Solving Mysteries - Poem by gershon hepner
Deep mysteries may be solved by analytic clarities,
but then dissolve as you dismantle their disparities,
their solution, if not leading to their dissolution,
depleting them of mystery which has suffered diminution.
Andrew Miller, whose latest novel Pure is about to be published, reviews Peter Carey's The Chemistry of Tears (NYTBR,5/27/10) :
In Peter Carey's 12th novel, much depends on two voices. The first belongs to Catherine Gehrig, an horologist working at the (fictional) Swinburne Museum in London. We join her — she begins to speak to us — at the very moment she learns of the sudden death of her lover, Matthew Tindall, Head Curator of Metals at the same institution. For 13 years, Catherine has been Tindall's mistress. He was older, married, a father, but the pair of them lived a blissful, secret life together. Now Tindall is gone — felled by a heart attack on the Underground — and gone with him, in Catherine's mind, is all good, all possibility of happiness….
Her boss gives her a project, which involves reading a pile of antique notebooks:
The notebooks introduce us to the novel's second voice, that of a wealthy mid-19th-century Englishman, Henry Brandling. As a voice, a narrator, Henry is not, at least at the start, much easier to be with than Catherine. He is fulsome, sentimental, the doting father of an ailing son, a boy whom Henry's wife, still mourning the death of another child, will neither nurse nor comfort. Henry seeks to keep the boy alive by continually exciting his interest in the world, but each success is temporary, and the next focus of interest, of enchantment, must always be more thrilling. So he decides to commission the building of an automaton, and not just any old automaton but a duck — he has seen a picture of it somewhere — that will eat grain, apparently digest it and then, with a whirring of springs, excrete the residue. To get it made he travels to Germany, to the Black Forest, and to the "mighty race of clockmakers" who live there. The notebooks are the journal of his travels, his search for a master technician.
Catherine, reading in the annex or (breaking all museum protocols) at home in her flat, calls Henry's narrative "intriguing, " but the diaries are often dense, awkward to read, somewhat dull. There is at first a type of comedy — the bumptious Englishman abroad, continually misunderstood by or misunderstanding his hosts. But then the tone darkens and takes on the feel of a fairy story by the Brothers Grimm, or something out of those monstrous cautionary tales in Hoffmann's "Straw Peter."
Henry finds his master clockmaker, a large, physically threatening man called Sumper, but Sumper isn't interested in a fecal duck. He has something much grander in mind for Henry and his son, and he teases Henry, torments him, hinting at mechanical wonders of an order the Englishman has not the wit to imagine. He recounts his adventures in Queen Victoria's England, where he worked as assistant to an inventor called Cruickshank, a character clearly modeled on the great Charles Babbage (whose prototype computer, the Difference Engine, has been reconstructed at the Science Museum in London) .
It is here, perhaps, in the watchmaker's hallucinogenic parable, that we come to what Carey is playing with in this novel: the illusory versus the actual, the mechanical versus the organic. The gap, if any, between that which, in its complexity, imitates life, and that which is living and may possess something else, something that isn't simply part of the works. A soul! Carey, of course, isn't going to come down on one side or the other of this venerable debate. Instead, he puts into the mouth of Catherine's boss the still persuasive Romantic plea for ambiguity, for the power and beauty of mysteries, for defending these from "analytical clarities." The closing scenes, in which Catherine and her young assistant finally recreate what Henry Brandling brought back from the forest, are among the best in the book, and the moment when it — the not-a-duck — is set in motion is thrilling.
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