Peter Carey’s new novel is about robots. I think. And grief. Yes, I’m positive it’s got something to do with grief. And art restoration, computers and global warming. And possibly space aliens, but don’t quote me on that. The Australian two-time Booker winner, who lives in New York, is one of my all-time favorite novelists. For more than 30 years, he’s published dazzlingly smart stories about con artists and fanatics with deceptions nested inside confusion tied up with madness. But his latest novel pulls those strings of madness a little too tight to unpack. It took me back to A.S. Byatt’s “The Biographer’s Tale,” which tried to re-create for us the bafflement of confronting jumbled notes, and succeeded.
“The Chemistry of Tears” starts in 2010, but, like the best of Carey’s fiction, it slips into the 19th century. Catherine Gehrig is a conservator at an “almost-secret” museum in London who’s just learned that her lover of 13 years — a married colleague — has died of a heart attack. As her cloistered grief threatens to overwhelm her, her boss offers an unusual salve: a box of rusted parts from some kind of automaton circa 1854. In need of painstaking restoration, it’s a complex project that might distract Catherine from mourning and garner some flashy publicity for the museum when she’s done.
This is the third of Carey’s cerebral short novels about the provenance of curious objects. In “My Life as a Fake” (2003), he scanned the slippery lines of a fraudulent poem; in “Theft” (2006), he swirled through the palette of art forgery. In “The Chemistry of Tears,” his heroine picks through hundreds of corroded springs, tarnished silver rings and glass rods gunked up with old glue. Descended from a line of clockmakers, she’s a horologist who could recognize the angle of Whitworth screw threads since she was 10. She quickly realizes that the pieces she’s charged with reassembling compose something like the mechanical digesting duck that Jacques de Vaucanson constructed in the mid-18th century. Or they may hold the evidence to humanity’s impending destruction. Or I may have been snacking on too many paint chips from an old windowsill.
In any case, the key to this historical, mechanical and possibly metaphysical mystery is 11 faded notebooks found among the decrepit machine parts. The peculiar style of the handwriting convinces Catherine “that the writer had been driven mad,” which sounds a little crazy itself, but hang on. Violating the museum’s rules (and common sense), she takes these notebooks home and begins reading the remarkable tale of a wealthy young man named Henry Brandling. In 1854, Henry got it into his head that only a replica of Vaucanson’s duck could cheer up his sickly little boy, so he traveled to Germany in search of a clockmaker capable of re-creating such a machine. (The logic of that motivation may be the rustiest spring in this novel.)
As Catherine slowly reconstructs the automaton in her modern-day workshop, alternating chapters take us back into the Black Forest, where Henry has employed a manic, and possibly murderous, genius. The mysterious manuscript, the increasingly bizarre picaresque voyage, and the grotesque characters Henry meets along the way are all classic Carey tropes, and very quickly several fascinating themes start to shoot and snort out of this Rube Goldberg plot.
Catherine notes that “it was highly ‘inappropriate’ to give a grieving woman that task of simulating life.” But like us, she can’t resist wanting to see what this thing can do. The violation of that line between animate and inanimate haunts her, just as it disturbs Henry in his journal. They both know the way grief drives us toward inventions that can’t satisfy the heart. “Really, truly,” she thinks, “anyone who has ever observed a successful automaton, seen its uncanny lifelike movements, confronted its mechanical eyes, any human animal remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and what cannot be born.” Dr. Frankenstein to the aviary — stat!
Henry realizes too late that he’s employed a craftsman who has something much more radical in mind than a mechanical duck. Is it blasphemous to create such artificial life? And is 19th-century Germany a safe place to be scratching at superstitions? As the gears of this story start to spin, I worried about losing a finger amid all the flying parts: the Brothers Grimm, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Charles Babbage’s calculating machine, the internal combustion engine, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, global warming, Prince Albert, extraterrestrial life.
Don’t worry, I literally can’t give away this plot. . . .
Amid the smoke of mysticism rising from these pages, how reassuring it is to come upon Catherine’s complaint that “the account was filled with violent and disconcerting ‘jump cuts.’ . . . In fact, you soon learned that what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how you started and swore at it. One learned to live with fuzziness and ambiguity in a way one never would in life.”
That warning should be printed on the spine of “The Chemistry of Tears” for anyone tempted to peer into this “sea of ambiguity, delusion, wonder, possibility, amongst all the murk and confusion.” No other popular literary author is so wily — so willful about letting us remain in the fog. That confusion can be intoxicating, but several things make all this more frustrating than engaging. First, the plot has none of the steam-engine propulsion we’re used to in Carey’s novels. Shiny things twirl here, but they don’t go anywhere. And thematically, the story is full of feints and dead-ends meant to make us admit the limits of our humble vision. (Uncle!)
Finally, what Carey can create like no one else are rough, hypnotic voices. The scoundrel in “Jack Maggs,” the rebel-hero in “True History of the Kelly Gang,” the servant in “Parrot and Olivier in America” — each one is a larynx constructed of ink and paper. But, ironically for a novel all about artificial life, Carey can’t seem to pull off his signature magic. Henry and his mad clockmaker have their moments, yes, but Catherine’s grief is so extravagant and arch that we can see the pulleys and wires beneath her skin. No one reading these pages will ever scream, “It’s alive !”
The brilliant parts of this novel make it sound like another Carey masterpiece, but sometimes even though a thing walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s not.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction critic. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On May 31, Peter Carey will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
THE CHEMISTRY OF TEARS
By Peter Carey
Knopf. 229 pp. $26