The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey

The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey, is a very literary novel: most readers, I think, will be annoyed by the sudden shifts in narrative structure as Carey jumps back and forth between two first-person narrators, one the grieving horologist putting together an automaton from the 19th century, the other a diary of sorts by the (also grieving, of sorts) English gentleman who travels to Germany to commission the automaton. Both narrators are slightly off, Carey makes clear, as they misread social situations. But… the people they interact with are also “off” so in context maybe they aren’t misreading? And one of the minor characters is collecting folktales: could the novel be a sly post-modern folktale? The novel is very often abrupt, and reminded me how folktales commonly suddenly shift gears (“The ogre chased her into a dark woods where she lay sleeping for 50 years until a wandering peddler found her in a tree hollow.”) Certainly the novel has a Brothers Grimm feel to it.

But there is a humanistic side to the novel, inviting reflection on when an AI might gradually realize that she was an automaton, too? How could she tell, if the others could not either? That is a direction the novel does not pursue at all, but I liked that it invited that reflection. Very literary novels sometimes do that, I think: they enable the reader to imagine a completely different novel while enjoying the novel at hand.

In searching for an image of the book cover I discovered that the automaton is real! Wow. Made in 1772 by John Joseph Merlin.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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