A luxury of tears – Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears

cover image of Chemistry of tearsPeter Carey‘s The Chemistry of Tears is a novel which questions the world in a very science fictional way. Taking familiar themes of grief and the lives of fakes, Carey echoes the familiar themes of making the world and losing oneself in secret histories that sf has been mining over the last decade.

After the death of her lover, Catherine has to grieve in silence. Knowing that she had been having an affair, Eric, her manager, gives the opportunity to restore an automaton that her museum has in parts. Initially refusing, she begins to assemble the pieces and diaries, mainly in the privacy of her home but gradually she moves into the more public, and collegial, atmosphere of the museum.

The very human story of grief is entwined with one of seeing the world.

Spliced into the narrative is the story of Henry Brandling, a father in search of a miracle. His son is gravely, if alive he wonders, as he travels to Germany to get an automaton duck. His initial plans go missing and he is kept prisoner as the new machine is being built. He muses in his part of a secret plots or even histories of the world on the cusp of the computing era. His captor gives Brandling a card of a map of the city, an exchange of plans and worlds. He moves from seeing the world as it is to one which might be and perhaps begins to learn the secret patterns. His Double helps him with realising this, an inverse of the monster which reveals the shape of the world.

In a sense it links into the maker philosophy that the William Gibson or Cory Doctorow that the world can be rebuilt with hackers and makers. Rather than waiting for the world as something which happens, the tone moves into one in which it might be remade. Carey begins to move into this as the world is the way that the nascent calculating machines are demonstrating that the world is not divinely driven.

As Catherine works on the rebuild, she becomes paranoid about her colleague, unaware that another colleague has succumbed to paranoid apophenia. Aware that the machine has secrets, her colleague has been lost herself in mixing reality and fantasy. The map of the world becomes an engine, lost in a potential early creation of the combustion engine. Her own fantasies take her down false paths and she cannot make the conceptual leaps necessary.

Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) warned us of seeing parts of the world and extrapolating from this. Abandoning the 1920s visions of extrapolation, it furthers an argument that archaeology must be undertaken in addition to building a new world in tandem. Rather than building the castles on sand, the world is now trying to look towards building and understanding the new century. Carey dangles questions in front of the reader, daring one to ask or even dream them? Is Carl linked to Karl Benz? Is the map really an outline of the combustion engine? It is unclear whether this way madness or enlightenment lies, yet it is the makers who have their own plan. It is up to the reader or the commissioner to understand it.

Perhaps Peter Carey is overly cautious about the novel. Intricate and spare, the book builds itself up gently, reinforcing itself. The occasional illustrations and changes in voices keep the reader guessing about the way matters go. He never quite builds the thriller story arc, never quite gets the paranoia required. There is however a wholeness that becomes apparent as the various shells of the world begin to be understood.

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