It is not an exaggeration to say that Peter Carey has given new meaning to the term “historical fiction”. Nowadays novels set in the past are the norm; they seem likely to outnumber those set in the present. In the Eighties, when Carey started writing them, they constituted a separate genre. His early novels were genuinely innovative, and played a large part in that transformation. Impressively, he continues to produce another masterclass every couple of years.
His modus operandi is to intertwine his unique fictions with historical documents – from Edmund Gosse’s autobiography in Oscar and Lucinda (1988), to the work of Alexis de Tocqueville in Parrot and Olivier in America 20 years later, most audaciously Great Expectations in Jack Maggs, most spectacularly Ned Kelly’s letters in True History of the Kelly Gang. His reshaping of history, particularly Australian history, arriving at assertive postcolonial versions of Australian national identity, is central to his technique.
In this, his 12th novel, imperial patronage takes a bashing and Victoria and Albert are glimpsed in their nighties, but the seed of historical truth is the 18th-century inventor Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck. This famed automaton supposedly ate, digested and excreted grain in front of an audience, but was something of a fraud, because its droppings were made in advance.
In The Chemistry of Tears, Catherine Gehrig, a conservator at London’s Swinburne Museum, learns of the death of her married lover and colleague. It is 2010, and in the midst of her secret grief Catherine’s boss gives her a mysterious object to reconstruct. It is a copy of the famous duck, commissioned by one Henry Brandling. His notebooks, written in 1854, detail his intention to build Vaucanson’s duck to enliven the spirits of his dangerously ill son, by arousing his “magnetic agitation”, as if the boy himself were an automaton.
In the notebooks, Henry travels to the Black Forest in search of a talented cuckoo clockmaker. Instead he meets Sumper, one of Carey’s sinister, finagling, monstrous characters, who appears to be a thief and charlatan, but may be a deranged genius.
Carey reproduces contemporary drawings of the mechanical duck, but, typically of his treatment of historical artefacts, the beast that emerges is even more splendid than its original. As poor, cuckolded Henry edgily awaits his creature’s birth, Catherine, rebuilding and restoring the automaton, becomes obsessed.
Her work – dissecting the guts of the historical machinery, finally making it come to an eerie simulation of life – has obvious parallels with the work of the historical novelist. A “facsimile of life” is the phrase Carey uses. The meanings of artificial life are multiple.
While the duck is a “clever, soulless creature”, Catherine sees herself and her dead lover as “intricate chemical machines”, also without souls. She denies any metaphysical interpretations of the uncanny object. “The real world is beautiful enough,” she says. “You have mystery all about you. You don’t need to invent it.”
Carey is drawn to the age of invention; his stories are filled with them and exquisite forgeries. Storytellers and inventors have a natural bond: one character here is a collector of vicious fairy tales who has invented a washing machine. The novel itself, after all, is something mechanically produced. Carey suggestively links industrialisation, “the replacement of the human brain with brass and steel”, with the information age, and takes from his historical machines both a sense of wonder at being able to “realign the stars”, and a sense of how our machines endanger us; webcam images of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico pumping constantly through computer screens. His characters apply the ethics of modern written communication to life: “Hello,” says Catherine’s assistant; “Delete,” thinks Catherine.
After Catherine steals Henry’s notebooks, our reading of him is filtered through hers, full of frustrating omissions and confusing “jump cuts” that recreate the real experience of reading historical documents. “Henry’s sawtooth pen strokes had cut wormholes into time.” Here, as with Ned Kelly’s lack of punctuation, Jack Maggs’s disappearing ink, or the manuscripts in My Life as a Fake, there is a focus on the realness of the script.
History’s hard done by – innocents abroad, outlaws, orphans and underdogs – are Carey’s favourite characters, and he enjoys allowing them control of the narration, wresting it from pompous authority. Fakes and forgers also abound. Who gets hold of the story and how that affects the truth is at the crux of his novels. His are not just books with historical settings, but also about history, not just refitting real documents to new stories, but about that process. They lend themselves to meta-readings but conceal themselves within page-turning adventures.
Despite the Victorian backdrop, this is not rampant, costumed Victoriana, but masterly historical fiction that both talks about now, and makes the past seem immediate. More subdued than much of his back catalogue, there are still passages of almost hallucinatory zeal, and figures that rise up like creatures from myth. I loved this book for its mysteries, its hinted back stories, its reserve, and its underlying complexity.
“I sat at the kitchen table, peering into the wavering field of marks left by Henry Brandling’s pen. When I was above it, looking down into the lines, I could see flickering candles, the deep shadows of the ‘not here’. The distance was immense but I saw Henry’s sad dark eyes watch the other inhabitants of the room…” Here is the novelist’s work, and the reader’s, made manifest, written into the story. Such “reconstructed fragments” are all we can hope to retrieve of the past.
Daily Telegraph, 23 March 2012