'a clockwork Taj Mahal'
My first Carey. Why this one? I don't know. I've never been desperate to read any of his novels but something about the mention of an automaton on the back cover intrigued and how comparisons between this and human emotions might in turn have something to say about what exactly it is that makes us human. As Catherine Gehrig, the narrator of this twin-stranded novel, notes -
But really, truly, anyone who has ever observed a successful automaton, seen its uncanny lifelike movements, confronted its mechanical eyes, any human animal remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and what cannot be born. Descartes said that animals were automatons. I have always been certain that it was the threat of torture that stopped him saying the same held true for human beings.
Catherine is a horologist who works at the Swinburne Museum in London as a conservator. Both her father and grandfather were clockmakers so she has always seen it as a soothing occupation - 'For years I thought clockmaking must still any turmoil in one's breast. I was so confident of my opinion, so completely wrong.' Coming in to work one day she discovers that her colleague and lover for the last thirteen years has died. She is sent reeling into grief, a grief that must remain as secret as their affair, but perhaps luckily for her they were never quite as discreet as they imagined and her boss is well aware of what happened between them. He gives Catherine a special project, the restoration of an automaton modelled on 18th-century inventor Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck. That device supposedly ate, digested and then excreted grain in front of a live audience but, with the droppings prepared in advance, hoodwinked its audience slightly. Catherine's project is slightly different and amongst the boxes of machinery she discovers several notebooks, each 'densely inscribed in a distinctive style. Every line began and ended at the very brink, and in between was handwriting as regular as a factory's sawtooth roof. There was not a whisker's width of margin.' These are the journals of Henry Brandling, son of a railway entrepreneur who leaves his loveless marriage and travels to Europe in order to effect the construction of a replica of de Vaucanson’s duck, to aid the recovery of his consumptive son. Along the way he falls in with characters who may intend to help or hinder him, he is never really in control of the project he finances and as Catherine obsessively reads his account she wonders what exactly he hopes to achieve with it anyway.
I could not doubt Henry Brandling's real desire to keep his promise to his son. But he did not seem to have imagined what would happen when the duck was finally made. Did he really expect his wife to fall in love with him again? Or was he, without knowing it, building some mad monument to grief, a kind of clockwork Taj Mahal? Or was that me?
I found my interest waning in Brandling's story with each successive page I'm afraid but Carey's portrait of a grieving lover is far more engaging. Catherine medicates herself with alcohol and sedatives, stumbles into work where rather than commit fully to the restoration she trawls through her old email exchanges, lost in remembrance. She is even assigned a young assistant cum spy to keep an eye on her, an 'overenthusiastic' young student who is the counterpoint to Catherine's technophobe. Often hooked up to her 'frankenpod' and glued to web images of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as it unfurls live, it is she who cannot bear to watch Catherine mooning over her inbox and downloads all the messages to a USB stick for her to take away. Catherine meanwhile becomes immersed in the notebooks, the slow reconstruction of the intricate machine, and the deconstruction of her own life to its most basic elements, so that she too becomes almost machine-like, echoing de Vaucanson’s duck once again as she struggles to keep herself together near the novel's conclusion - 'Ingest, I thought, digest, excrete repeat.'
It's an enjoyable enough read but my enthusiasm for turning the pages towards the end came more from the prospect of finishing it rather than wanting to know how it finished. The book doesn't seem to have the fastidious construction I had expected from a Carey novel. As I said, one half of the book is much weaker than the second but it is also in the very obvious ways in which themes are linked between the various narrative strands that one starts to notice the machinery rather than the art. A little like looking at an unconvincing automaton. I suspect this is not one of his best books, or that if it is then Carey is probably not for me.