History, Heartbreak And 'The Chemistry Of Tears'

The Chemistry of Tears
The Chemistry Of Tears

by Peter Carey

Hardcover, 229 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Chemistry Of Tears
Author
Peter Carey

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

In Peter Carey's new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, the hero and the heroine are separated by 150 years. It is an object — a piece of technology — that brings Catherine and Henry together: An enormous, 19th-century, mechanical duck.

Catherine, a horologist — an expert on the inner workings of clocks — is restoring it in the present day. It's a distraction from the sudden death of her married lover. Henry, more than a century earlier, commissions the duck as a giant toy for his beloved, but very sick child.

As the two narratives unfold, the duck becomes a swan, and many of its inner workings are revealed. This is not exactly true for the difficult, mysterious characters who populate the book. Carey, a two-time Booker Prize winner, talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his 12th novel.


Interview Highlights

On humans as inventors and victims of technology:

"I began thinking about how all of that wonderful, bright invention of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution and before that demonstrates human beings as playful and inventive and capable of amazing things, and how all of that has really led us to the present plight we face on the planet, where we appear to be poisoning ourselves. So that's the relationship between humans and technology, in which the humans are at once the pure inventors and pure souls and then also the victims of technology."

On the use of a dual narrative:

"I was interested in the present, and I was interested in the past. And the only reason I'm ever really interested about the past is because of its effect on the present. And although part of this book is set in the 19th century, with characters living in the 19th century, we, too, are living in the consequences of the 19th century. So, it's really quite simple in this case. I mean, you have one character who's living in 2010 and one character who's living in 1858, and these are ways to know them directly, to know them from inside."

On tears and combining science and feeling:

"I shouldn't really admit this, but what the title came from was a Google search. Because I thought, I don't know anything about tears, but I bet you they do all sorts of things I don't know about. And indeed, they do."

"It seemed to me to encapsulate the book, in the sense that we are looking at human yearning and human pain and loss and fear of death and searches for other meanings. And at the same time, the notion of chemistry, which seems to sort of go against the feeling of things. So I wanted to combine science and feeling, I suppose."

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Peter Carey's new novel, the hero and heroine are separated by 150 years. Henry and Catherine never meet but they are brought together by an object, a piece of technology. It's an enormous 19th century mechanical duck, an automaton. As the two narratives unfold, the duck becomes a swan and many of its inner workings are revealed. This is not true for the difficult mysterious characters who populate the book. Author Peter Carey has won the Man Booker Prize twice. His new book is called "The Chemistry of Tears." And he joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.

PETER CAREY: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So, there are some complex themes in this book, a lot of things left unsaid. But one of the themes, I believe, that you're exploring here is the kind of human relationship with technology somehow providing structure to these characters. Is that fair?

CAREY: Well, I began thinking about how all that wonderful bright invention of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution and before that demonstrates human beings as playful and inventive and capable of amazing things, and how all of that has really led us to the present plight we face on the planet, where we appear to be poisoning ourselves. So, that's the relationship between humans and technology in which the humans are at once the pure inventors and pure souls and also the victims of the technology.

MARTIN: Tell us about Catherine and Henry - who are they and what is their relationship?

CAREY: Well, because I was going to have at the center of this book the automaton - this first the duck, then it turned into a swan - they sort of get born because I need somebody in the present time to be trying to figure out how to assemble this thing and then I need the other half of the story, which is the person who is going to commission it and then have it made. They're joined by the object. They're working on the same puzzle. They're doing, sometimes touching the same thing. In one chapter, Catherine will touch it and then Henry will touch it in the other. And in the end - because she also is his reader, she's reading his notebooks. So, Catherine, I decided, and I don't know why, would have lost her secret lover. None of their friends, nobody they work with knows about it. One person knows and give her this very strange ambiguous gift, which is, say, put together this automaton.

MARTIN: She's given this project to distract her from (unintelligible)...

CAREY: To distract, as a gift and an act of great kindness, actually. And then, she discovers when she's unpacking the crates, which she really doesn't want to unpack, but she finds Henry's notebooks and learns how he's come to have this - what he wants is a duck, what he gets is a swan, how he's come to commission this 150 years before. So, that's how we get into Henry's story. He's probably not the brightest man you've ever met, but I like him. And he is an optimist. He's the one where the glass is always half-full for Henry.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about the device of this dual narrative. It's something that you've used before, but what does it allow you to do? Why was it necessary to have these two parallel stories?

CAREY: Well, because I was interested in the present and I was interested in the past. And the only reason I'm ever really interested in about the past is because of its effect on the present. And a lot of, you know, the part of this book is set in the 19th century with characters living in the 19th century. We, too, are living in the consequences of the 19th century. And so, it's really quite simple in this case. I mean, you have one character who's living in 2010 and one character who's living in 1858. And these, you know, ways to know them directly to know them from inside. So, I rather like that. And the other thing generally I've always liked about differing points of view - in an earlier time I might have had six or seven or eight different points of view. 'Cause I always think that, you know, the truth is sort of complicated, if there is such a thing. And it's only by seeing, you know, contradictions between things that, you know, one person's seeing in one way and another person's seeing in another that we have some notion of the truth. But that's less so of this particular book.

MARTIN: The title is also captivating - "The Chemistry of Tears." I mean, tears is something that the mechanical swan can't generate.

CAREY: No, but I was thinking about, you know, our bodies and how amazing they are. And I shouldn't really admit this but what the title came from was a Google search, because I thought I don't know anything about tears, but I bet you they do, all sorts of things that I don't know about. And indeed they do. So, there's one that anesthetizes the eye a little bit. There's one that gives you some pleasure, a little bit like the pleasure you have in having sex. And this quite aside from the thing of lubricating the eyes. And so the information about the tears that goes into the book. But it seemed to me to encapsulate the book in the sense that we are looking at human yearning and human pain and loss, and the fear of death. And searches for other meanings, and at the same time sort of the notion of chemistry, which seems to go against the feeling and things. So, I wanted to combine science and feeling, I suppose.

MARTIN: Peter Carey. His new novel is called "The Chemistry of Tears." Mr. Carey, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for making time for us.

CAREY: Thank you very much. It was fun.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.