Ghosts and Machines: On Anne Tyler and Peter Carey

Ghosts and Machines: On Anne Tyler and Peter Carey

Ghosts and Machines: On Anne Tyler and Peter Carey

The Beginner’s Goodbye, The Chemistry of Tears and the burden of inheritance.


When, toward the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that death is not an event in life, that we do not live to experience death, he intended to banish the discussion of death from philosophy, the “correct method” of which is “to say nothing except what can be said.” But Wittgenstein’s claim also has implications for the treatment of death in the novel, a form pretty well beholden to events and experience. It was “life,” after all, that his Cambridge colleague, on-off friend and sometime rowing partner, F.R. Leavis, later celebrated in his book The Great Tradition (1948), the title of which referred not to a tradition that could be considered “great” but “the tradition to which what is great in English fiction belongs,” the greatness tradition. The few novelists who exhibited this greatness—six at the very most—were said to promote “awareness of the possibilities of life,” to exhibit “a kind of reverent openness before life.”

Bold, species-level talk of this sort tends to provoke outright dismissal (Vladimir Nabokov: “Life does not exist without a possessive epithet”) or deflating irony (Martin Amis: “life, that curious commodity to which Dr Leavis always stressed his commitment”). But Leavis himself thought “‘life’ is a large word and doesn’t admit of definition.” As with any number of loosely established concepts, we recognize reverent openness before life when we see it, and we see it often in the form of an engagement with, if not death, then the manifestations of death in life—the expression of grief, the notation of absence. Henry James, in his preface to “The Altar of the Dead” (the final story of his book Terminations), was keen to stress that in writing about a man devoted to mourning, neither he nor his protagonist was indulging in nihilism or morbidity or necrophilia but something close to the opposite. “The sense of the state of the dead is but part of the sense of the state of the living,” James wrote, “and, congruously with that, life is cheated to almost the same degree of the finest homage…that we fain would render it.” (Leavis would have approved of paying life homage, though he detested James’s story.)

Anne Tyler and Peter Carey, both full of the milk of reverent openness, and in their different ways among the most accomplished storytellers in the English-writing world, make death the black fact around which to construct a narrative in praise and pursuit of life. Carey, though his memoirs (30 Days in Sydney, Wrong About Japan) are not to be trusted, is also the author of what seems to be a candid essay, “A Small Memorial,” about the children from his first marriage, “children now a long time dead.” “Dead is dead,” he remembered thinking. “To put a name on plaques, to say prayers—all this is lies, bullshit in the face of the nothingness of death.” But it’s a sentiment he regrets, and looking back three decades, he wishes “we had honored those children with a plaque, a name.” Tyler has kept her personal history hidden from readers, though she made a rare confession, in the form of a dedication, at the beginning of her novel A Patchwork Planet (1998): “In loving memory of my husband, TAGHI MODARRESSI.” Carey’s essay on that subject, Tyler’s novel with that dedication, affirm that death would not overwhelm a desire to write, a belief in writing.

There are all sorts of differences between Tyler’s new novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, and Carey’s new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, in terms of optimism, breadth of perspective, and attitudes toward history and society. Tyler’s novel, set in Baltimore in 2008 and written from the perspective of a man who is visited by his dead wife’s ghost, seems to propose that life goes on, or round, and that death is just a stage in an essentially benign process. Carey’s novel, written from a female perspective and set in London in 2010, explores a sense of grief that, rather than fading, grows fat on historical stimuli and news headlines. If Tyler offers a cyclical view of the world, Carey offers, for the most part, a rectilinear one; if Tyler takes, to quote her narrator, “a sort of Zen approach,” Carey has lifted a leaf or two from Revelation. But when death strikes, both of these industrious writers have their protagonists turn their thoughts inward, toward work.

* * *

“It was a good thing I had a job to go to,” recalls Aaron Woolcott, the 35-year-old narrator of The Beginner’s Goodbye. “My job was my salvation.” Aaron is reeling after being dealt some bad luck. He had always been assured that the oak tree in his backyard was unlikely to fall and would, in any case, only “lean onto the house”; but as things turned out, the tree falls on a day “without a breath of wind,” leaning at first, but then buckling the roof from the center all the way to one end and smashing the sun porch, where his wife Dorothy was standing, “absolutely flat.” In the aftermath, Aaron—who suffers from “a kind of speech hesitation” and is crippled in his right arm and leg—fills his time by working as an editor at Woolcott Publishing, a family firm that he runs with his sister Nandina. Both siblings being childless, and their parents dead, it is the other Woolcott staff—the sales rep Charles, the secretary Peggy, the designer Irene—who serve as the rambunctious family without which a novel by Anne Tyler would be violating all kinds of trade laws.

