April brings three visions of human beings as machines—along with an outstanding novelby Hermione Eyre / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
None of the major publishing houses is promoting a religious tract this Easter. Intellectual life was once preoccupied by man’s relationship with God, but this has been superseded by another fascination: man’s relationship with machines. Are they made in our image, or we in theirs? Three of this month’s most exciting publications consider human bodies as machines—whirring, hydraulic-hearted, spring-operated automata, whose malfunctions (violence, grief) seem to be pre-programmed.
Peter Carey, twice a winner of the Booker (now Man Booker) prize, has written 18 novels but never before has his lead character been an articulated duck. The Chemistry of Tears (Faber, £17.99) is a novel that flickers before your eyes like a zoetrope. There are two voices. One is contemporary—a conservator, brittle and broken-hearted, who has nothing to live for but the duck-shaped Victorian automaton she is restoring. The other is a 19th-century frock-coated magnate, an Edward Gorey illustration come to life, who commissioned the toy to entertain his dying, consumptive son. Carey is palpably pulling at our heartstrings—manipulating “those intensely complicated factories, the tear glands.” But just as we come to see this book as a delicate engine made of words, it staggers to a halt, leaving subplots spinning ineffectually. These include the 2010 Mexican oil spill, and smuggled blueprints for an internal combustion machine, and it is disappointing to see them left hanging. Carey also seems to lose interest in the human characters. But he does permit one transformation. Dutifully following a classical character arc, the duck becomes a sinuous, silver swan. This novel is a pleasurable firework display, but sheds little permanent light.
When William Harvey became a member of the College of Physicians in 1607, the theory of humours—the view that human health was affected by four bodily fluids known as “humours”—held sway. By the time his l…