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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 boys magnetic agitations. As a remedy for Catherines grief, Eric Croft, a friend and her supervisor at the Swinburne, gives her a task the restoration of Brandlings mechanical swan. The latters 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 Catherines recovery more difficult. Amada challenges Catherine with her own pursuit of Brandlings revelations; she is also dating Catherines deceased lovers elder son. Amandas deep unease over the pollution caused by the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, further underscores the novels focus on the very mixed benefits of mans mechanical achievements.Catherines 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 Henrys notebooks out of the museum to read at her leisure.) Her counterpart, Henry, similarly emotional, lives at Sumpers 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.Careys 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 Alberts approval and funding of Cruickshanks mechanical computer. (To do this he pole vaults into Buckingham Palace landing most accurately in the sleeping Princes bedroom!)Sumpers sparring with Brandling, and Brandlings suspicions of the master craftsman, constitute the brilliantly eccentricity of Careys characterization. What is the source of Careys invention?This novel carries its weighty themes with little effort: Catherines 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 Brandlings love for his son and in Catherines 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.

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Speaking of automatons, I know a young man who works in the simulation center at Tulane medical school. He says they use robots to simulate patients with certain symptoms so that the medical students can "treat" them. (Medical schools don't like to have students actually touching, etc., the real patients.) The robots even blink. Other medical schools use these things.I wonder if the robots cry. (Back to the Turing test ?)

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.