Murmur’s narrator, Alec Pryor, describes himself as “a mathematician and homosexual who has done serviceable work in logic and computational theory but who has run foul of an illogical system of justice”. Convicted of “gross indecency with a male person”, he is sentenced to a course of organotherapy, or hormone treatment, at Manchester’s Royal Infirmary. It is this section of his life – its final section – that Will Eaves’s novel describes.
Pryor’s life reflects that of Alan Turing, the father of computational science and unsung war hero who was horribly treated by the British state and who died, perhaps accidentally or perhaps by his own hand, in 1954, aged 41. In a 1952 letter to his fellow mathematician Norman Routledge, Turing wrote of his impending hormone therapy: “No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.”
The feeling of haunted otherness this line evokes pervades Will Eaves’s complex novel, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize. It is bookended by fairly conventional, and alternately philosophical and chatty, fragments from Alec’s journal, but the larger part of the book is a much trickier thing to grasp: here the reader is plunged into Alec’s mind, more specifically his Stilboestrol-addled mind, without the handholds that conventional narration would supply.
The effect is disorientating. At various points I had little idea what was happening, but it’s not Eaves’s intention that we should: he saves for the book’s closing pages a partial explanation of what the previous 150 have consisted of, preferring to plant us within Pryor’s thoughts without explanation or mediation.
Alongside disorientation, the book also achieves an unusual intensity as, through a series of lengthy and hallucinatory dreams, we gradually identify the elements of Alec’s past that keep drawing him back: Christopher Molyneux, his schoolmate and first love (for Alan Turing this was Christopher Morcom); his mother and brother; the huts at Bletchley Park where he worked on cracking the Enigma code; his theories about consciousness and the possibility of machine learning.
The reader is forced to turn detective if he or she wants to discern the connections and patterns mapped by Pryor’s unconscious. There is science, there is art and there is Jungian symbolism (the title of Jung’s 1962 book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, could be Murmur’s subtitle). There is also a humorous self-awareness on Eaves’s part, as when, in a dreamed dialogue between pupil and headmaster, Christopher comments that for someone with a mind as advanced as Alec’s, “it’s very hard to explain what he knows. To be like him, you have to leave others behind.” “Sometimes,” he says, implicitly acknowledging the novel within which he exists, “it is hard to –catch his drift.”
For all its challenges, Murmur is also beautiful. This is true of both concrete events – Alec’s proposal to June on a stile above Lewes (June being a version of Joan Clarke, the Bletchley colleague to whom Turing was briefly engaged) – and the surrealistic transmogrifications of Alec’s dreams, such as when the dead Christopher’s shade, hand extended, “begins to leak away, like smoke, like milk poured in a stream”.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the novel involves the dream in which Alec and Christopher swim across Deauville Lake. The name belongs to a family of “Ceylonese tea giants”, but is surely also a reference to one of three Normandy resort towns Proust amalgamated into the fictional Balbec in In Search of Lost Time – another novel about consciousness, homosexuality and encoded truth; Albertine, first sighted by Marcel on the beach at Balbec, was a fictionalised portrait of Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli.
What are Alec’s dreams? In one of his letters to June, he describes a dream as “a set of instructions, which makes possible the next bit of life”, and as “a stored program. A dream configures me. I wake into a new function.” Later he talks about his mind “sorting possibilities” in dreams, which suggests that even though their raw material is past events, they are in fact creating the future. From this we can infer that Pryor – which suggests “prior” – is the sum of his memories, and that what he remembers and is unable to forget is of fundamental importance to his – and by extension our – consciousness.
Eaves’s adoption of a Turing-like reflection, a Pryor of whom we have no prior knowledge, helps him avoid the presumption of putting words in people’s mouths, or thoughts in their minds, and the clunkiness that often infects the portrayal of real and renowned people in fiction. But not entirely. It is perhaps plausible that the double spin of the fairground waltzers would prompt Alec “to think about the n-body problem and waves of chemical concentration in a ring of cells, so I was happy to pay for another ride”, but the connection feels too neat and clear, par-ticularly when placed alongside the rest of the book’s willingness to embrace opacity, its portrayal of the labyrinthine paths along which thought proceeds, and its exhilarating ambition to test Alec’s belief that “[a] mind can’t prove or step outside itself” by inviting us to step out from ours, and into his.
Chris Power is the author of “Mothers” (Faber & Faber)
CB Editions, 176pp, £8.9
This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash