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Author Peter Carey (Reuters)
Author Peter Carey (Reuters)

Review: Fiction

Lord love a mechanical duck Add to ...

Annotated plans for the (de)construction of Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears (including various figures, captions, gears, and essential diagrams):

Fig. 1. Canard Digérateur, 1738. It’s fitting that Jacques de Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck, or the idea of it, squats at the centre of Peter Carey’s latest novel.

The famous mechanical duck, one of the early roboticist’s automatons, had 400 moving parts and could purportedly eat grain and then defecate. Its miraculous anatomy was fraudulent – the feces was pre-stored in a compartment and pushed out by a mechanism as the duck swallowed and “digested” the grain – but the lifelike automaton still compelled.

Carey has explored creation and authenticity before, most recently in Theft: A Love Story and My Life as a Fake, as well as constructed identities in His Illegal Self. In The Chemistry of Tears, the twice-laurelled Booker Prize winner again takes on complex fraudulence and subterfuge, in both the past and present of his story.

Fig. 2.a. Catherine Gehrig, 2010. A rational sensualist and British museum horologist, Gehrig is charged with reassembling an 18th-century automaton. It’s an exquisitely demanding task her avuncular and crafty boss thinks will soothe as Catherine grieves the sudden death of her secret lover and fellow conservator. (All of this unfolds in the first brisk dozen pages – Carey is one of the dabber hands with plot among literary writers.)

Fig. 2.b. Henry Brandling, 1854. The Englishman’s Grimm Brothers-like adventure in the Black Forest illuminates the Victorians’ fondness for quack cures (pun only noted in hindsight, honestly!).

Brandling’s young son is ill (consumptive?) and is subjected to the fashionable treatment of freezing hydrotherapy when all else fails. Henry is convinced, after showing Percy reproduced plans for Vaucanson’s century-old duck in a London newspaper and witnessing his son’s surge of energy, that he has found a cure, “a clockwork Grail.”

The German clockmaker he commissions to recreate the mechanical canard is a mad, bullying neo-genius who claims to have worked with Dr. Albert Cruikshank – an avatar of Charles Babbage, the 19th-century inventor of the Analytical Engine, godfather of the computer, and an icon of the Steampunk genre (viz. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s seminal The Difference Engine.)

Caption 1. “Always remember that almost any treatment is safer than the condition you are treating.” – Percy’s physician.

Gear A. The Notebooks of Henry Brandling. Catherine finds the exercise books packed among pieces of the automaton and, in her first, but hardly last, defiance of museum protocol, sneaks them home. When will novelists tire of this creaky device – the lost diary, the cache of hidden letters, the forgotten journals from decades or centuries back that the contemporary protagonist becomes obsessed with and that shed light on her own story and help her decode a mystery? (Call it The Possession Syndrome, after A. S. Byatt’s 1990 novel). Curiously, unlike this reader, Catherine shows no interest in the fate of young Percy.

Diagram 1. Automata, mythological past to fictional present. From Hephaestus’s Talos to golems to Frankenstein’s sorry creation, from the fugitives of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to the mechanical man in Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, artificial life forms are simultaneously magnetic and repellent, and well suited to enduring questions about humanity, morality and the existence of soul.

Caption 2. “There was always, in any circumstance, something extremely disturbing about these counterfeits of life.” – Catherine G. (Her assistant, the brilliant Amanda, calls their automaton “Lucifer” when not on her meds.)

Fig. 4. Bodies – skin, muscle, bone, organs, neural and vascular circuitry. Is the body an empty vessel, the ultimate automaton? Catherine and her late lover believed they had no souls, that they were “intricate chemical machines.” References to soul abound in both sections of the novel, with nods to Cartesian dualism.

Caption 3. “Descartes said animals were automata. I was always certain that it was the threat of torture that stopped him from saying the same held true for human beings.” – Catherine G.

Gear B. The Internal Combustion Engine, circa 1860. The intricate mechanical playthings of post-Renaissance France were precursors to the Industrial Revolution’s big machines. Carey works this trajectory cleverly, making it part of the mystery of Henry’s commissioned automaton.

But the gears of the novel start to grind when Carey tries to link 2010’s horrendous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – and climate change – to Henry’s and Catherine’s stories.

“[I] did not occur to anyone that we would not only change the temperature of the air but turn the oceans black as death,” Catherine notes. Henry’s pen has cut wormholes in time and “through the one of those wormholes, as thin as a drinking straw, I had seen all that bright and poisonous invention.”

This is virtuoso writing, but the idea, thematically important to the novel, remains undigested throughout, not unlike the grain eaten by M. Vaucanson’s famous bird.

Diagram 2. The Chemistry of Tears. The novel is much like the mechanical wonder Catherine is resurrecting. It is, at turns, lovely, unbelievable, mesmerizing and creepy, is constructed of myriad pieces (a few that don’t quite fit together), the movements seem artificial, and it has an odd soulessness – but, unlike most automata, has abundant organic grey matter, much like the mechanical wonder Catherine is resurrecting.

Contributing Reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the Giller-nominated Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, recently reissued in paperback.

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