My engagement with this novel was somewhat disrupted given that I began it before going away in April and didn’t pick it up again until my return. In some ways, this disruption was in strange harmony with the structure of the novel itself, which tells two first-person narratives: one, set in contemporary London where Catherine, a horologist at the Swinburne Museum, grieves the sudden death of her married lover, Matthew, a colleague at the Swinburne; and the other, set in the nineteenth century, about Henry, desperately trying to bring an automaton back to England for his son who is dying.
Catherine’s story encloses Henry’s. So devastated is she by the loss of Matthew that her superior, Eric, exiles her from the Swinburne’s main site in SW1 to the Olympia annexe to work on the reconstruction of what is believed to be a nineteenth century automaton. She discovers Henry’s journals of his time in Germany as he waits impatiently and not always very trustingly for the strange Herr Sumper to build an automaton something akin to Vaucanson’s duck.
Carey’s evocation of place and character is convincing and engaging; his manipulation of his plot and his mixture of historical fact and his own fiction, credible. The interconnected narratives allow Carey to examine the effects of industrialization and its capitalist supports. Henry’s quest for something similar to Vaucanson’s duck takes place as the momentum of the industrial age is quickening; the possibilities of mechanization, even the possibility of a mechanical, calculating machine, are at the point of being envisioned and realized. Catherine, a horologist, who understands the workings of cogs, wheels, springs, and balances has to be taught by a much younger assistant, Amanda, how to use a USB stick to batch delete compromising emails. Carey reminds us the industrial age is almost done, and its legacy is oil spills and pollution. Perhaps we should despair. But perhaps not.
The Chemistry of Tears is a tightly designed novel as highly crafted, and carefully constructed as the automaton that Catherine reconstructs. What breathes (dare one say it?) “life” into the work is the questions it raises about the whole nature of creativity, about the nature of love, of obsession, of sacrifice, about what is true. What is real and what imagined? Just where is the border between enthusiasm and madness? What lasts? How do things connect? Can we see where the fruits of our imagination will take us if they materialize? What is time? What is good and what is evil? Can something be both good and evil? What are the risks of creativity and invention? Is there an ultimate design and, if so, what is its nature?
While in no way overtly religious in its concerns, The Chemistry of Tears does lead us close to the realms of theology. At the end of the novel, Catherine says she is “not certain of very much at all.” However, she defines the paradox of knowing she holds Matthew even as she misses him forever as “Mysterium Tremendum” (229). In these words, she echoes Rudolph Otto who in The Idea of the Holy, which I admit to having only read about not read for myself, defines “the complex feelings of overwhelming majesty and human insignificance, in the Latin phrase mysterium, tremendum et fascinans” (Linwood Urban, A Short History of Christian Thought. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. 233). Writing of Otto’s teacher, Schleiermacher in her A History of God (New York: Knopf, 1993), Karen Armstrong discusses the “sense of reverence that arises in us when we contemplate the mystery of life.” She goes on to discuss Otto’s understanding that “when human beings are confronted with this transcendence, they no longer feel that they are the alpha and omega of existence” (Armstrong 351).
Catherine, I would argue, achieves this recognition and accepts that the world does not revolve around her grief. But Carey does not not include Otto’s word “fascinans,” a word suggesting that the numinous, while awe inspiring almost to the point of terror, is compellingly beautiful even in its awesome power, and the novel ends before Catherine discovers what further secrets, if any, are to be found in the automaton or whether they are beautiful or ugly, good or evil.
This lack of information leaves Carey’s reader somewhat uneasy. Living as we do in the post-industrial, post-postmodernist world, a world of wireless communication, a world where we cannot see the mechanics of how things work because everything is controlled by electrical impulses and binary code, and stored in a “cloud” somewhere, we feel overwhelmed by our own inability to comprehend it all. Surely the least we can expect is resolution in our fiction. But perhaps accepting and contemplating the mystery is the resolution. This is the point where Carey ends his novel. Perhaps it does not actually matter what is or is not hidden within the automaton, whether Amanda is an obsessed forger or a genius; perhaps what matters is Catherine’s acceptance of her loss and her recognition of the creative, unifying power of something transcendent, something a mystic might call love. But, then again, perhaps it does matter that we don’t have the answers to those questions. What if . . . ?
We can take the ending in at least two ways: as a resolution to Catherine’s own battle against grief and as an unfinished mystery. Just what are the secrets of Henry’s automaton, of life? Ultimately, this very ambiguity is what is engaging about The Chemistry of Tears. The more one looks, the more one sees.
All in all, a finely crafted, multi-faceted, thought-provoking, and satisfying novel.