Peter Carey

The Chemistry of Tears

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The Chemistry of Tears Summary

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The novel The Chemistry of Tears (2012) by Australian author Peter Carey tells two parallel stories set in two different periods. In the first, an art restorer and horologist grieves the death of her longtime lover by piecing together a complex automaton, losing herself in the absorbing work. The second is the story of that automaton’s commission in the mid-18th century by a man immersed in his own grief—his young son is slowly dying from an incurable disease. In the process of describing the inner working of this mechanical object, this philosophical novel meditates on the ways technology has benefitted humans and the ways in which it is now destroying our planet.

Catherine Gehrig works in the Swinburne Museum, London SW1, as a conservator and horologist. The daughter and granddaughter of clockmakers, she grew up around their workshops and “could recognize the angle of Whitworth screw threads since she was 10.” For the last 13 years, she has been having a love affair with her married colleague Matthew Tindall, the museum’s metallurgical conservator whose wife constantly cheated on him but wouldn’t divorce him.

When Matthew dies of a heart attack, Catherine is unable to grieve publicly despite her extreme devastation. At first, she retreats into herself, dulling her pain with alcohol; eventually, it turns out that some of her friends know about her relationship with Matthew, so she can be a little more open with her mourning. One of these friends is her boss, Eric Croft, who figures out a way to allow Catherine to recover in peace—through isolated work in the museum’s Olympia annex.

There, Catherine is assigned to clean, restore, and assemble a mysterious newly acquired automaton. At first, she thinks the piece is a mechanical toy of some sort—possibly a monkey, or more likely a duck akin to the real-life mechanical Silver Swan now on display at the Bowes Museum. Croft’s intuition about what Catherine needs is spot on, and she quickly loses herself in the obsessive drive to make sense of the object, to disappear into “the huge peace of mechanical things.”

As she combs through the endless tiny components, Catherine discovers a set of notebooks from 1854—the diary of Henry Brandling, the heir to a railway fortune and the person who commissioned the mechanical object in the first place. From this point on, his story takes over.

Henry is married to the perennially unpleasant Hermione, with whom he has a terminally ill son, Percy. After the doctors have run through all available medical interventions and declared Percy’s consumption incurable, Henry decides to bring some joy to what remains of his young son’s life. He zeroes in on the idea of developing an extremely complex and realistic mechanical toy. Obsessively committing to finding the most masterful crafter to design and build the machine, Henry slowly becomes convinced that the perfect automaton might even heal Percy.

Henry travels to Germany, to the Black Forest, the home of Sumper—a vulgar and unpleasant man who is the only person skilled enough to build the automaton of Henry’s dreams. Sumper is assisted by Carl, a strange child who performs experiments with electricity on live animals, and a French silversmith named Arnault. While working, Sumper tells Henry stories about his mentor, the genius Albert Cruikshank. Cruikshank is yet another of the book’s obsessives: after his family dies in a marine accident caused by flawed nautical charts, Cruikshank spends his life trying to correct and ameliorate them, only to see his corrections ruined by typographical errors and clerical apathy to such a degree that the charts end up even more error-ridden. Driven increasingly insane by the mounting problems, Cruikshank eventually wanted to “consider how he would replace the pulp and fiber of the human brain with brass and steel.”

This turns out to be a warning—Sumper hasn’t really been building Henry’s original toy idea but has instead striven to continue where Cruikshank left off. If it’s possible to replicate some quasi-mechanical biological processes such as digestion, then would it be equally possible to create artificial life that runs with precision? And would such an invention be morally sound?

At this point, we come back to the present, where Catherine has a sudden epiphany about the object she has been reconstructing. This mechanical swan isn’t meant to cheer up a dying boy—instead, it is a prototype for the internal combustion engine. As Catherine works, the beauty of the silver swan is juxtaposed with the images of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that pop up on her computer whenever she logs into her email or checks the news. For Carey, the potential of machines—their testament to the creativity and abilities of the human mind—is inextricably linked with their potential for destruction and pollution.

The ending spins off into ambiguity. Was this mechanism the invention of aliens bent on taking over our planet by first poisoning it so much that it could no longer sustain life? Or was the prototype a kind of embedded warning—a prescient criticism of the ongoing industrial revolution? The novel offers no answers.