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Grief, Rage, Cognac, and a Computer

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Dominique Nabokov
Peter Carey, New York City, 2011

Peter Carey is an astonishing capturer of likenesses—not only in the sense of the portrait (the “good likeness”), but of the teeming similitudes with which a sharp eye and a rich memory discern and describe the world. Simile and metaphor, which are at the heart of poetry, are a less certain presence in prose fiction, in some novelists barely deployed at all, but in Dickens, for instance (with whom Carey is repeatedly compared), they are vital and unresting elements of the novelist’s vision.

In Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), a tiny detail may speak for much: “Mr. Tomasetti had passion, but it was of a different type. It was as cold as a windowpane in a warm room. It was this she trusted.” In a phrase Carey makes an unforgettable observation, encapsulates Mr. Tomasetti, says something too of Mrs. Burrows, the Sydney widow who “liked a little distance” in her men, and adds as it were a further facet to the mysterious thematics of his novel, in which the properties and manufacture of glass are a major preoccupation. As always when Carey is at his best (and that novel remains one of his most thrilling achievements), the reader has the elated sensation of figurative language working so closely with observation that the whole book is revealed as a marvelously live and organic unity.

Oscar and Lucinda takes place in the mid-nineteenth century, Dickens’s time, and a period to which Carey has returned in several novels, including his new one, The Chemistry of Tears. He has always been at ease in that era, and has written about it in many different aspects, with none of the research-heavy self-consciousness of too many historical novels. “The past is not dead, it is not even past” is the epigram from Faulkner at the front of True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), Carey’s invented first-person narrative of the Australian outlaw-hero. He finds a voice for his long-dead narrators that deftly frees them from the constraints and hazards of pastiche.

In the case of Ned Kelly there is one remarkable piece of source material, the “Jerilderie Letter,” a document of over seven thousand words dictated by Kelly to his fellow outlaw Joe Byrne in 1879, a year or so before his death at the age of twenty-five or twenty-six. To read it and then read Carey’s novel is to see an extraordinary act of homage, assimilation, and expansion, Kelly’s pungent and unpunctuated narrative voice inhabited and subtly expanded, with no sense of strain, as the voice of what is both a gripping adventure and a somberly hypnotic prose-poem. Carey, the poet of likenesses, finds on occasion a fellow poet in a man who has lived by his wits in the wild, seeing a kind of meager magnificence in the world and his struggles with it:

When he finally locked the door on me I were very hurt but still able to climb up on the crib and here there were sufficient light to see the yellow bruises surface slowly on my sallow Irish skin. I watched them like clouds changing in the spring sky thinking of my father and what horrors he endured in silence.

It is not merely the lift of language, but the indescribable sensation that all the properties of Kelly’s world, the mountains, trees, shacks, horses, family, women, police, all prosaically themselves, are also elements in something visionary, caught in transition between historic fact and national myth.

In his new novel there is much play on questions of likeness. In the story’s present day (2010), Catherine Gehrig, a horologist at the fictional Swinburne Museum in London, learns that Matthew, the married fellow curator who is her secret lover, has died, very young, of a heart attack. Her sympathetic superior, Eric Croft, arranges for her to work, as a kind of therapeutic exercise and also to get her out of the museum, on the restoration of a mid-nineteenth-century German automaton, a highly elaborate swan that when fixed will appear to swim and preen its feathers and swallow fish. In the packing cases containing this disassembled marvel (oddly its intervening history is not investigated) are notebooks containing the journal written by Henry Brandling, the English gentleman who in 1854 had gone to the Black Forest to find someone capable of making him a mechanical duck, fallen in with a domineering genius called Sumper, and returned home with a good deal more than he’d bargained for.

His purpose in having a duck made was to revive his tubercular son Percy by means of the healthful “magnetic agitation” of interest and pleasure he would take in the automaton. His text is a “day journal” kept supposedly as raw material for letters to his beloved Percy, but in fact a record of his extreme anxiety and bewilderment. As Matthew is buried, so the journal is exhumed, and through the rest of the novel Catherine will have to face, with varying emotions of horror, resentment, and fascination, the repairing of a fiendishly clever simulacrum of life, an “undead thing,” “so dead and not dead it would give a man goose-bumps.”

So two stories, a century and a half apart, are set to alternate and resonate. Carey has used paired narrators to great effect before. In Theft (2006), a very enjoyable art-forgery romp is really of secondary interest to the contrasting self-portraits of the two brothers, Michael and Hugh Boone, who take turns telling the story. Michael is a once-acclaimed artist fallen on hard personal and professional times, and perhaps an easier voice to capture, but it is characteristically in the self-portrait of the physically huge and mentally “subnormal” Hugh that the book is at its most original and involving. Much about Hugh is unexplained: his life, with all its perils, is as it is, and his presence as a constant and familiar worry in Michael’s life is an inescapable given. Hugh puts words and phrases into capitals, with the unnerving ironic purpose of the mad; and there are certain connexions with the idiom of Ned Kelly in the running-on unpunctuated clauses, as there are in the unforced lift into transcendent apprehension of the mundane. If his brother is the artist, he is the poet. “The old ute had no air-conditioning just a DUCT opened by a foot-long lever which caused the release of long-trapped dust. Lord what perfumes—honey and gum blossoms and rubber hoses.”

