Monday, 28 May 2012

Peter Carey: The Chemistry of Tears (Kensington and Chelsea Review)

The new Kensington & Chelsea Review is out, featuring (on p.23) my review of Peter Carey's new novel, The Chemistry of Tears. You can read the whole magazine here (I've put a transcript of the review below it):

(if that doesn't work go to

A careful layering of reality and unreality runs through Peter Carey’s new novel. It mostly takes place in a fictional museum, but detailed localism and the intrusion of a utilitarian, centre-right Coalition government seem all-too familiar. Here a fictional object is being restored: a clockwork automaton of a duck – or swan, depending on which narrator you believe at which point in the book –based on Vaucanson’s famous ‘digesting duck’ that appeared to eat and defecate. The overall effect is reminiscent of Angela Carter’: a world so close and vivid as to seem realistic, but where something unreal always threatens to break the surface.
Two narrators view the automaton through the prism of bereavement. In 2010, conservator Catherine Gehrig, tasked with restoring the item, grieves for the co-worker she shared a secret love with. In 1854, Henry Brandling commissions the duck as a gift to his dying son.
As both observe, they’re in a dangerous interplay of emotions and symbolism: grieving the dead or dying at the same time as bringing something inanimate to apparent life. Unspoken by either is the fact that, wishing they had more time with someone, they have become invested in the mechanics of clocks. The idea that technology symbolizes and mediates our relationships and emotions runs throughout the book: Gehrig has to painstakingly delete endless emailed love-letters; her conservation assistant is driven mad by a live webcam of the Gulf Oil Spill.
This is not always an enjoyable read: both narrators are so enveloped by their own unstable emotions that it’s difficult for either to grow or develop, a fact mirrored by their frustratingly slow progress on the building (and rebuilding) of the swan. Furthermore, a recurrent self-analysis in the dual narrative detracts from the vibrancy of both worlds, and from Carey’s own impressive control of pace and narrative voice, dominated by the longevity and introversion of the grieving process.
Benedict Anderson called museums ‘a kind of necrological census.’ One of Carey’s early stories described a world where people were visibly disappearing, either because the ‘census takers’ had failed to adequately document people’s existence, or because people weren’t truly loved. In the ‘necrological census’ of the museum, The Chemistry of Tears discusses the same dilemma: whether to hold on to people through the technology of memory, or simply to love them.

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