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Grief, Rage, Cognac, and a Computer

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There are anomalies, even so. In Henry Brandling’s narrative, unlike Olivier’s, Carey is claiming to present a historical document, a journal quite specifically written in 1854; here again a number of anachronisms may be mere fictional license, or reasonable guesses that for instance “potty” (meaning a bit mad) might have been idiomatic some time before its first recorded usage in 1920. But still, “you scared the pants off Hartmann,” an idiom first recorded in 1925, “ashtray” (1887), “guff” (US, 1888), “bumph” (1889, and then only as bumf, for bum-fodder), “programmer” and “programme” as a verb (1948 and 1945), are all more or less jarring. When Brandling uses terms like “celluloid” (a plastic invented in 1870) and “snookered” (when the game of snooker wasn’t named till 1889), you start to feel that Carey, a supreme virtuoso of language, who besides can look these things up as easily as I can, must be aiming at some deliberate alienation effect. To what end, though, it is rather hard to say.

These are tiny pedantic points, no doubt, but they contribute to the oddly unhistoric feel of Brandling’s narrative, which it is hard to believe in as a mid-nineteenth-century journal (it is closer perhaps to the hyperactively exclamatory dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, in which it’s equally easy for the reader to be unsure what exactly is being talked about). Catherine’s chapters have a different status—it’s not clear we’re meant to think of her writing them at all, and they exist in the customary space of much first-person narrative, somewhere between journal and inner monologue.

Still, it’s disconcerting when on the first page a simile is botched. Catherine is told of the death of her lover by a wailing woman with a mouth “folded like an ugly sock”; even allowing for the transferred epithet (it is the effect, not the sock itself, that is ugly), this doesn’t quite come off—it seems an ugly impatient shot at a figure. Three pages later, Catherine too is crying, and “now I was the one whose mouth became a sock puppet”—suddenly we see a Kermit-like gape, and the image has come into focus. This is a risky strategy, to convey the deranging effect of emotion through the narrator’s loss of verbal exactness.

Other similes are too vague, too purely subjective to work: “he covered my hand with his own—it was large and dry and warm like something you would hatch eggs in”—what? a nest? (but then it would be the wrong way up); some sort of mechanical incubator? The image doesn’t bear much scrutiny. (Compare the surprising but beautiful simile for the glass factory in Oscar and Lucinda: “Where outside it had been untidy and damp, inside it was very neat and pleasantly dry, like the palm of a pastrycook’s hand,” where the unmentioned flour of the pastrycook matches the unmentioned sawdust and ashes of the glassworks in a friendly association of different trades.) Likewise, Carey would scarcely before have allowed a character to write that something was “the tip of the iceberg”—throughout his work he has seemed effortlessly to avoid this sort of cliché.

Both narrations show to a newly exacerbated degree a tendency in Carey to compacted and elliptical storytelling. In Parrot and Olivier, it could sometimes be hard to get one’s bearings, so great was the bustle of activity and the vigorous certainty about unexplained matters shown by the two narrators. Establishing shots were rare. The whole novel was conducted at a tremendous, vivid, and largely enjoyable rush, in which nonetheless certain other kinds of enjoyment, of stillness, inwardness, the less highly colored and less audible textures of life, were rarely glimpsed. The tempo was that of headlong picaresque.

In The Chemistry of Tears it is as if Carey’s impatient energy has accelerated further. Both Catherine’s and Henry’s stories are wildly subjective and elliptical, written generally in very short ejaculatory paragraphs, often of just a few words. This relentlessly staccato manner is a plausible way to convey disturbed mental states, heightened emotions of fear, anger, panic, grief, as well as the dislocations of drink, and the local effects it produces are often brilliantly vivid, even if a story told this way can leave the reader breathless and emotionally unengaged. (It’s an inevitable consequence of this technique that the normal Dickensian warmth of Carey’s characterization is pinched and warped by the narrower preoccupations of Catherine and Henry.)

In his last two books Carey has seemed more interested in process than occasion, in the rapid, barely graspable, subjective flux of life. There is a lot of activity, but there are almost no scenes—if by scene one means a sustained piece of action over several pages that advances and illuminates the narrative; and so the few that there are register strongly: for instance, an unexpected visit to Catherine’s flat by Matthew’s two sons, who wish to give her the Suffolk cottage where much of her affair with their father was conducted, and who bring with them such haunting reminders of the dead man (“his father’s hair, exactly, the big nose, the full-lipped humorous mouth”), as well as being so savorously their youthful selves, smoking, drinking, “musty and unwashed.” For a while the complex human drama emerges movingly from the jumble of Catherine’s solipsistic monologue.

Against this impression of characters and incidents glimpsed by flashes of lightning, certain thematic ideas are pressed pretty heavily. The mechanical nature of the doomed human body, and the human desire to create further mechanisms with untold potential for destruction, are constantly insisted on. Henry’s wife is “driven by a hot engine,” Catherine reflects that “we were intricate chemical machines,” she herself becomes “a whirring, mad machine,” the dead Matthew becomes “a factory, producing methane,” the tear glands are “intensely complicated factories,” Carl is producing an “engine” and himself becomes “the engine of the workshop,” the museum where Catherine works is a “great mechanical beast,” London itself a “suicidal engine.” Henry, recording Sumper’s claims about “the Engine” of Cruickshank, says of himself, “I was Percy’s engine.”

When Catherine’s assistant in restoring Sumper’s engine, Amanda Snyde, becomes hysterically obsessed with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, obsessively watching videos of it on her computer, it is the internal combustion engine that takes the ultimate blame. Cruickshank, too, we discover, was motivated by loss, that of his wife and three children in a shipwreck caused by faulty sea charts. From the “grieving cavern of his mind,” he sought to produce mechanically perfect charts, “WITHOUT HUMAN INTERFERENCE” (the hectoring capitals here are Henry’s way of marking Sumper’s emphasis as he tells the story): Henry records of him that “the Engine and the Madness were the same.” Our efforts to invent, to improve and delight ourselves, march inexorably with our will to self-destruction: of some such thesis the distracted characters of the novel seem a little too obviously to be the exponents.

Against this again, and the source of many brief lyrical passages where Catherine recalls her earlier happiness, is the insistence that knowledge of our mechanical natures need never diminish “our sense of wonder, our reverence for Vermeer and for Monet, our floating bodies in the salty water, our evanescent joy before the dying of the light.” Crying itself is eloquent of the unfathomable interactions of our physical and emotional beings. As it happens, Carey has written about the chemistry of tears before. In a scene in Oscar and Lucinda, the two main characters are both crying but for different reasons. “Both lots of tears were salt, I am sure, and were probably within the normal range of salinity, i.e., between one per cent and two per cent salt, but this is merely to show you the limits of chemistry”—Lucinda’s tears being produced by anger and confusion, Oscar’s by unexpected “joy, wonder, humility and love.” Chemistry tells us only so much.

In the final chapter of the new novel, Eric Croft tells Catherine that “tears produced by emotions are chemically different from those we need for lubrication,” her tears of grieving recollection containing “a hormone involved in the feeling of sexual gratification, another hormone that reduced stress; and finally a very powerful natural painkiller.” Here chemistry seems to tell us rather more, to be a kind of diagnostic aid. If we are animals driven by our hormones, it is to them too that we owe the highest flights of happiness and creativity, and some relief from our inner pain.

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