The price of consciousness, of power, is choice.
Mathematician Alan Turing is remembered as much for his critical role in the development of computer science , his contributions to code-breaking during the Second World War and his work on artificial intelligence as for being a man whose homosexuality led to a charge of gross indecency and a period of enforced chemical castration. His life has been examined in print and film, his character analyzed and debated, and his death mythologized, but to truly venture deep into the recesses of the mind of such a complex and extraordinary character is to invite challenge, scrutiny and dissension. After all, what can we ever truly know of another person’s internal processes? Or, for that matter, our own?
In his latest novel, Murmur, British writer Will Eaves takes the key elements of Turing’s career and ultimate predicament, and creates a shadow character, Alec Pryor, slips inside his skin and inhabits his dreams and anxieties while the state takes control of his body. This audacious approach stays close to the outlines of Turing’s life, even borrowing first names and specific details like his fiancé or his fondness for Snow White, but avoids the constraints of conventional biographical fiction. Presented through journal entries, letters and a feverish dream chronicle, Murmur offers a poetically charged reading experience that is at once scientifically astute, philosophically engaging, and emotionally disturbing. It imagines a rational minded man pushed beyond the edges of rational existence who still manages, we assume, to hold the surface still, controlled and humane.
So much of real life is invisible.
The novel begins with Pryor’s recorded reflections on the circumstances that led to his charge and conviction, his dalliance with a young man and subsequent reported robbery echoing Turing’s misadventure. Choosing one year’s probation with hormonal treatment over jail, he begins therapy with a psychoanalyst, Dr. Stallbrook, and weekly injections to turn him “into a sexless person.” Analytical by nature, he cannot resist the temptation to filter his situation through scientific, historical, and philosophical musings. As if he wants to quantify a situation that clearly has left him concerned and uncertain about what lies ahead.
The central section, which comprises the bulk of the narrative consists of extended dream sequences and an ongoing epistolary correspondence between Alec and June, a former colleague and friend to whom he was once engaged. It begins with a disassociation, a stepping away into third person, which leads to a recognition of a division, necessary perhaps to observe the self, but also speaking to the effect that the treatments are beginning to have on Alec’s relationship to his own physical being:
I am a thinking reflection. He is the animal-organic part, the body unthinking. I am a searching mechanism with a soul. I’m him, but only when he’s near the glass, metal, water, the surface where I’m found. I search for some way to express this separation which feels all the wrong way round.
A bird is puzzled by its reflection; not, surely, the reflection by the bird. And yet I’m one with him. I’m one and separate. I search for ways to describe this. I live and think within all glass. He only has a body and can’t hear this murmuring; sees himself in a mirror—doesn’t know that it is me.
From his detached vantage point, the dreaming Alec revisits his younger self at school, observes a schoolmate whom he once loved, and watches as the two boys swim naked across a lake where they will spend a night together. This other boy, Christopher, has a counterpoint in name and fact in Turing’s biography, a close friend and object of an affection most likely unreturned in the same nature. In both realities, Christopher dies young. But in Alec’s dreamscape, his psychiatrist is conflated with his former schoolmaster, and his friend’s post corporeal essence becomes an abiding presence. His intellectual preoccupations, such as the limits of machine intelligence are personified in bizarre interactions with a real life associate who visits him as a computational illusion. His mother and brother appear as cartoon effigies straight out of Snow White. By opening this vast and increasingly distorted space where, as is common in dreams, people known and events experienced become the scenarios that are continually replayed in response to current waking affairs, Eaves is able to twist Alec’s past and present together to create a complex, introspective character who is both troubled by and curious about the impact of the unnatural situation in which he has found himself.
With his sex drive disabled, Alec admits to June that he is plagued by dreams and desires, a “coded overcompensation” for a reality supressed. Ever the scientist, he understands these dreams as a means of functional storage and processing:
My dreams are candid with me: they say I am chemically altered. They are full of magical symbolism! At the same time, they are enormously clear—where there is high reason and much thought, there will be much desire and many imaginings. Urges. I can be given drugs and hormones but they will only work as drugs and hormones work. They cannot get at excess desire. Take out libido and another drive replaces it. Materialism and determinism define me through and through, and yet there is more than they allow. And if that illusion of more—call it free will—is itself a mere effect, then an ‘effect’ suggests, does it not, a real cause, as a film ‘suggests’ a projector?