In his most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), Carey also split the narration between the aristocratic Frenchman Olivier de Garmont and his English servant Jack Larrit, known as Parrot, each creating his own larger memoir and self-portrait while providing sharp ironic comment on the other. Olivier is on the way to being a celebrated writer, but again it is the disadvantaged Parrot who is the artist (he has trained as an engraver) and, in his own narration, a sometimes rapturous lyrical poet, especially of his Dartmoor childhood:

I had been no closer to the sea than a beach or two where my da and I had gone fossicking for useful storm wrack although we never found any more than a dented christening cup and oaken kindling sanded to velvet by the fury of the sea.

The novel is set variously in England, Australia, postrevolutionary France, and 1830s America. Neither strand of it has any ambition to be period pastiche, and we enjoy Parrot and Olivier as complex speaking characters rather than as feats of historical ventriloquism. Carey is not one of those storytellers who on entering a room feels an anxious need to describe everything in it and how and where it was made, so that a novel seems to have mated with an encyclopedia.

Sometimes, indeed, an anachronism punches a small hole in the period fabric. “I’ll break your frigging arm,” says a character a good century before the OED’s first instance of “frigging” as an expletive by John Dos Passos in 1930, while later on Olivier bizarrely tries out the 1940s phrase “shoot the breeze.” But the reader hardly thinks of either strand of the novel as being “written” by its narrator (even if Parrot speaks finally of handing his text to a compositor), and the book’s nature as a kind of historical fantasia frees it from the ties of strict documentary accuracy; the italics suggest Carey knows he’s chancing it.

In the new novel, both narrators are constrained by circumstances from such freewheeling fun. Both of course are unbalanced by powerful emotion, Catherine “high on grief and rage,” “off her face with rage and cognac,” abruptly confronting a life without a future, Henry consumed with anxiety about his ill son, whose future he hopes almost desperately to prolong. Henry Brandling is a man of limited self-awareness, out of his element—“a rather dull chap really,” he describes himself, and Catherine thinks at first he is “thick as a brick,” though in time she becomes “deeply invested” in him. Much of his journal is given up to his fractious relations with the automaton-maker Sumper, the appearances of the faintly uncanny long-fingered child Carl who works for him and may be a genius (may indeed turn out to be the engineer Karl Benz), and the record of Sumper’s abstruse rants, lectures, and tall tales, some of these about yet another genius, Sir Albert Cruickshank, with whom Sumper worked in London on a vast prototype computer (and who may well be a version of Charles Babbage).

There is much that is curious in this material, and the spooky Black Forest setting brings pleasing echoes of the Brothers Grimm, or “Brothers Cruel, as my mater called them.” The beak of the swan will be made by a silversmith called Arnaud who is himself a gatherer of fairy tales, a “collector of ancient cruelties.” The German landscape is rich in enigma and menace, heightened by Henry’s—and thus our—only vague understanding of what is being said and done around him. His narrative has the repetitive bafflement of an anxiety dream.

It’s reassuring that Catherine herself can find it exasperating: “One was often confused or frustrated by what had been omitted. The account was filled with violent and disconcerting ‘jump cuts’”; “you soon learned that what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how you stared and swore at it.” But here and there throughout are memorable evocations of the kind that Carey normally lavishes on every paragraph—the “mousey skittering” of a piece of paper pushed under a door, or the German valley, “the azure sky, the dry goat paths like chalk lines through the landscape, the bluish granite which contained the stream, the harvesters still swinging sweetly on their scythes as if it required no effort in the world.”

Another pleasure is the sensation of being played with by Carey, as he leads us through terrain between fact and fiction. Though his Ned Kelly was of course a real person, with an established history, Carey has generally preferred to investigate history through fictional characters modeled more or less closely on actual figures, but under other names, and untrammeled by the needs of biographical accuracy. So Oscar Hopkins in Oscar and Lucinda, and his naturalist Plymouth Brethren father, were evidently based on the young Edmund Gosse and his father Philip, vividly described in the former’s great autobiography Father and Son; but Oscar’s fate, as a self-destructive gambler and disgraced clergyman in New South Wales, is that of someone quite different. (We know from the first page that Oscar, like Ned Kelly, will die at the age of twenty-five.) The aristocratic Olivier, in Parrot and Olivier in America, was evidently based in some significant respects on Alexis de Tocqueville. Here we have a version of Babbage, as well as a version of the eerily extant (though in fact much older) mechanical swan that can be seen at the Bowes Museum in County Durham (and in numerous YouTube clips). And here, as in Parrot and Olivier, various period images and documents are reproduced in facsimile, to tease us with the historicity of the fiction.

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