Aaron is a disabled man visited by the ghost of a wife crushed to death by an oak tree, yet he remains the shrugging, lackadaisical type. He expresses little in the way of bitterness, anger or surprise, and he makes only cursory efforts to understand why Dorothy took so long to return or the motive behind her reappearance. As a narrator, he proves a delightful grouch, a master of the incredulous italic and the withering description (“Her thinness was the kind that comes artificially, from dieting”). Near the end of the novel, he evokes the full horror of a family dinner: “we had so much food to plow through. Not just the soup (cream of flour, as near as I could make out), but baked ham in an overcoat of pineapple rings, olive-drab broccoli, and mashed sweet potatoes cobbled with miniature marshmallows, followed by fruitcake for dessert along with—oh, God—a second dessert, which Louise had brought: a platter of cookies shaped like stars and bells and wreaths.”

But Aaron knows exactly what he is like, and why. He recalls a childhood spent “fending off the two women in my life—my mother and my sister, both of them lying in wait to cosset me to death.” He is also willing to turn his pen on himself. He doesn’t emphasize his own suffering while overlooking his sister’s good intentions: “She just wanted the best for me, is why she was so critical. She saw the best in me.” Later, he admits, “whenever I took the trouble to notice, I could see that I was surrounded by people who were doing their best to look out for me…. But I wasn’t all that good at gracious acceptance.” Self-knowledge is easily attained in this novel, but proves to be more or less inapplicable, functionally irrelevant.

The Beginner’s Goodbye confirms Tyler—not for the first time—as the leading practitioner of what Leavis, complaining that James never performed them, called “passionate questionings of the familiar modes of human experience.” Her passion takes the form of a baffled but loving curiosity about how we slight or misconstrue or try to tame the familiar. Woolcott Publishing is a vanity outfit with a profitable sideline in carefully commissioned and handsomely presented instruction manuals. The novel takes its title from this series without being an addition to it—a difference Aaron himself acknowledges when he notes the illogic of the bow on The Beginner’s Book of Gifts: It “was about gifts; it was not a gift in itself.” The relationship between literature and self-help can be construed in a number of ways—the British artist Martin Creed said that reading J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash encouraged him to learn how to drive—but one way for a novel to explore the dynamic is by concerning itself with attempts to approach life in abstract or prospect. There is a scene in Tyler’s earlier novel Breathing Lessons (1988) in which the heroine, during an encounter with her pregnant daughter-in-law, reflects that one is given lessons in things like piano-playing and typing but not in parenthood or marriage. Woolcott Publishing prefers smaller topics, offering, as Aaron keenly points out, The Beginner’s Colicky Baby but not The Beginner’s Child Care (though we later hear about The Beginner’s Childbirth). “Anything is manageable if it’s divided into small enough increments, was the theory,” he writes, “even life’s most complicated lessons.”

The theory, perhaps, but not the reality. The lessons taught by the series are mostly practical; Aaron would never think to commission a book called The Beginner’s Goodbye. Even the existing titles, modest as they seem, aren’t up to the job. When Peggy suggests that Aaron consult The Beginner’s Book of Kitchen Remodeling when he’s rebuilding his shattered house, he replies that the guides “are not meant to be used…. Not in any serious way.” But he’s just being contrary, recoiling from Peggy’s good intentions—and when he does finally consult the book, he finds that it mostly consists of “an inordinately detailed plan for setting up an interim kitchen in a spare bathroom.” By the time his handyman, Gil, describes his progress “in a degree of detail that would have more than satisfied The Beginner’s Book of Kitchen Remodeling,” an entire series earlier credited with the potential to help its readers take on complicated problems has become a byword for tiresome pedantry.

Aaron’s own experiences also prove irreducible to bite-sized lessons. He can set down what happens to him in the form—and over the length—of a novel, but he cannot distill his experiences when required to in person. People who haven’t suffered a loss strike him as “not quite grown up,” but he finds it difficult to communicate his feelings even with fellow adults. It’s as if life keeps on outwitting him. Four months after Dorothy’s death, he is unable to pass on “any words of wisdom” to a woman whose husband has died the day before; later, he tells someone that he doesn’t have any “household hints” to offer her. After finally conceding that his marriage to Dorothy wasn’t especially harmonious or successful, that he misses her without missing their marriage, Aaron writes, “We should have taken lessons or something.” But by this point in the novel, it’s all too clear that they shouldn’t have.

* * *

Tyler’s writing is deft and witty, perceptive about verbal habits and physical gestures, drawn more to domestic environments than public spaces—which seems to be the kind of writing that a great many readers want, but that those who worry over the state or future or death of the novel do not. Roland Barthes has made a comeback, not to finish off the author but to shame those authors who don’t know, or show, that realism is an artifice. Tyler might seem to be among them. On the drive back from Johns Hopkins after Dorothy’s accident, Aaron is struck by “how healthy everyone was”: “That woman yanking her toddler by the wrist, those teenagers shoving each other off the curb, that man peering stealthily into a parked car.” Aaron identifies signs of health where the reader might be noticing conflict (yanking, shoving) and criminality (peering stealthily), but the scene is nevertheless the familiar one of life continuing in the face of death. When, toward the end of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney finds himself in another version of this scene, emerging from his consultation at Autumn Harvest Farms to find a boy “nudging a soccer ball before him” and another “taking off his socks by grabbing the heels and yanking,” he stops himself: “How literary, I thought peevishly. Streets thick with the details of impulsive life as the hero ponders the latest phase of his dying.” DeLillo was making a joke about realism (“How literary”), but perhaps a larger joke about postmodern irony (the noting of, and recoil from, “literariness”). These days, anxious irony is considered infinitely preferable to naïve realism.

But at other points in The Beginner’s Goodbye, Tyler can be seen acknowledging her own strategies. A page after witnessing all that Baltimorean health, Aaron explains that he “made a point of approaching the house like any other man heading home after an outing”: “I stabbed the front sidewalk briskly with my cane; I glanced around at the fallen branches with mild interest.” This is a description of the actions a man performs to create a particular impression, the shorthand function of descriptive phrases—“stabbed…briskly,” “glanced…with mild interest”—being exploited for the power to mislead. The Beginner’s Goodbye may not interrogate its own deepest assumptions, but it shows that, while there may be some truth to the charge that the realist novel suffers from complacency of every kind, there are still some realists for whom it doesn’t apply.

It is filial duty that draws Aaron back to Baltimore, and to Woolcott Publishing, after attending Stanford, just as the sudden departure and, soon afterward, death of his father brings Ben Joe home from Columbia University in Tyler’s first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, which appeared almost fifty years ago. Peter Carey, whose most celebrated novel, Oscar and Lucinda (1988), was partly based on Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son, is similarly interested in the burden of inheritance. In Carey’s work, national and family history—and, in The Chemistry of Tears, even scientific history as well as the dead—all weigh on the shoulders of the living. Carey, when young, found a kindred spirit and fruitful influence in Laurence Sterne, whose first-person narrator Tristram Shandy struggles to get through his family’s backstory in order to arrive at his own birth. Carey’s exquisite previous novel, Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), begins: “I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was.”

Although narrated by a childless woman in her 40s, Carey’s new novel is all about fathers and what they do for, and to, their children. Catherine Gehrig has inherited from her father the fascination with clocks that defines her existence. When her colleague and lover, Matthew Tindall, dies suddenly, leaving behind a wife and two sons, Catherine is forced to grieve alone. “Dead,” she declares in the first sentence, “and no one told me.” She learns about the details of Tindall’s death (“Heart attack…. On the tube…. They got him off at Notting Hill”) from her boss Eric Croft, head curator of horology at the Swinburne Museum, a clumsy and affected man but a kind one. Croft is worried about Catherine and assigns her a suitable and hopefully cathartic task: the restoration of an automaton commissioned in 1854 by Henry Brandling, the gullible but good-natured younger son of a British railway businessman, in an effort to revive the spirit of his dying son, Percy. Catherine reads the notebooks stored with the old machine, in which Henry describes traveling to Karlsruhe, near the Black Forest, the birthplace of the cuckoo clock. There he meets a large saw miller, Sumper, who spends most of his time in the company of a young boy, Carl, identified as “no one’s son,” whose father had taken him to witness one of the 1848 revolutions, getting himself killed and earning the infant Carl a bullet through the leg. Sumper, having offered Henry his services and dragged him from Karlsruhe to Furtwangen, Switzerland, then refuses to build the replica of Vaucanson’s duck that Henry had requested. The duck was fed grain and then appears to excrete, but Sumper explains that the process was faked and gets to work on a life-sized silver swan instead.

