FICTION:The Chemistry of Tears By Peter Carey, Faber and Faber, 271pp. £17.99
A DEVOTED FATHER who has already lost one child to an agonising death is now distraught at the prospect of watching his adored young son, Percy, similarly expire. Henry Brandling is sufficiently wealthy to be able to set off for Germany, a country with a tradition of brilliant clockmakers, where he hopes craftsmen can create a splendid toy that may just encourage Percy to continue living. Brandling places all his faith in invention. But then he is a Victorian, or rather was: all we know of him comes from the notebooks being surreptitiously read by an extremely distressed woman living in the London of 2010.
Catherine Gehrig is a conservator at the Swinburne Museum. She has been pushed to the edge of madness and into dangerously heavy drinking by the death of a married colleague with whom she had been secretly involved for 13 years. But her salvation may lie in a new project she is about to begin.
This new novel – his most disappointing – by Peter Carey, the Australian double winner of the Booker prize, contains many of the elements his magpie imagination normally uses so well: history, anecdote, objects and how they are made. Initially it appears that he is returning to the formula that shaped Oscar and Lucinda (1988). In that novel he explored glass as a substance and a material but also as a metaphor. He brought together a pair of eccentrics, the eponymous hero and heroine, while bowing gracefully and playfully to Edmund Gosse’s extraordinary, classic autobiography, Father and Son (1908).
One of the most memorable images of the many in Oscar and Lucinda was of a glass church floating down a river. There is a similar image of staggering and far eerier beauty near the close of this otherwise overly slick narrative, in which Carey’s customary gleefully zealous research all too often overwhelms the story.
Catherine grieves for her lover, Matthew Tindall, but must conceal her tears, as she was “only” his mistress. It seems at the outset that Carey will have little difficulty in winning sympathy for a woman denied public sorrow. But the self-absorbed, hedonistic Catherine, “the first female horologist”, as she describes herself, is not easy to like; at no point in the novel does Carey convincingly establish her voice. At best she is a comic caricature of a grieving diva, drinking herself into a stupor while never forgetting that her dear late father was a raging alcoholic.
Her presence of mind is bizarrely clinical. When she books into a nearby pub to avoid her apartment, she quickly runs out of fresh garments: “My clothes were no longer clean and if I selected a white linen shirt it was only because I knew I could use hydrogen peroxide to remove the sweat stains.” Does anyone think like this, never mind a person in mourning? And why linen? About the only endearing gesture Catherine makes is on page 1. On hearing that her lover has died, she marches – her word – into his office, prepared to defy the facts. When she sees “his silly soft tweed hat” lying on a shelf, she admits: “I snatched it. I don’t know why.”
Her action makes sense; it is the kind of thing people do. Yet within a few lines Carey allows Catherine to set the scene, describing the museum as if for an entry in a tourist guide, and it rings false. Even worse is Catherine’s next comment: “If you had been there on 21 April 2010, you may have seen me, the oddly elegant tall woman with the tweed hat scrunched up in her hand.” Again, who would describe themselves in such a way? Who would speak like this?
It seems such an artificial comment, but then this novel, based largely on artifice, illusion and the strange mechanics of invention, is contrived and obvious, marred by some of the worst, stagiest dialogue Carey has written. Lesser writers have written better books than this on similar themes, and Carey, often so exuberant – as in Illywhacker (1985), in which he presented Australia as a giant pet shop; The Tax Inspector (1991); Jack Maggs (1997); and True History of the Kelly Gang (2001) – seems here to be continually striking a false note.
The most serious problem is the character of Catherine, harsh and practical, stilted yet slangy: “I attracted some attention which was a little bit OK. That is, one did not wish to be sexually invisible just yet.” Even more irritating, though, is her constant lamentation over her dead lover, in which she concentrates more on his body than on the man and focuses on the sensual rather than the emotional or romantic connection they had. She fails to convince as a character, much less a female character who has lost her partner. (Carey does have fun, though, describing the interruptions she faces while attempting to delete the years of emails that passed between her and Matthew on the office computer system.)
The characters are interconnected like pieces on a chessboard. When Eric Croft, the kindly, ever- interfering museum boss, imposes a beautiful young assistant, Amanda, on Catherine, it is obvious there will be tension. In addition to Catherine’s resentment of the girl’s youth and her perfect skin, which she endlessly describes, there is the fact that Amanda seems unstable, even dangerous.
The stronger sequences invariably are in the notebooks, in which Henry is very much a bewildered Englishman at the mercy of German genius at its most intimidating. Sumper, the somewhat sinister Black Forest inventor whose English, having been learned in London, is full of unexpected Cockney turns of phrase, refuses to replicate the plans for a duck created by the 18th-century French automaton-maker Jacques de Vaucanson. Sumper instead creates a swan. It could as easily be the wooden horse of Troy. Among the German characters is Arnaud, a collector of vicious fairy tales – an overly obvious brothers Grimm gag – who has also invented a washing machine that no one takes seriously.
Ironically, it is the German automaton, resurrected and reassembled despite the many dramas distracting Catherine and Amanda, that offers a moment of lasting beauty in this ramshackle novel. Catherine addresses the anxious, 19th-century father: “Henry, your silver swan was beautiful and pitiless as it turned its head to the left . . . No one moved or spoke. Every eerie movement was smooth as a living thing, a snake, an eel, a swan of course. We stood in awe and, no matter how many hundreds of hours we had worked on it, this swan was never, not for a moment, familiar, but uncanny, lithe, supple, twisting, winding, graceful . . . It had no sense of touch. It had no brain. It was as glorious as God.”
With this, Carey bequeaths a strong image to the narrative, an echo of the glorious glass church in Oscar and Lucinda.
Carey is an imaginative storyteller, but his humans have eluded him this time, as has, to some extent, his fluid prose, particularly in the dialogue. It is as if most of the speech has been dubbed. Fiction is demanding; it doesn’t have to be true, but it must be real. Carey has set out to tell stories within stories, but his work of art has been severely stifled by sketchy artifice vainly seeking a hint of authenticity.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent