Archive for the ‘Carey, Peter (2)’ Category

The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey

June 14, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Peter Carey is one of those “A list” authors who provoke a lot of debate. He is certainly prolific: 12 novels (with a new one every two or three years, it seems), a couple of short story collections, four non-fiction works and two screen plays. He sells well and wins prizes: two Bookers (for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001), a couple more shortlisted titles and three Miles Franklin Awards in Australia (although the last of those was Jack Maggs in 1998). He’s still presented as an “Australian” author, although he has lived in New York for the last twenty years — that might explain the lack of recent Miles Franklin recognition.

It is also a challenge to put a label to his fiction. “Historical” probably comes closer than anything else, although he is peripatetic both in time and geography — the Kelly Gang is obviously Australian, Parrot and Olivier in America is equally obviously American (and with a far different tone). And my personal favorite of his novels, Theft: A Love Story, is an exploration of art world corruption that involves no historical aspect at all.

So it is little wonder that his latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, both invites comparisons to his backlist while defying any attempt to frame a tidy description of it. One narrative thread is set in 2010 London, featuring Catherine Gehrig, a conservator at the Swinburne Museum. A second involves her immersion in eleven diaries connected with her latest project, the restoration of a nineteenth century automaton, commissioned by an Englishman but built in Germany. And the third goes back to the construction of the automaton itself and introduces a strange cast of mystical characters in the depths of the Black Forest.

That first thread is set moving by the death of one of Catherine’s superiors, the Head Curator of Metals at Swinburne — he had also been her lover for 13 years. It was a secret affair, but known to Eric “Crafty” Crofty, the Head Curator of Horology (“the master of all that ticked and tocked”). Clocks are Catherine’s expertise and “Crafty” figures that a major clock-like project, restoring a nineteenth century automaton that has been bequeathed to the museum (commissioned as a duck, but actually a swan — one that “eats”, “digests” and “expels” the artificial fish from the artificial pond that is part of the mechanism), would be a suitable and compelling distraction for her grief. Here’s the section as he introduces his proposal:

“Good.” He beamed and the creases around his mouth gave him a rather catlike appearance. He turned off the extractor fan and suddenly I could smell his aftershave. “First we’ll get you sick leave. We’ll get through this together — I’ve got something for you to sort out,” he said. “A really lovely object.” That’s how people talk at Swinburne. They say object instead of clock.

I thought, he is exiling me, burying me. The Annexe [which will be home to the project] was situated behind Olympia where my grief might be as private as my love.

At the start, the “project” consists of a number of packed tea chests, filled with protective old newspapers, tobacco tins containing small elements of the automaton and much larger pieces. It is worth providing an extended quote to indicate the flavor that will dominate this narrative thread:

I tipped the contents into a metal tray. That they were small brass screws would be obvious to anybody. The horologist’s eye saw more — for instance, most of them had been made before 1841. The later screws, about two hundred of them, had a Standard Whitworth thread with a set angle of 55 degrees. Could I really see those 55 degrees? Of yes, even with tears in my eyes. I had learned to do that when I was ten years old, sitting beside my grandfather at his bench in Clerkenwell.

So I immediately knew this “object” had been made in the middle of the nineteenth century when Whitworth thread became the official standard but many clockmakers continued to turn their own screws. These different types of threads told me that Crofty’s “object” was the product of many workshops. Part of the restoration would involve matching holes and screws and this might sound maddening but it was exactly what I liked about clockmaking as I had learned it from my grandfather Gehrig — the complete and utter peace of it.

That is impressive detail concerning something that I know nothing about — a characteristic that will become a constant in this thread. The link between the original construction of the object and its present restoration comes in the form of 11 handwritten exercise books that Catherine discovers in one of the tea chests, written by Henry Brandling, the Englishman who commissioned the object and went to Germany to both observe and document its creation.

Brandling has a sickly son (and has already lost his firstborn) and he is committed to seeing Percy through a painful and difficult hydrotherapy treatment. Somewhat conveniently, he finds a role for himself:

Then, quite by accident, I came across the plans. They had been already a century old when they were published by the London Illustrated News but I immediately saw their possibility and I had one of my brother’s draughtsmen draw them afresh and by the time he was finished with the transverse sections and so on, it might have been part of the offering plan for the new Brandling railway.

When my little fellow saw the design for M. Vaucanson’s ingenious duck, a great shout — huzza — went up from him. It was a tonic to see the colour in his cheeks, the life brimming in his eyes where I observed the force of what Dr. Kneipp calls “magnetic agitation” which is a highly elevated form of curiosity or desire.

I thought, dear Lord, we have turned the corner.

Henry’s trip to the Black Forest to arrange construction of the object introduces a whole new set of characters — an artisan who simply seems too big and clumsy for such detailed work, a child genius, a rather predictable hag and a fairy tale teller among them. Carey’s reference to the Brothers Grimm is oblique, but the whole thread reads like it was originally collected by that pair — and this is not one of the sanitized versions of their tales.

For this reader, all of this produced a confusing and often frustrating novel. Carey is a more than competent wordsmith and it is a good thing or the experience would have been worse. Each of the three narrative streams not only involves its own set of characters, it also carries its own “intrigue” which requires careful attention from the reader. As the author moved between the three, I found myself continually needing to refresh myself on what had happened before — which meant, of course, that I kept overlooking the highly significant details of what was happening now (requiring even more refreshing later on).