* * *

One of the virtues of the double plot is that it enables the discovery of common ground; a striking number of novels with two time frames have one-word titles—Chatterton, Possession—implying a process of hendiadys at the level of theme. William Empson noted that in the double plot, “queer connections can be insinuated powerfully and unobtrusively,” but in The Chemistry of Tears Carey presses his connections intrusively and mechanically. Catherine notes for our benefit the “quite startling similarities” between Sumper and her own assistant, Amanda Snyde; Croft, she writes, “was rather like the swan himself.” The industrial is anthropomorphized, the human automatized, in dozens of images across the book, in 1854 no less than in 2010: “the Olympia shuttle had committed suicide”; “the turnstile pivoted at the centre of its ungiving heart”; “the anticlockwise motion of the slightly curdled milk”; a wife who is “driven by a hot engine.” Catherine, her behavior dictated by alcoholism, obsessiveness, mania and bereavement, describes herself as “a whirring, mad machine, like that sculpture by Jean Tinguely built to destroy itself.”

The double plot is also capable of achieving a kind of friction, of producing a whole richer than the sum of its parts, but the plots here, though mutually dependent in terms of narrative, are in some ways designed to stand alone. The sections about Catherine in particular are full of overworked internal resonance. “My father,” she writes, “had read right through the terror of the Blitz. At three o’clock, as they buried my beloved man, I too was reading.” He was reduced to fixing the watches of “city louts”; the paternal horologist Croft, to secure funding for the museum, is forced to suck up to “city yobs.” Of the period during which she attended art school, Catherine writes: “just as the garden in Kennington Road was later occupied by a family of foxes, London that year had suffered a second invasion of Colin Wilson.” Amanda emerges as little more than Catherine at an earlier stage of decay—they even share a taste for men from the Tindall family. It turns out that there is a kind of puppeteer at work, but this just seems a way of passing the buck.

The story about Brandling is a good deal looser, but he is also mirrored by a figure within the same time scheme, a Victorian gentleman with similar wounds. It emerges that Sumper, who speaks English with a Cockney accent, has spent time in London in the employ of an inventor, Sir Albert Cruickshank, who was at work on a steam-driven automaton, the Cruickshank Engine, “whose purpose was addition.” Cruickshank, we learn (via Catherine via Henry via Sumper), set to work on the machine after his wife, two daughters and infant son died in a shipwreck caused by inaccurate Admiralty charts. He spent months correcting the errors, but on looking at the new charts, he discovered that “many of the errata slips had been copied incorrectly”; the men who occupied roles such as Computer and Chief Computer proved to be “so thoroughly human that they were unsuited to reliably repeating a simple action like addition.”

There is some acceptable fiddling with history in the book, performed to enable patterning. For example, when Charles Babbage, the model for Cruickshank, lost his wife, father and two sons in the same year, it provoked a delay in his work—he went on a long trip—rather than spurred its beginning. But in the final pages, Carey returns to the historical record, when Amanda Snyde proposes a theory that young Carl—who is portrayed in Henry’s notebooks as altogether more ingenious than Sumper, and as being fascinated by Albert Cruickshank’s book Mysterium Tremendum—might in fact have been Karl Benz, the inventor of the automobile, who was born in Karlsruhe and would have been the same age as Carl in 1854. (The beautiful, talented, violent and difficult Amanda shares initials with Carey’s ex-wife, Alison Summers, while all of the novel’s artist or creator figures—Croft, Catherine, Cruickshank—have names beginning with “c”; even the historical Karl becomes Carl.)

The revelation that this young eccentric character might have turned into a great and famous inventor will come as a shock, not because Carey has rigged the narrative with such skill but because he has rigged it so differently. A detail near the beginning of the book exists—or seems to exist—simply to confirm that Catherine’s world and the world of her addressee are not quite that of the reader of The Chemistry of Tears: Eric Croft is said to go hunting with “Ellsworth (Sir Ellis Crispin to you).” But there is no Sir Ellis Crispin to me. (Nor, by the bye, is there a Bakerloo line tube station at Kensal Rise: I grew up in that area, and would have grown up happier if there had been.) Cruickshank is based on an inventor famous all over the world; but Catherine, a horologist with an interest in artificial intelligence, has never heard of him. Though the novel contains a Queen Victoria and a Prince Albert and a George Stephenson, the relationship between the novel’s facts and history’s facts is sufficiently slippery, or arbitrary, to prevent any game of equivalence. It’s a mixture of Doctorovian embellishment and clef-ish veiling. How, then, does the novel justify having a Karl Benz, and in such a style? And why does it even want one?

* * *

It seems that Carey was excited to discover that Babbage owned traditional automata, and saw something in the connection between the Enlightenment toy, the machines of the Industrial Revolution and their descendants (laptops, oil rigs, robots). He was evidently excited to learn about the silver swan housed at the Bowes Museum in County Durham (it eats fish as opposed to grain) and has moved its construction from 1773 to 1854, allowing it to serve as the Victorian steppingstone in a genealogy of automata-building that starts with the invention of the cuckoo clock and ends with climate change (long-term product of industrial processes) and the BP oil spill (short-term product), taking in, along the way, Karl Benz.

Vaucanson, Babbage and Benz can be connected in a novel, with the help of invented characters (Henry Brandling, Sumper), but they can never be made to connect in history, and this is the confusion of the Benz hypothesis. Carey gets a certain distance with the patterns he has found in history—Babbage’s love of automata, the Black Forest as home to both the cuckoo clock and Karl Benz—but he still requires the pattern available to fiction to make history do what he wants; he moves facts as suits him and then, in the final pages, pretends that they have fallen, magically and quite unbidden, into place. Karl Benz is pulled from the hat, but Carey’s prestidigitation is fumbling and obvious. He would have done better either staying within the bounds of fact, using a present-day narrator interested in the history of moving parts, or abandoning fact altogether and writing an allegorical/satirical fantasy along the lines of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), in which Australia becomes Efica and America becomes Voorstand.

In the author’s note to Jack Maggs (1997), Carey willingly admits to having “once or twice stretched history to suit his own fictional ends”; but that isn’t the same as stretching fiction to suit his historical ends, as he does here. So much of the new novel is contorted in order for the closing trick to be possible. Catherine’s reading of Henry’s account becomes a repository for dropped clues: “He owned (or constructed?) a glass-plate camera…. No more was said of this, but then, on the line below, Carl appeared without warning arranging voltaic cells at Brandling’s feet.” The word “anachronistic” is used twice in connection with Carl’s inventions. “What did ‘engine’ even mean in 1854?” Catherine wonders. “It is hard to visualize a motor with ‘one big wheel and one small’ which ‘limps and hobbles’ and goes ‘roaring down the road in a cloud of smoke.’” The reader might wonder why, if Henry Brandling wanted a replica of Vaucanson’s duck, he traveled not to Vaucanson’s homeland but to Karlsruhe, a town that will later be known as the birthplace of Karl Benz? He says only that he has “had enough” of the French and “their opinions.” I suspect that this is a joke—Carey is sick of French opinions after his de Tocqueville novel, Parrot and Olivier in America—but it only operates outside the fiction and justifies nothing within it.

Historical fiction is unusually hospitable to the play of ideas because, in our unconscious reverence for the present, we tend to see the past as a stage for struggles whose resolution enabled the triumph of secular democracy. But even novels that avoid or overturn this ideology tend to retain a view of the past as prologue. In Parrot and Olivier in America, the French aristocrat Olivier de Garmont points toward the vulgarity of America, and the low-born Englishman John “Parrot” Larritt to its democratic possibilities. Readers are in a position, having their own views on how things panned out, to follow Carey in approving Olivier’s skepticism (“no matter what the equation,” he tells a farmer, “it makes no sense to lend money to a debtor who will almost certainly default”) and dashing Parrot’s hopes (“The great ignoramus will not be elected. The illiterate will never rule”). But Carey, who was prompted to write the novel by de Tocqueville’s “prescient” Democracy in America, knew that his construction of America in the nineteenth century was compromised as history by his desire to invest its details with topical resonance; it was a portrait of the present, transposed. (A last-minute revelation, the new novel’s undoing, tied that one together.)

