Like biological clockwork: the cogs and wheels of the human condition


In his new novel, Peter Carey plays with the (whisper it) historical novel to create ‘a science fiction of the past’, he tells BELINDA McKEON

PETER CAREY IS COUNTING on his fingers. He taps each digit on the edge of a restaurant table in Tribeca, a Japanese place, an old New York favourite of his.

He’s mouthing silently, not to me but to himself; possibly even to the dozens of characters he has created over the past 30 years. Because what Carey is counting out is the number of novels he has written.

I’ve just congratulated him on number 12, published this month by Faber, and he has looked at me with a crease of bemusement on his face; aren’t there more than that, he says. He counts them out, and shrugs: fair enough, 12. By now, he says, he’s thinking not about all the books he has written but about how many more he’ll be able to write. He will be 69 this year. “And you begin to feel that you don’t have all that many more left. If I take three years to write a novel . . . 71 . . . 74.” And he’s off again, counting them, the ones that haven’t yet been conjured into being.

I want to stop him before he can come to a stop himself. It’s a tad morbid, isn’t it, thinking about the novels he might not get to write? “It’s called the human condition,” Carey says, deadpan. “We came with a clock.” That notion of the cogs and wheels whirring and ticking behind everything we experience is, whether by accident or design, at the heart of Carey’s 12th novel. The Chemistry of Tears brings together a 21st-century horologist devastated by the death of her married lover and a 19th-century industrialist terrified by the illness of his young son.

To distract Catherine Gehrig from her frantic grief, her boss at a fictional London museum assigns her to the complicated work of restoring a bizarre and enormously intricate work of clockwork automaton, the mechanical bird commissioned in 1854 by Henry Brandling in the hope of rousing his boy back to healthy spirits. Gehrig hides herself away in the bowels of the museum annex, in her basement flat, and in the yellowed pages of Brandling’s many scribbled notebooks; Brandling loses himself in a mysterious part of Germany, seeking to have his vision – or, rather, the vision of the 18th-century French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson – turned into an apparently living, breathing duck by the magician-like clockmakers of the Black Forest.

It’s a novel about grief and about the reality that our bodies, those astonishing engines, must some day fail and leave behind the lives and the people and the places we love, but it’s not a bleak book. Carey is too intoxicated by the energy of his creations, and by the energy with which they pursue their own creations – the longed-for automaton, then the longed-for restoration – to allow the narrative to become bogged down by sadness.

Perhaps this vivacity is the outcome of Carey’s glee, still evident more than a year after finishing the novel, at being able to channel into its pages so many of the matters that have been preoccupying him, some for years, some only more recently. It started, as novels so often seem to do, with a nod towards his parents, and towards the things that preoccupied and fascinated them. He describes the “incredible wonder and joy” his father, who owned a garage near Carey’s Victoria hometown of Bacchus Marsh, always felt about technological progress. “My father would say, when I flew in to see them from Sydney, What time did you leave? When did you get to Melbourne? Isn’t that amazing? He would never stop being completely astonished.”

So, for a long time, Carey has wanted to write a novel that somehow explored the wonder of engines and of the internal combustion engine in particular. He thought, for a time, of setting the book in Australia, close to that garage of his childhood; later, he thought of setting it in Detroit, where Henry Ford founded his company.

While he was mulling over all this, he was also fuming about the realities of our overheating, self-destructing planet, which were becoming ever more impossible to ignore. And then he found the duck. The duck that was actually invented in the 18th century by de Vaucanson, and that Carey took – as in their own ways both Hawthorne and Pynchon had done before him – and reimagined in fictional terms.

As Lucy Daniel pointed out this month in the Telegraph, Carey’s work has given new meaning to the term “historical fiction”, and has done much to bring the genre to its present-day prominence; these days, it seems as if every second novelist wants to do what Carey can do, which is to bring a slice of the past to life, offering up a shadow interrogation of the truths and tendencies of the present as he does so.

But if, in novels such as Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), both of which won the Booker prize, Carey’s action rooted itself in previous centuries, in The Chemistry of Tears he breaks new territory for himself by moving deftly between an imagined past and a present that seems still close enough, almost, to inhale. While The Chemistry of Tears, in a manner that will be familiar from earlier novels, once again weaves in artefacts real and invented, and creates a catalogue of supporting documents – letters, diaries, drawings, progress reports – the book begins, and is arguably entirely set, in spring 2010, in London, as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill unleashes its darkness on the other side of the planet.