Catherine became an interesting character and the present day third of the novel was the most satisfying for me — indeed, I would have liked more from this aspect of the story. The diaries and her reaction to them did help fuel this part of the book. Alas, the Black Forest thread just didn’t yield significant return for the attention that it required.

The result of all this was a reaction remarkably similar to the one I had to Carey’s last novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, even though the two books have almost nothing in common. In both, I was very impressed along the way with how much care Carey had put into the detail of the historical aspect of his novel — I was equally frustrated by how little reward I found myself getting for paying attention to all that detail. For me, less would have meant much more.

A final critical qualification on my own opinion. Those who liked Parrot and Olivier (and it was Booker shortlisted, so many did) cited that attention to detail as one of the most positive aspects of the book — they may well find that the aspects of The Chemistry of Tears that frustrated me most are exactly what makes it a good book for them.

Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

August 1, 2010

Purchased at

In his Acknowledgements at the end of this novel, Peter Carey outlines its origin: “This novel began when I read Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient Democracy in America.” He goes on to say that in the following three years he was “nourished by a hundred other works”. Australian-born, Carey has lived in the United States for the past 20 years — whatever the commercial reasons might be for that, I think it is a fair conclusion to assume that this is, at least in part, an homage to his adopted country.

I will admit upfront that I have two major barriers to appreciating this novel. First, while I am certainly aware of de Tocqueville’s work and appreciate its signifigance, I have never read it. Carey makes allusions later on in that Acknowledgement to sentences and phrases that he has borrowed and buried — alas, they would pass me by. Perhaps more significant in terms of my appreciation of the book, I am at best a reluctant Carey reader. I have some appreciation for his first Booker winner, Oscar and Lucinda, and rather enjoyed Theft, mainly because of my interest in fiction about the art world. I’ve tried most of his other works and found them wanting, particularly his historical fiction (which certainly has legions of fans). So when Parrot and Olivier in America was published, I gave it a pass — I figured if it made the Booker longlist I would pick it up then.

Which I have — and jumping to the end, my initial misgivings have been confirmed. I can understand why this book has its fans; I am not one of them.

Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is the de Tocqueville character of the book. The son of a noble and titled French family he represents the declining generation of the aristocracy of late 18th century France. A child of privilege, that privilege is disappearing — not only are the French aristorcrats being replaced, his family is on the bottom rung of that bunch because they failed to flee into exile when Napolean made his move. Carey opens the book with a chapter that reflects Proust:

Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning in Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.

Parrot, on the other hand, is a child of the proletariat. The son of an itinerant journeyman printer, he is a representative of the future that is finding its way to fulfillment in Europe:

“Children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need them for preservation. As soon as it ends,” so wrote the great Rousseau, “the natural bond is dissolved. Once the children are freed from obediance they owe their father and the father is freed from their responsibilities towards them, both parties equally regain their independence. If they continue to remain united, it is no longer nature but their own choice, which unites them; and the family as such is kept together only by agreement.

More or less that’s it.

That last sentence is a fair summary of the premise of the book. While it takes a large number of pages for Carey to get them there, Olivier and Parrot end up in America, carrying the remnants of their French social and familial past to the new land of liberty. Olivier is ostensibly researching a book on American prisons, but he becomes fascinated by the new nation of liberty. Parrot is his servant (the novel does have an interesting, long diversion where he spends time in Australia as a prisoner on his way there, but it is just a diversion) who knows the old rules of engagement but discovers in the United States that they no longer apply. It gives away nothing to say that in this new land, they will find that their traditional roles become reversed.

Carey is a competent and talented writer and he carefully and deliberately unfolds that story in a reader-friendly fashion. He has obviously researched his material thoroughly — too thoroughly for this reader, because long sections of the book are taken up with explanations of the obvious that left me wanting only for them to end. While I appreciate the author’s determination to chronicle the “American” story, he does not have much new to add — his respect for the obvious history is so great that it comes to dominate the book.

All of which results in a curious flatness in the narrative, despite the author’s talents. Neither Olivier nor Parrot become real living characters; rather they are developed as examples of what the new nation produces when individuals from the background of the old Europe are located there. The story unfolds in an entirely predictable fashion and — if you haven’t enrolled in the value of the two central characters — there is an all-too-comfortable certainty of what will happen next.

I am not an avid reader of historical fiction, so the result for me was a growing frustration; I am certain that those who like the genre more than I do would find more to appreciate in this novel than I did. Having said that, Parrot and Olivier in America is no Wolf Hall — unlike Hilary Mantel, Carey is not trying to present a new version of the historical story, he is much more trying to faithfully recount a conventional one.

The novel is not a particularly difficult read. Indeed as Carey piles detail upon detail, I profess to a bit of admiration for the way he made the mundane and seemingly trivial a vital part of the story. But, since I could engage with neither his recital of the history nor the characters whom he places at the centre of the story, I found the reading experience to be dis-engaging rather than engaging. In one sense, I appreciate that Carey has chosen to pay tribute to his adopted land but as a reader I sure wish he had found a more exciting and intriguing way of doing it.

I am not surprised that Parrot and Olivier in America made the Booker longlist; I see it as a kind of lifetime achievement recognition for a novelist who has written historical novels set in a number of different places and now chooses to address the United States. I will be disappointed if it advances further — too many other authors have chosen to take more risks and produced far more interesting volumes than this one in the past year.


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