The Chemistry of Tears takes a similar approach, but its treatment of history is grander, its vision of history more bluntly teleological. It looks back on earlier scientific and technological developments from a time of bad news—not just the BP oil spill but a heat wave interspersed with violent storms—viewing Victorian enthusiasm about machines as (essentially) wrong all along: “When they invented the internal combustion engine, they never envisaged such a horrid injury. It did not occur to anyone that we would not only change the temperature of the air but turn the oceans black as death.” There is a disjuncture here, as never before in Carey’s fiction, between what he wants to achieve and how he goes about trying to achieve it, with a tremendous thematic burden being placed on the conventions of a hysterical melodrama. “I thought, she is stark raving mad,” Catherine reflects toward the end. “I also thought: am I too stupid to see this is a critique of the industrial revolution?”

* * *

The Chemistry of Tears is a failure, and a rare one for this writer, but it isn’t the departure it might appear to be. Carey has amassed a body of work so multifarious and richly inquisitive that every time he takes on a new subject, it appears in retrospect to have been present, in one form or other, all along. The Futility Machine, a novel written in the 1960s but never published, comes with an epigraph from Jean Tinguely about the myth of Sisyphus and “the uselessness of function.” Tobias Oates, the Dickens figure in Jack Maggs, is a practitioner of Mesmerism, which reduces human beings to the state of automata. True History of the Kelly Gang opens with an eyewitness account, allegedly found in the Melbourne Public Library, of Ned Kelly, covered in steel armor, moving his “headless neck…mechanically around.” The gambler Lucinda, in Oscar and Lucinda, who was “charged with static electricity,” thinks of rummy as “a game you could play with perfect strangers, with a man in a mask, or even (she imagined) a clever machine.” The rival claims of materialism and metaphysics are central to the new novel, and this theme also has a precedent in Carey’s previous work. When Oscar and Lucinda start crying at the same time, the narrator advises that “this is merely to show you the limits of chemistry”: their tears “were probably within the normal range of salinity,” but “while Lucinda’s tears were produced by diametrically opposed emotions, Oscar’s were all in one direction.”

The title of the new novel comes from a moment near the end when Catherine starts crying over Matthew, and Eric tells her that the tears produced by emotions and tears needed for lubrication are “chemically different.” The averagely attentive reader might feel that Catherine is already broadly aware of this—she earlier refers to “those intensely complicated factories, the tear glands”—but then the novel is designed in such a way that she is forced to learn things, and be grateful to learn things, she already knows. A trajectory of sorts emerges, whereby Catherine, who ridicules the idea of spontaneous combustion and compares Mysterium Tremendum to “C.S. Lewis on an acid trip”—she also prefers the word “endorphins” to “cure,” likes to put labels on things (literally and figuratively), and considers Amanda’s ideas romantic and fanciful—becomes more accepting of mystery, more at home in uncertainty (she is open, for example, to Amanda’s theory about Karl Benz having previously dissuaded her from speculation). But Carey has also relied on Catherine consistently, and from early in the novel, as an eloquent mouthpiece for its themes, and much of what she says in this role is at odds with her identity as a vulgar materialist.

In a novel where virtually every detail overlaps or collides with another and serves multiple symbolic functions, Catherine is required to be both severe and swooning, just as she is required to be both a born-and-bred Londoner, familiar with the city’s workings, and a fascinated outsider who takes nothing for granted, dropping place names and brand names like Tom Wolfe or Jay-Z. When severe, she finds it hard to believe that a mechanic could also be a mystic, that a member of the Royal Society could also be a proto-hippie; when swooning, she emphasizes the idea that human beings, though “intricate chemical machines,” are capable of reverence for Vermeer and Monet, and describes the philosophy of “ecstatic pragmatism” she shared with Henry (“rationalists but sensualists”): “Swimming off Dunwich beach, we had been aware of our skin, our hearts, water, wind, the vast complex machine of earth, the pump of rain and evaporation and tide, timeless wind to twist the heath trees. Afterwards it would make me dizzy to be reminded that the blood from the cavernous spaces of the penis is returned by a series of vessels, some of which emerge in considerable numbers and converge on the dorsum of the organ to form the deep dorsal vein.”

In both guises, though, Catherine’s thinking is beholden to a dualism that hasn’t existed for centuries, if it ever did. An alien eye like Tyler’s can produce fresh perceptions, but Carey’s vision is less alien than unworldly. Platitudes are offered as epiphanies, truisms are dressed up as paradoxes, and life is reduced to a sort of meeting ground of the putatively irreconcilable—as if the proximity of the materialist and metaphysical, of human feeling and the natural sciences, weren’t abundantly obvious, and unavoidably troubling, in all of our thoughts about death.

Leo Robson last wrote here about Anne Tyler and Peter Carey (June 12).

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