Monthly Archives: October 2012

Review: The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey‘s new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, is an affecting book. As you’ll gather from the title, it’s a sad one. Unfortunately, it is not just the protagonist’s circumstances that are lamentable, but the story as well.

Carey’s latest creation tracks the grief of a vodka-imbibing horologist from London’s fictional Swinburne museum whose secret lover has unexpectedly died, and I found myself moved by her grief. The Chemistry of Tears is a thoughtful book, and well-written. Carey’s prose is clean and elegant, his occasional pretentiousness notwithstanding (“the sky was black and bleeding like a Rothko”). The pace, too, debuts at a crackle. With an opening sentence like “Dead, and no one told me,” I was braced for a story that would cut to the heart of the matter.

Regrettably, while the narrative had me turning pages at the beginning, at the end I wished there were more to turn. And I don’t mean this in the ‘It was so good I require more’ sort of way. The book ends on a note of such ambiguity I couldn’t help feeling misled.

The seductive introduction builds agreeably through the novel’s middle as the protagonist, Catherine, is drawn — via a restoration project involving a mechanical swan — into the strange 19th-century world of British rail magnate Henry Brandling. Henry, for his part, is stuck in the Black Forest with some shady cuckoo clock makers who have a penchant for white asparagus.

This connection is made possible through Henry’s journal, which Catherine discovers at the office along with the swan, and promptly steals (I told you the book got off to a good start). Consequently, the novel is structured around alternating chapters from the present and excerpts from this journal. These two characters’ narratives are tied by their respective interest in the swan (which Henry commissioned) and more deeply by their struggle with mortality (Henry is hoping the automaton will save his ill son, and Catherine is reeling from the death of her lover).

This entanglement through time is executed admirably — the 19th century writing is imbued with authentic flavour and succeeds in imparting a Dickensian penchant for ornate prose without sacrificing readability. And the two sections really seem like they were written by different authors. It’s very cool.

The book’s themes are equally intriguing, as they explore the complicated relationship between humans and their technology. Environmental degradation figures largely, with the BP oil spill being a (vague) leitmotif of the novel. The boundary between the human and the artificial, too, is probed as Catherine grapples with death while resurrecting a lifelike machine. The premise of the novel is elegantly suited to such topics.

And everything about the novel is elegant — from the title down to the last comma — except the plot. We are taken on a journey with Catherine through her loss, her grief, her new relationship across centuries with Henry, and her struggle with the swan as she puzzles over how to put the ancient contraption back together. And yet it ends up nowhere in particular. How was Catherine changed by all of this? I can’t say — she was just as distraught on the last page as she was on the first. What impact did building the swan and connecting with Henry have on her? I don’t know — I was waiting to find out, but never did.

Instead, the novel ends with cryptic references to the inventor of the internal combustion engine and to the world’s first computer — suggestions of plot twists not twisted. One of the characters hypothesizes the swan was a ruse for smuggling engine technology to England, but we don’t find out if it’s true. And we never discover what happened to Catherine, Henry, the swan, or his ailing son. The book ends, but the story doesn’t.

Peter Carey is an intelligent and talented novelist — certainly the people on the Man Booker Prize committee can attest to it. But this novel reads more like an essay, considering its lack of character development and closure. Consequently, I can’t help wondering why Carey didn’t simply choose to write nonfiction. Because while the ideas he floats are worthy, the narrative isn’t.

Worse, he doesn’t seem to care for the story — the characters almost feel abandoned part way through their journeys. Rather than having a human focus, The Chemistry of Tears is more like an intricate automaton, designed to be structurally sophisticated rather than narratively cogent. Carey takes us into Catherine and Henry’s world without telling us that their stories will be subordinated to his meditations on technology and what differentiates the living from the inanimate.

And interesting meditations they are. Moving, even. Yet I can’t recommend this book, because I imagine those who read it — even those who, like me, enjoy untidy endings — will be frustrated by the lack of meaningful change in the lives of its characters. It’s not that the book isn’t worth reading, if you aren’t bothered by such things. Just don’t look forward to finding out what happens, because nothing much does.

Style No. 34: Me

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Style No. 34: Me

Me

Me, I don’t know why he chose that colour, but there he was in his orange t-shirt, a little boy planted in the middle of the street. He had a whistle, too, and me, I don’t favour the instrument — it’s too simple. Of course it’s not like he was soliciting opinions on his choice of noisemaker. He seemed absorbed in his own thoughts, actually. Me, I like that kind of person. Quiet. Except for the whistle.

There was a second boy in orange there with his arm slung around the little whistler. Me, I can relate to that — friendship. It’s beautiful. But this second boy had a strange eye on the crowd in the distance, and me, I don’t approve of that. Doesn’t he know staring is rude? Some might let it slide, but me, I’d talk to his mother if I had the chance.

Speaking of mothers, right then an old lady strolled by wearing a bizarre headdress if I’ve ever seen one — and me, I’ve seen a few in my day — tall as a tower, and draped over with a shawl. Hard to know the purpose of it for certain, but me, I’d guess she was hiding something. Why else would she be sweating bullets? Grandmas these days. People say they’re sweet, but me, I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them.

