Murmur

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 30 May 2019

Member Reviews

An intriguing and complex short novel by Will Eaves, inhabiting Alan Turing’s thought processes as he undergoes hormone treatment after being prosecuted for his homosexuality.

The ghastly effects of the medication are portrayed via thoughts, dreams and imaginary correspondence. Quite a complex and tricky read, this is a touching and painful insight into what it could have been like to undergo such horrific experiences in the UK’s relatively recent past.
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The way that Will Eaves focused on Alan Turing and his later life was handled really well. The characters all made sense and had good story arcs with Turing's both being in the present and having a focus on the past. There were a couple of places that confused as they were a bit too surreal and dreamlike but the writing in these bits was beautiful which made up for being confused. This is definitely a good book to read if you are interested in Alan Turing as it covers the expanse of his life beautifully but with just enough detail to make  you want to read on in more detail elsewhere.
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Murmur by Will Eaves is a literary novel that is a tribute to the life and work of mathematician Alan Turing.
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‘Things seem to be sadly lost, put to bed, left on top of golden summits in the past, trailing away until we see what the lines of event and memory have traced: a plane. A loop that encloses all loss, has no beginning and no end.’

Lauded by critics, winner of the Wellcome Prize and Republic of Consciousness Prize, and – in my reading of its shortlist – nominated for the James Tait Black Prize. This book comes with heavy expectations, and it does not disappoint. This is a stunning, complex and moving study of a man caught between worlds: the physical and the intellectual, a secret war hero and a social outcast, male and female, desire and repression.

Based on the events in the life of mathematician Alan Turing, Eaves’ central character is Alec Pryor, a man who with his work at Bletchley helped shorten the war, but who was later arrested for gross indecency for a relationship with another man and who underwent chemical castration. Even just to write that sentence is horrible, and even with the posthumous pardon that has now been granted for Turing it is still an injustice of the highest order. Befitting the man, this is a complex book – be warned. It is oblique, full of images and dreams and references to all sorts of weird and wonderful scientific and metaphorical ephemera. We open with extracts from Pryor’s journal as he is undergoing his ‘treatment’:
‘I used to be so capable, but I am changing; I’ve already changed, and find myself drawn to the episodic and semantic mode – the ancient tool, of speaking thought.’ 
Thoughts – the ‘murmurs’ of the title – weave in and out, elusive, symbolic and difficult to pin down. 

Part two (entitled Letters and Dreams) takes the reader on a wild journey. At first it appears simple: a series of letters between Alec and his friend June (a former co-worker at Bletchley to whom he had been engaged), in which they discuss Alec’s dreams which get more and more complex. I say ‘appears’, because there is a twist revealed in the final part of the book. And the dreams themselves are, boy oh boy, complicated to say the least. There is an overarching structure to them involving the Snow White fairy tale; mirrors, dwarves, the Evil Queen and, of course, the poisoned apple. The central theme of identity is crucial, as Pryor finds himself between worlds, between identities – past/present, male/not-male, hero/villain, human/machine. Mirrors both reflect and change reality, and by looking into them we see not simply an image but a second self, another version of ourselves. By extension, the process of surrendering thought, of replicating the image, means that ‘if you can be repeated, you can be replaced’ – i.e., the rise of the machine. And this adds a whole other level to the complexity of the novel as Turing muses on AI and the possibilities of rational, thinking machines. 

Part three returns us to Pryor’s journal, and we are introduced to the Council of the Machines. Now finished with his chemical treatment, but continuing with his psychoanalysis, Pryor’s thoughts turn even more on the past, on identity and memory. We start to question where dreams and imagination end and reality begins; a thinking machine will store data, forgetting nothing, but an educable machine would sift and discard what it does not need. Pryor, as a human, muses on his memory and the fragmentation of his thoughts: ‘What I lack, and this is the great change to have been worked in me, is the capacity to organise those fragments properly.’ 