Balanced against this projected, or perhaps, “reflected” reality, Alec’s correspondence with June provides a safe place for him to explore his physical and existential uncertainties. She serves as confessor, sounding board, and unconditional support. Early on, especially as the hormones begin to soften and alter his body, as the estrogen causes his breasts to grow, he expresses fear of becoming a hybrid—less the fear of change than of loss. He grieves his past, his one true, yet quite likely impossible, love for Chris, and worries that he will somehow lose himself.
The estrangement between physical and essential being continues to grow. The dreamer longs to grasp a sense of if, and how, the body exists beyond death—dispersed, yet tangible, and at the same time, its elemental links to a geological, and for Alec, icebound past. The “self” seems suspended between:
The lake freezes. Ice calls to ice and Pryor’s raised and summoning hand is frosted black.
No trees, no distant school, a greenstick whine as cities pop, scatter. Another order of significance arrives. Air thickens with the charge of glaciers. The former gas solidifies, the mirror plane of my glass eye is crushed and I am fractioned, like a mote among asteroids. Only the world’s ship-like trembling, its great pistons concealed, attests the passage of aeons, time brakeless and unpeopled. Then, as fast as they arrived, faster, the glaciers recede, the waters rise, anoxic bile that boils away at Pryor’s still, unvoiced command—and I am either glass again, or obsidian, axe flint, my face upturned and refashioned.
The veil of night drawn back. The sun comes close, colossal in the sky. A pale hand hangs me on a wall that rises from the desert’s fiery sands.
There has been much controversy around the matter of Alan Turing’s death by cyanide poisoning a little more than a year after his hormonal sentence ended. Suicide was the official verdict; accident and murder have also been argued. The fortitude he is reported to have displayed throughout his ordeal, is offered as an indication that his mind was not as troubled as imagined. But, for Eaves’ shadow protagonist, there is both profound growth and insight as a result of his enforced period of introspection, and a fundamental internal loss of self that others cannot see. His perception of and relationship to his body is ever altered.
Murmur is a bold, imaginative accomplishment—one that manages to convey the strangeness of conscious experience while asking what it truly means to be conscious, pushing at the edges of its limits and constraints. It is, in many respects, a natural evolution of Will Eaves’ experimental novel, The Absent Therapist, a fragmented blend of scientific fact, philosophical reflection and fictional vignettes that read, not like snatches of overheard conversation, but as fleeting encounters with the thoughts of a wide range of characters. Murmur pulls you deep into the mental reality of one man whose rational and logical grounding is upended, but this time the therapist is present and inseparable from the subject.
However, as much as this is a novel embedded in conscious experience, it is a memoir of the body and its essentialness to being. It asks: Can a machine be encoded with emotional intelligence? What happens to the substance of the body after death? What of the self is lost or altered when the body is rendered sexless? No matter how cerebral one may be, the body matters. In my own, long-standing, welcomed and self-administered treatment with contrasexual hormones, I have experienced an evolving disassociation from the altered body I now inhabit. Yet, at face value, I look right. I am afforded the ability to live in the world in a manner that conforms with the internal gendered self I’ve always known. In a way that feels right. But I am changed. My body is othered and alien, de-sexualized. Over time that disassociation feeds existential discontent. Threatens the self in weird and curious ways I hear echoed in this book—a book which echoes my own murmurings.
Murmurs by Will Eaves is published by CB Editions and shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmith Prize. A North American release is forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in April, 2019.
10 thoughts on “Disembodied desire: Murmur by Will Eaves”
The Goldsmith Prize faltered a bit in the beginning but it is starting to unearth spectacularly interesting books, I think. It’s always a question of who’s on the judging panel, as I suppose is inevitable.
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There are always a few interesting titles, relative to other English language prizes which have run stale. I first read Will Eaves when The Absent Therapist was shortlisted in 2014 and have since read most of his work. I find now that if a shortlist contains one or two titles I might not have otherwise encountered it’s a good one!
I’m always drawn to fictional retellings of real life events and this does sound really intriguing.
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By creating a character who mirrors but is not explicitly Turing, Eaves has the freedom to imagine the situation from the inside out. A powerful and unexpected approach.
Really fascinating. I’ll check this one out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!
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A great review, which I will return to when I’ve read Murmurs – I picked up a copy after listening to Eaves talk about it in Edinburgh. I’ve only read his early novel This is Paradise, but I loved it.
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This Is Paradise is a wonderful novel. Eaves is an author who deserves broader recognition. I’m so glad to see that Murmur is getting a North American release.