Carey celebrates a uniquely human derangement in Chemistry of Tears
THE CHEMISTRY OF TEARS. By Peter Carey. Knopf. 229 pages. $26.
The Chemistry of Tears,” Peter Carey’s idea-driven new novel, is told in alternating, linked voices.
One speaker, coming to us from modern London, is a museum clock expert who is secretly mourning the sudden death of her married lover and co-worker.
To ease her predicament, Catherine Gehrig’s superior assigns her a special project: reassembling an automaton first created in the 19th century.
Gehrig is a vulnerable, vodka-swilling, coke-snorting mess, too self-absorbed and soggy to be very likable as a heroine.
The novel’s other voice belongs to Henry Brandling, a 19th-century father who first commissioned the automaton as a gift for his dying son.
All the novel’s warmth and inventiveness belong to Brandling and his fairy-tale quest to save his son’s life with an impossible gift: a mechanical duck.
Carey’s work has a high ratio of swindlers and liars, forgeries and facsimiles, hidden identities and false claims.
The ideas that shape “The Chemistry of Tears” center on the difference between a man and a machine, but Carey also brings in the difficulty of sorting fact from fiction, along with issues of faith and doubt.
Though they live 150 years apart, Gehrig and Brandling are alike in one way: They both consider themselves rationalists.
They are content to think the body is just another kind of machine.
As Gehrig says, “Neither I nor Matthew had time for souls. That we were intricate chemical machines never diminished our sense of wonder ...”
Brandling, too, relies on the predictability and wonder of a mechanical system.
He plans to outwit death with a “clockwork grail,” the duck that will simulate life and bring his son back from the grave’s brink.
In the end, Carey seems to celebrate a derangement unique to humans. Gehring goes mad for love and obsessively reads Brandling’s journals, believing them “bequeathed” to her.
Gehrig’s assistant, Amanda Snyde, goes mad for the planet and obsessively watches a webcam of the BP oil spill.
And Brandling knows his aching heart is a sign of luck, “for only love provides the lucky man such symptoms.”
Later, he will say, “I had always known the world full of millions and millions of hearts like gnats and flies, each with its own private grief.”
Individual joy, individual grief: Carey tells a story of powerful emotions and faulty attempts to arrange them.
“The Chemistry of Tears” is finally more mysterious than clear, perhaps aligned with the imprecision of the soul.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes, an instructor of English at the College of Charleston