Tears as Science
Philip Carey is so prolific and assured a writer that any new work of his must be a source of happy expectation. His latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears, does not disappoint. As he did in his early Oscar and Lucinda, Carey recreates Victorian times and shows himself effortlessly at ease with that world – and with an eye focused on outsized characters and situations. But this is also a contemporary novel, one that works by parallels. The book opens in 2010 with an horologist, Catherine Gehrig, overcome by grief at the loss of her lover and co-worker in The Swinburne, a fictional London museum. The Victorian narrative is the tale of Henry Brandling, a gentleman who is beset by worry over his tubercular son and who commissions an elaborate automaton in hope of stimulating the boy’s “magnetic agitations.” As a remedy for Catherine’s grief, Eric Croft, a friend and her supervisor at the Swinburne, gives her a task – the restoration of Brandling’s mechanical swan. The latter’s notebooks, recording his trip to Germany and ultimately his securing the skills of the master craftsman, Herr Sumper, offer the second narrative, one that Catherine reads obsessively and with clear projection of her own emotional loss.
Late in the novel, Eric consoles Catherine by giving her a precise formula for the chemistry of tears; according to Croft, tears provoked by emotion (as opposed to physical irritation) contain, among other compounds, a natural pain killer, one that can cushion even her grief. And in that juxtaposition, the polysyllabic roll of chemical taxonomy set against the crushing experience of grief, we have the polarity that is central to the novel: the certainties of science and the ambiguities of human life, the organic and the material, the inventor and the machine.
It is also Eric Croft who provides Catherine with an assistant, a beautiful graduate student Amanda Snyde, whose mental imbalance makes Catherine’s recovery more difficult. Amada challenges Catherine with her own pursuit of Brandling’s revelations; she is also dating Catherine’s deceased lover’s elder son. Amanda’s deep unease over the pollution caused by the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, further underscores the novel’s focus on the very mixed benefits of man’s mechanical achievements.
Catherine’s narrative is grief in over-drive: alcohol sodden, embittered and histrionic, yet undeniably real. She is at once angry with and grateful to Eric for his “gift” of the automaton; she is also suspicious and deceptive. (She breaks protocol and secrets Henry’s notebooks out of the museum to read at her leisure.) Her counterpart, Henry, similarly emotional, lives at Sumper’s beck and call, desperate to hasten the completion of the machine in order to offer his dying son the stimulus to live. But his emotional and physical violence – he seems always to be striking or threatening Sumper – breaks across his despair over saving his son.
Carey’s ease in creating the mid-Victorian world of both a remote German village and the dirty metropolis of London (Sumper travels to Britain to pursue his craft as clockmaker) is remarkable. Sumper, outsize in body and emotion, embraces an eccentric nobleman, Lord Cruickshank (a fictionalized Charles Babbage?), a genius and inventor, and attempts to gain Prince Albert’s approval and funding of Cruickshank’s mechanical computer. (To do this he pole vaults into Buckingham Palace landing most accurately in the sleeping Prince’s bedroom!)
Sumper’s sparring with Brandling, and Brandling’s suspicions of the master craftsman, constitute the brilliantly eccentricity of Carey’s characterization. What is the source of Carey’s invention?
This novel carries its weighty themes with little effort: Catherine’s attempts to deal with death in her life by reanimating life-in-death moves easily to the consideration of mechanics of the body and the limitations of invention. The mystery of tears of grief lingers in the chronicle of the dead Brandling’s love for his son and in Catherine’s living memory of her lover. Above all it is the energy of the novel, the imaginative drive that suggests what can survive through artifice. And the novel lives on, almost haunting the imagination.