Peter Carey's The Chemistry of Tears

Australian writer Peter Carey's latest novel The Chemistry of Tears makes an impassioned argument for preservation of the earth, in the guise of a novel about grief.

Australian novelist is two-time winner of Booker Prize

Author Peter Carey poses for a photograph in New York on April 19, 2010. He sets The Chemistry of Tears inside a fictional London museum very like the Victoria & Albert. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Author Peter Carey starts every novel with the big argument – what is wrong with the American approach to democracy in Parrot and Olivier in America; how do Australians live with the convict stain in The True History of the Kelly Gang.

In his most recent novel, The Chemistry of Tears, he's concerned with nothing less than the fate of the earth. The story of a contemporary museum curator who is restoring an automaton – a clockwork silver swan – takes place in 2010, the year the BP oil spill threatened environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  A parallel story takes place in the 19th century – as Henry Brandling struggles to get the swan made as a gift for his consumptive son.

"If you ask why are you interested in the 19th century, I would say, because we’re living in it," Carey said in an interview with CBC News.  "We’re living with the consequences of it.  We argue with the 19th century capitalists, growth is good – we still talk like that…

'So these things are set up which are not in my mind when I first thought of it. This the joy of writing a novel — that you don’t know what you know beyond yourself and beyond your experience'—Peter Carey

"At the same time we know that growth is killing us. At the same time, we know we’re living on the resources of a planet and a half.  The system will break with all the destruction man can do. So in both those cases we’re living in the 19th century – we’re living in 19th century with its mad, technological optimism.  We have the idea that we get richer by making stuff and then throwing it away."

The prophet that Carey gets to carry his message in The Chemistry of Tears is Amanda Snyde – a crazy young woman who is off her medication and who may also be a spy for the powerful manager of the fictional Swinburne Museum in London, where much of the story is set. Amanda is obsessed with the Gulf oil spill, transfixed by  the webcam  that shows the stain spreading across the ocean.  She sees it as an end-of-days event, but then, she also believes that the internal combustion engine is the work of aliens, who bequeathed it to humankind to lead us toward self-destruction.

"She’s nuts, but she’s correct," Carey says, waggishly, adding that he had to make her unhinged because "I wanted someone who could give a poetic expression of a bigger truth." 

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey. Both 19th and 21st century characters are unhinged by grief. (Random House)

Carey is Australian born – the youngest son of a man who ran a car dealership and admired Henry Ford’s invention. Carey himself has made his home in New York for the past 22 years, teaching creative writing. now at Hunter College. He’s won the Booker Prize twice, for Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly GangThe Chemistry of Tears is his 18th book.

The main contemporary character, the curator Catherine Gehrig, is the first Carey conceived and the woman who provided a narrative arc to the story he tells. She’s been in a secret affair with a married man and he dies, leaving her so paralyzed by grief she does not trust her own judgment.  She cannot grieve openly, and her behaviour is so erratic she is moved to an annex of the Swinburne Museum and given a project meant to keep her out of harm’s way – to reconstruct an automaton that arrives packed in pieces in numerous tea chests.

"I’m really very fond of her, I’m fond of all my characters. I find her behaviour totally reasonable," Carey says of Catherine, who  is more concerned about breaking into her lover’s account and deleting all the e-mails they’ve exchanged than with her odd assistant, Amanda, or with her job. "I’ve never experienced what Cat did, but I have loved someone.  It’s not hard to imagine."

The 19th century character Henry Brandling — who seeks out a clockmaker in Karlsruhe, Germany to make an automaton —is equally perturbed by grief, both for his failed marriage and over the illness of his child, Percy. Brandling has found a drawing of Vaucanson’s duck, an automaton that eats and excretes, by the real French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson.  He wants a similar device for his consumptive son, thinking that it will make the boy laugh and encourage him to live.

'I’m a mechanical moron really, but I’m interested in what my characters have to do. What their actions are is determined by the physical world'—Peter Carey

Vaucanson’s duck, and the swan that eventually emerges from it, and a side story about another fictional scientist called Albert Cruickshank who may have invented an early computer are all Carey’s way of marvelling at the human capacity for invention.  He weaves these threads of real life history through the tale, conceiving of characters who could credibly advance his story. Yet each is rounded and whole, from the megalomaniac clockmaker to the sickly Percy Brandling, and once Carey has created them and hears their voices, he sometimes cannot control what they do.

"So these things are set up which are not in my mind when I first thought of it. This the joy of writing a novel — that you don’t know what you know beyond yourself and beyond your experience," he told CBC News.

Dressed in a black polo shirt and grey shorts for interviews in Toronto, his grey hair curling wildly, Carey himself seems a kind of gnomic genius. Because his description of his own creative process — creating characters who manipulate his story line and discovering real events that somehow fit — shouldn’t lead to a satisfying novel. Yet no matter how far-fetched – from the stiff 19th century gentleman to the desperate 21st century curator — the stories work because they are together. As do the odd elements of the narrative, from 2010's freaky weather to the Gulf oil spill, which Carey calls "a gift from the library of the world" that just happened to occur when he was writing. The engine of Carey's work is the intense passion that underlies it –  what he himself calls "things that make me so angry I can’t speak."  Underneath a witty, public persona, he is a man who can win a long, desperate argument only by writing novels. 

Carey said his novels are "waiting to be found" in the kind of long investigation he does into his subject. His research for The Chemistry of Tears included the help of an expert in textiles and a horologist (expert in clocks) from the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The Swinburne is not the V&A, but it has its warren of tunnels and back areas and its conservation protocols and office politics.

His investigations into the art of conservation itself led to his discovering a silver swan at the Bowes Museum in Newgate, U.K.  It had recently undergone a complete restoration , with a step-by-step explanation offered by the conservator online. 

"I’m a mechanical moron really, but I’m interested in what my characters have to do. What their actions are is determined by the physical world,"  Carey says."The actions become imbued with the emotions of the characters. They become the repository of the emotions the characters feel at the times they’re doing these things."

By transforming the duck automaton, a real and famous invention, into a swan, Carey tugs on the thread of fairytale itself and that gave rise to another idiosyncratic 19th century character – a fairytale collector who browbeats stories out of the residents of Germany’s Black Forest.

He allows both duck and swan to be seriously creepy, not just to the reader, but also to the museum employees working with them in present day.

"They move as if they are alive, but they’re not alive," he says and to his protagonist Catherine, preoccupied with death and with the DNA of her lover as it lives on in his sons, the prospect is nearly unbearable.