Catherine’s young assistant at the museum, Amanda, is obsessed and indeed a little unhinged by news of the spill; she watches the streaming web footage incessantly on her iPod. Was it an odd feeling, for Carey the “historical novelist”, to be looking instead to news stories as they unfolded, to be writing about a moment in time even as it occurred? “The glib answer would be that it was a very serious attempt to have people stop calling me a historical novelist,” he says. “But I see, reading the Telegraph today, that’s just not happening.” He laughs. He’s not meant to read his reviews, he says – they are sent to his wife, the publisher Frances Coady (who recently left Picador in the US), but the occasional one is sent instead to him, and so he has seen this assertion of what he has done for the historical novel and what his version of the historical novel means. He doesn’t mind, not really – it’s a “lovely review”, he says, but then, in the next breath, he does seem to mind, very much.

“I hate the term,” he says. Historical novel? Yes, he says, he really dislikes that term in its conventional use. “Novelists, historical novelists so-called, are really writing about the present,” he says. “It’s a journalist’s job to write about what’s happening now.” But the grip of corporatism on newspapers makes that less and less possible, he says. He’s not talking specifically about his reviewers, it should be noted; he’s talking about journalism more generally, and he’s irked. “Once journalists write about what’s happening, then they can say whatever they like about the novelists,” he says. As to the historical fiction tag, he much prefers a phrase used by the critic Jonathan Miller years ago, about Oscar and Lucinda, that it was “a science fiction of the past”.

What with its diagrams and explications of a wondrous automaton, its sense of gathering doom for the hapless Brandling, and its plunge into the writings of Cruikshank, a mystic who believes that mechanical innovation nods towards the existence of universes beyond our comprehension, The Chemistry of Tears fulfils Miller’s notion still more aptly – indeed, given that Carey is so fond of the notion, perhaps it’s one he had in mind as he put shape on his narrative.

Or maybe it’s just that reality is turning out to be stranger than science fiction. Carey himself was glued to that webcast of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as it happened, so it was inevitable that it would find its way into the novel. “I couldn’t stop watching it,” he says now. What did it say to him? “That we’re killing ourselves. We’re killing each other. We have this economy that requires growth, but growth is killing the planet, and we’re ignoring that. So, sooner, or later, something so bad will happen that we’ll have to acknowledge it.”

Industry begets technology; engines beget networks; automatons beget the internet, which is doing who knows what to us all. Among the most quietly powerful scenes in the novel are those in which Catherine, who needs to preserve the secret of her affair, deletes the thousands of one-line emails sent to and from her lover over the years. They appear in stark contrast to the long, detailed letters and diary entries written by Henry Brandling to and for his young son. Worse still, Catherine had no need to delete the emails at all; everything can be archived now, even if so little seems to be read.

Carey spoke out on this at Sydney Writers Festival, also in 2010, where he criticised a decline in what he called serious reading. It provoked a controversy in Australia – mainly, Carey points out now, among people who hadn’t heard or even read the speech. If his horror at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill made it into The Chemistry of Tears, then this preoccupation is present in a more indirect and yet pervasive way: the dictum handed down from the 19th-century characters to their 21st-century companions, inscribed in Latin on the mechanical bird’s beak, is “You cannot see what you can see”, and a sense of wilful blindness and of the dangers of withered attention is everywhere in the narrative.

But didn’t Carey worry at all about writing an agenda-driven novel, a novel bemoaning the place in which we have found ourselves today? He teaches on the writing programme at Hunter College in New York. If a student of his had come into his office and said, I’m angry about the oil spill and I’m thinking of weaving it into a novel I’m working on now, would he have advised caution? Distance? Time? Carey’s own internal combustion engine is sparked by this suggestion. “I’m all for rage and passion and for somebody to be really driven by something . . . not to be sitting down calculating something or worrying about something; that’s totally counterproductive. I think there are things that have to be done.”

The Chemistry of Tears is published by Faber and Faber