Please do not be put off by the depth and complexity of the novel; Eaves has written an profoundly moving portrait of a man torn by his inner demons, the loss of his one true love Christopher as a young man, and suffering the horrors of chemical castration. Even though the reader knows it’s coming the end of Part Two is just a punch to the gut, and the sense of injustice, a life lost, is powerful. The dreams and fragments are intended to leave the reader with a sense of something not quite explained, of a deeper meaning. And that, for me, is the triumph of the book. It deserves to be savoured, not just for the ideas but also for Will Eaves’ sublimely beautiful prose. And this is exactly the kind of book that needs to be read again, for it will reveal so much more. Deservedly, it has been praised and rewarded. It is, simply, a stunning and moving testament to an extraordinary human being. 5 stars all round.
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Sorry but this book just wasn't for me: the dense quasi-stream of consciousness prose was impenetrable, and given that I have a horror of dreams in fiction, the whole of the second section was a turn-off. That said, this is clearly allusive (Ovid, Baudelaire amongst others) and the notion of chemical castration to 'cure' gayness reminded me of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar where electric shock therapy is offered as a solution to a woman who crumbles beneath the pressures of patriarchy. 

Wrong book, wrong reader, I'm afraid.
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There's a lot to admire in this novel which imagines the experiences, dreams and reflections of Alec Pryor (based on Alan Turing) as he is treated for homosexuality.  It has a gripping, hallucinatory power which stops you in your tracks and is quite beautifully, and densely, written. It makes demands on the reader, which pay dividends. Much more about developing artificial consciousness and machine learning than code-breaking, its focus on 'echoes and rills of a different order, however, the inner murmur, and these I take to be true thinking, determinate and concealed' is fascinating.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have read it.
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Murmur imagines the visions of a facsimile of Alan Turing called Alec Pryor. Turing was a brilliant man who was instrumental in winning the war against the Nazi's, and might have been so much more. He was cruelly hounded for being gay, and chemically castrated. It is while he is having these injections that Alec/Alan starts stepping outside of himself and having visions of the future and the past. 
Will Eaves cannot expect a wide audience for this book as it is pretty impenetrable. On a second reading I would doubtless get more out of it, at the expense of tying my brain into knots. It is not an easy read, but it makes you feel great regret that Turing was driven to suicide in 1954. Four stars.
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Many thanks for allowing me to try this one but sadly it wasn’t for me. Some parts are incredibly beautiful but frequently heads off into spaces I can’t follow.
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Murmur is a novel exploring the mind and human consciousness in the face of something terrible using literary style and scientific logic. The central figure Alec Pryor is based on Alan Turing, and the book charts his mental and physical reaction to arrest and state enforced chemical castration, particularly around his dreams which make up the centre of the book. Elements of journal are mixed with these dreams to create a horrific view of what such experiences may have been like, using a distinctive style and use of consciousness.

Calling Murmur 'experimental' in some ways fits both its stylistic work and its subject matter (considering the focus on maths, the mind, and humanity itself), though the reading experience is less disjointed than that may imply. Even the more stream of consciousness middle section comprised of dreams and letters follows certain logic, and the experience works as a way of depicting a mind under extreme stress. There is a lot of poetry in Eaves' prose too, with heartbreaking and concise descriptions of thoughts, love, and life.

For some people the style may put them off, but Murmur is a powerful fictional version of a terrible truth that uses this style to depict its meaning. Lurking underneath isn't only the awful actions of the law and the state towards 'Alec', but also questions around consciousness and machines as thought about by Alan Turing. Not many books focusing on dreams manage to pull it off, but this one does.
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Will Eaves imagines the inner life of Alan Turing following his arrest for gross indecency and his enforced hormone therapy. This incredibly dense short novel is tender, humane, heart-breaking and fiercely intelligent. Its three sections describe the journal entries, dreams and correspondence of Alec Pryor (Eaves’ wonderful Alan Turing analogue). As the drugs destabilize his mind and transform his body Pryor’s theories of intelligence combine with his personal history to create vivid visions, sometimes bizarre, sometimes terrifying but always profoundly moving. Though each scene is saturated with emotion Pryor’s narrative is calm and matter-of-fact and this seeming disconnect powerfully translates the unique and remarkable man at the heart of the story as well as the terrible injustice done to him. The ideas are fittingly complex and I feel like a deeper knowledge of Turing’s theories will make a second reading even more rewarding. A very worthy winner of this year’s Wellcome Prize.
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