Between the orange boys and the nervous lady, you’d think there was enough to take in. But me, I noticed something else — a serious man behind the rest of them with a funny look on his face. The average joe wouldn’t know how to place a look like that. But me, I can tell you. Knowing, that’s what it was. A knowing look. Me, I don’t appreciate that kind of expression.

Me, I like this kind of place. Clicked this in Strathcona Provincial Park in 2012.

Some bloggers are indifferent. But me, I’m glad you read my post. Thanks 🙂

Style No. 33: Polyptoton

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Style No. 33: Polyptoton

My friend Wikipedia once said polyptoton was “the stylistic scheme in which words derived from the same root are repeated (e.g. “strong” and “strength”).” I was like, “Alright Wikipedia, that’s cool.” Then I was like, Maybe I should do some blogging? So here we all are.

Polpytoton

A young person covering his personal areas with orange clothing, and blowing his whistle at such a volume that many of the people who peopled that vicinity could hear, thought personal thoughts. A second person with a friendly personality, whose arm was wrapped around the whistling person, eyed the people in the distance. A nervous personage, with a personal object concealed on her person and in particular beneath the shawl on her head, passed by. Meanwhile, behind these people a person who could have been military personnel, for such was the seriousness of his personality, looked knowingly the other way at the people situated over there who were going about their personal business.

Old Man’s Beard, also known as Old Person’s Personal Beard. Clicked this in Tofino, 2012.

I would like to thank all of you people for having the type of personality that disposes you to reading the personal writing of a person like me.

Style No. 32: Alexandrines

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Style No. 32: Alexandrines

Hey everyone! At style 32 we’re now back on the glorious Queneau train. Some of you doubted whether styles like ‘Gangsta’ were penned by Monsieur Raymond back in 1947, and indeed you are right — the last four styles were my own.

In the original work styles 28-31 were modeled on French verb tenses, some of which don’t exist in English (passé simple anyone?). And so I strayed from the true path…

But once again I’ve found the way, and today we’ve got a poetic form that was popular with such hairdo visionaries as Jean Racine:

Racine in the heazy.

Oh and I think he was some kind of legend of French literature too, way back when people wore frilly silk shirts. Can I get a woot-woot for Andromaque and other classics of 17th century French drama?

If you’d like to read more about this form and today’s style — the Alexandrines so loved by Racine and his cascading curls — follow the link below. Otherwise, read on little doggy…

Alexandrines

Behold a young boy thinking deeply in an orange t-shirt
Accompanied by another small boy, some squirt
Who has his arm wrapped around his whistling friend
While upon the distant crowd did his eyes descend.
A nervous grandmother who quickly passes by
With objects beneath her shawl, which will not comply
With her desire to conceal them, is transcended
By a serious man, whose look comprehended.

This is a picture of a bright bundle of leaves
greener than the hearts of a zealous gang of thieves.

Thanks for reading, everybody 🙂

Style No. 31: Ransom

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Style No. 31: Ransom

Ransom

We have the boy in the orange t-shirt. Deliver ten million in unmarked bills hidden under the grandmother’s head shawl if you ever want to see him or the whistle again.

Meet us at the crowd in the distance. No funny stuff or the best friend’s arm will be removed, and we’ll really give the boy something to think deeply about.

— The Man Who Looked Knowingly the Other Way

Put one billion in unmarked coins into my hat if you ever want to know if these gypsies were photographed in Ghent in 2011.

Style No. 30: Espionage

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Style No. 30: Espionage

Espionage

This message will evaporate into a brain-dissolving steam cloud in twenty seconds.

Your job is to find the boy with the orange t-shirt. Once located, secure the whistle, and prevent his best friend from eyeing the crowd in the distance. If the target appears to think deeply, neutralize the nervous grandmother and recover the hidden object.

Should anything go wrong, you’ll be backed up by our man. He’ll be behind them all, looking seriously the other way.

When you have satisfied your objective, ensure the friend puts his arm around the other boy, and return to the rendezvous point.

This flower will self-destruct if you read to the end of this caption.

Style No. 29: Recipe

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Style No. 29: Recipe

 

 

Recipe

Ingredients

  • Two young boys
  • One whistle
  • One crowd in the distance
  • One nervous grandmother
  • One secret object
  • One head shawl
  • One serious man
  1. Mix the young boys together until you have achieved a satisfying orange colour as well as some deep thoughts.
  2. Add the whistle to the first boy, and stir the second until he eyes the crowd in the distance.
  3. Allow the crowd in the distance to marinate until it has developed the proper consistency.
  4. Set the grandmother aside with 1/4 c. nervousness and allow to percolate 10 minutes.
  5. When ready, blend the hidden object and the head shawl together with the nervous grandmother until frothy.
  6. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and fold the serious man into the aforementioned ingredients, being careful not to overstir.
  7. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until the man looks knowingly the other way.

8. Add a bunch of apples and eat all of the characters. Clicked this in September 2012 at Sea Cider near Victoria, BC, Canada.