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Picking up the pieces

24 March 2012

12:00 PM

24 March 2012

12:00 PM

The Chemistry of Tears Peter Carey

Faber, pp.271, 17.99

‘The World of Interiors’ might have been a better title for this novel. Its two chief protagonists, Catherine Gehrig and Henry Brandling, live a century and a half apart, but both are beset by circumstances that make them physically isolated and emotionally stunted. They rail in furious misery, and are sunk in interior communing.

Commodities matter to them: they are materialists gift-wrapped as aesthetes. Gehrig muses on ‘the huge peace of metal things’, appreciates Clarice Cliff tea-cups, arrays with austere elegance the tools of her work, ‘pliers, cutters, piercing saw, files, hammer, anti-magnetic tweezers, brass and steel wire, taps and dies, pin vice.’

Alone in his bedroom, Brandling is consoled by his neatly-sorted possessions: ‘My cuff-links, my compass, the enamelled miniature of my son, the pack of cards, my pens, sovereign case, and all the little accoutrements of life’. Theirs are the aesthetics of terminal frustration.

Gehrig is in her late forties and a horology conservator in a Knightsbridge museum when the married colleague who has been her secret lover for 13 years dies abruptly. She plunges into lonely grief. A curator who knows of the affair puts her in emotional quarantine in the museum’s workshops and sets her to work reassembling an outlandish and unique object, an automaton dating from 1854. She feels eviscerated by mourning, stumbles in an angry daze of vodka and sedatives, puts her clocks in the refrigerator to stop time.

The automaton had been commissioned in the form of an elaborate mechanical duck by Henry Brandling, the Old Harrovian dunderhead son of a railway millionaire.  Making a discreet flight from a loveless marriage (and a cluttered home decorated with the taste of a parvenu brewer’s daughter), he goes to Germany to acquire the toy for his beloved only child, whom he fears has tuberculosis.  

Brandling’s moods at Karlsruhe and Furtwangen obsess Gehrig after she finds his notebooks packed up with the disassembled automaton parts. Like Carey’s other recent novels, His Illegal Self and Parrot and Olivier in America, in which the narratives zip along from dual standpoints, The Chemistry of Tears has two alternating voices, with Gehrig and Brandling narrating chapters in turn.  

Gehrig as a bereaved woman, and Brandling as a cuckold who is scared that his adored child is mortally ill, are figures of sympathy who dissipate their good will.  She is impulsive, ungrateful, rash, bitchy — a nightmare of alcoholic self-obsession. He is complacent and starchy, with the masochistic pliancy often seen in the sons of self-made tycoons, but stunningly ungrateful to people who help him. He is also a blundering, aggressive Europhobe who proves mindlessly violent.  

The Chemistry of Tears tells alternately how Brandling cajoles and disrupts the strange team who make the automaton for him, and how Gehrig — helped and hampered by a partially deaf, mentally ill assistant — rebuilds it. There are first-rate scenes and characters from both narrations, but not invariably. One delight among the German assembly team is Carl, ‘an immensely clever little fidget’, lamed by a bullet in the 1848 revolution, pictured as a ‘wheaten-haired child, laughing, hippity-hoppity …  like a lucky hare recovered from the trap, speeding strangely across the harvest stubble’.  

The hulking saw-miller who dominates the project, Sumper, has previously collaborated in London with an inventor called Cruickshank, a character mixing a dash of Charles Babbage with a splash of James Tilly Matthews, the tea merchant who had the first recorded paranoid schizophrenic obsession with mind-control machines. As Sumper is a relentless talker and Cruickshank mad, the reader trudges through their effusions and computer prototypes with waning spirits.

As well as fine scenes in Gehrig’s chapters — notably her meeting with her lover’s twenty-something sons — there are drearier moments (cocaine-sniffing, and a museum colleague’s erection). The evocations of London during a heat-wave, when the locals think that Buckinghamshire must have turned to desert, are excellent. One shares the wondrous joy when the automaton emerges as a glorious silver swan with little silver fish to eat, rather than a duck that eats grain and defecates as originally planned.  

The final chapter shows Carey on top form as a dazzling flying trickster (there is a beautifully turned hoax about Carl’s responsibility for global warming). Overall, though, this is a subdued, even careworn book with a wary attitude to dehumanising technology. There are neat descriptions of lush German landscape, but none of the elating richness of Carey’s spectacular Australia-based novels. Readers who revelled in his mid-life exuberance will find him at the age of 69 sombre and apprehensive.

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