DEAD, AND NO ONE told me. I walked past his office and his assistant was bawling.” This is how Peter Carey thrusts us into his twelfth novel, The Chemistry of Tears, two stories of love and death that turn on a single silver mechanical bird. Set half in the high-tech restoration studios of a twenty-first-century museum of precious objects and half in a nineteenth-century Black Forest village filled with clockmakers, the novel sustains an emotional pitch you might not expect from such an antiquarian confection. Along the way we will encounter, in addition to the silver fowl, a tubercular child, some mad inventors, a half-mad curator, and many outpourings of sorrow. It is a half-modern-dress Romantic ballet or opera, a Nutcracker or Tales of Hoffmann.
“I” is Catherine Gehrig, a conservator of “antique clocks and watches, automata and other wind-up engines” at London’s Swinburne Museum. The deceased is Matthew Tindall, the Head Curator of Metals, a married man with whom Catherine has had a fiercely sexual and secretive affair. She doesn’t let herself react to the news of his death. Instead she steals his “silly soft tweed hat” and flees the building.
Catherine’s boss, Eric Croft, the Head Curator of Horology, also Matthew’s close friend, wants to help her hide herself from her colleagues while she recovers from her anguish, a task made difficult by her inability not to envision her late lover “bloating cruelly, all his beauty turned into a factory, producing methane, carbon dioxide, rotten egg gas, ammonia.” Eric assigns her a spot in a remote annex and an oddly appropriate task for a woman obsessed with a decaying body (even if she protests to him that it’s cruel and “inappropriate”): restoring an automaton to its original state of uncanny lifelikeness.
Opening one of the tea chests and coffin-like boxes Eric seems to have dug up from the bowels of the museum, Catherine finds the diary of Henry Brandling. Henry, a wealthy Englishman, travelled to the Black Forest in 1854 to commission the machine. It had been meant to be a duck, and was to be a present for his consumptive and presumably dying son, who, on seeing in the newspaper some blueprints of a famous century-old mechanical duck that ate and shat, gave forth “a great shout—huzza.” His father, desperately hopeful, wrote: “It was a tonic to see the colour in his cheeks, the life brimming in his eyes.”
Catherine promptly steals Henry’s notebooks too, violating the most sacred rule of museum conservation (evidence should not leave the premises) and retreating to her apartment to drink and to read. The rest of the novel will alternate between Catherine and Henry, between Catherine’s effort to understand and reanimate the mysterious creature, as well as herself, and Henry’s increasingly bizarre story of its creation.
Australian by birth, a New Yorker for the past twenty-plus years, Carey is a prolific and protean writer. Very few of his twelve novels resemble any of the others, even if each demonstrates a detailed knowledge of a particular subject, and the range of these subjects is dizzying: obscure moments in Australian history, nineteenth-century techniques of glass manufacturing, the fine points of Baptist and Episcopalian theology, the minutiae of taxation, and on it goes. Carey’s novels do all seem born of a single impulse, though, which is to seize the past, give it a good shake, and turn it upside down.
His last novel before this one, the magnificent Parrot and Olivier in America, turned Tocqueville’s Democracy in America on its head. Carey gives Olivier, his aristocratic Tocqueville stand-in, a working-class servant-secretary named Parrot who experiences the horrors of feudal Europe and perceives the possibilities of America in a way the blinkered, snobbish Olivier is barely capable of. (The real Tocqueville traveled with an equally aristocratic friend.) The novel before that, His Illegal Self, featured a marginal member of the 1960s student movement tricked into going on the lam with the child of a Weather-Underground-style revolutionary who accidentally blew herself up. Carey sends this countercultural pair to the backwoods of Australia, where ideology meets criminality and implodes. The greatest of Carey’s historical revisions is True History of the Kelly Gang. It packs the entire tragic experience of the former penal colony into the bildungsroman of Ned Kelly, Australia’s Jesse James.
The Chemistry of Tears takes on the history of technology, contrasting the germination of the modern machine in the tempestuous dreams of nineteenth-century geniuses with its murderous flowering in the industrial disasters of the twenty-first century. After he reaches the Black Forest, Henry winds up in the clutches of an extortionist inventor named Sumper, who demands ever larger sums of cash without showing Henry any results. He is never quite sure that Sumper is not mad, but he does discover that Sumper is brilliant. The German learned his craft from an even more brilliant Englishman, Albert Cruikshank. When Sumper, as a poor immigrant in London, became Cruikshank’s unlikely disciple, the Englishman was trying to complete an enormous primordial calculator. He, too, had been moved to invent by grief. He had lost his wife and children in a shipwreck that would have been avoided had the ship’s captain not had charts riddled with inaccurate figures and copyists’ errors. Cruikshank aimed to “replace the pulp and fiber of the human brain with brass and steel,” Sumper tells Henry. This heartbroken genius (or Genius, as Henry Romantically spells it) roamed the streets of London, dreaming of three-dimensional cams and axles: “The machine would add and add and add, like the most dogged human, but without our species’ relentless tendency to error. And the results of these calculations would be kept from the murderous hands of human beings.”
Meanwhile, on the far end of the industrial revolution, as Catherine labors over and comes to admire the sophistication of Sumper’s engineering, the BP explosion is spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, “an ‘accident,’” she thinks, “that seemed the end of history itself.” This, it seems, is what the utopian vision of the infallible machine has come to. “When they invented the internal combustion engine,” she thinks, “they never envisaged such a horrid injury. It did not occur to anyone that we would not only change the temperature of the air but turn the oceans black as death.”
As do many of Carey’s novels, The Chemistry of Tears hews closely to the historical record, even as it deviates from it. Carey has modeled Cruikshank on Charles Babbage, a British mathematician and engineer who designed the first programmable computer in the mid-nineteenth century but never managed to get it built, because Queen Victoria lost confidence in him. Cruikshank, too, overtaxes the patience of his royal patrons, and never finishes his computer. (Babbage’s so-called “difference engine” was finally completed in 1989, and turned out to be more mathematically precise than modern pocket calculators.)
Moreover, Sumper has a precocious assistant, a ten-year-old boy with the brain and fingers of “an angel,” as Sumper puts it. Henry calls him Carl. It emerges that he is Karl Benz, who in 1886 patented the process that runs a car on an internal combustion engine, thus inventing the first gas-powered automobile.
Even the bird that Sumper and Carl eventually build for Henry has a real-life counterpart: The Silver Swan, an astonishing automaton built by an eighteenth-century inventor that was seen by both the young Charles Babbage and the mature Mark Twain. It was restored and put on display at the Bowes Museum in the north of England in 2008.
After a few hours of tracking down all these references, I started thinking of The Chemistry of Tears as a restoration project of its own. Catherine and her assistant use Google repeatedly to link Henry’s often baffling story to the big historical events of his day, but so many allusions remain unexplained that many readers will be forced to do the same. (I was, anyway.) That the average human will only succeed in teasing out the meaning of this historical fable if she resorts to an encyclopedia or the Internet seems almost intended as a literary technique. Carey wants to make Catherines of us all, to have us put together an artifact that has come to us in pieces.
By the end, however, such high demands on our readerly generosity may make us sympathize with Queen Victoria: this project will never come to an end! Indeed, the ending resolves nothing, which would not be a flaw if it were not also totally mystifying. There may or may not be a turn toward the apocalyptic, or perhaps the science-fictional; this may or may not involve “Superior Beings”; these may or may not have sent the inventors and their machines from some otherworldly location to destroy mankind itself. I had no idea how to decipher Carey’s clues. Carey is one of the most original novelists writing today, so I told myself that my inability to understand was precisely the point, proof that Geniuses are Superior Beings. As the supercilious Sumper tells Henry, “You are in the same state as a fly whose microscopic eye has been changed to one similar to a man … YOU ARE WHOLLY UNABLE TO ASSOCIATE WHAT YOU SEE WITH WHAT YOUR LIFE HAS TAUGHT YOU.” (The capital letters, again, are Henry’s.) But this distrusting patron couldn’t help suspecting a technical malfunction.
Judith Shulevitz is the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time (Random House).