The premise is startlingly ambitious: what if we could think our way into Alan Turing’s dreams? It’s the sort of thing Turing himself might have attempted as he tried to move between minds, questing for the limits of shared comprehension. But a novelist imagining the unconscious of a genius and finding words for his visions – can that be wise? Yes, if the writer is Will Eaves. Scrupulous, humane, sad and strange, this fifth novel by the author of The Oversight and The Absent Therapist is as bracingly intelligent as it is brave... The imagery is extravagant, as one might expect from a novel engaged with Jungian analysis... But what’s most gripping is the careful, calm, modest voice in which these weird scenes are related and analysed... He knows that Turing’s theories of consciousness have implications for fiction, and that fiction can operate at the frontiers of what we know about the workings of our minds.
Will Eaves’s Murmur is boldly different from anything else written about Turing... As readers, what we seek in novels about historical figures is real life rendered as vicarious experience. They offer an intimacy that factual accounts rarely provide. But as Eaves writes, it’s precisely this inability to access the mind of another that proves its existence as a mind: “It isn’t knowing what another person thinks or feels that makes us who we are. It’s the respect for not knowing.” You can’t help but be unsettled by his invocation of intelligent machines that will soon be able to read our thoughts. I wonder, though, how many readers will make it that far into the experiment?.. He is just a little too enamoured of big words too: “manumitted”, “fan-deltaic” “distrait”, “antinomy”, “exsanguinating”, “bourdon”, “enplaned”. A sense of literary avoirdupois (heaviness) threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Curiously, as the novel draws to its close, it becomes a little trite... Despite its flaws, Murmur opens your mind to a very different kind of novel, one that dares to forge a generous dialogue between arts and sciences, one that celebrates the wonder of human consciousness.
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... Alongside disorientation, the book also achieves an unusual intensity... For all its challenges, Murmur is also beautiful... 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.
Inspired by the life of Alan Turing, the second World War code-breaker who was imprisoned and chemically castrated by the British state in the 1950s, Will Eaves’s latest novel tells of Alec, a gay mathematician who is convicted of gross indecency and compelled to undergo “treatment”. Murmur alternates between first-person narration and epistolary exchanges; the prose is exceptionally poised and elegant. Peering into a school classroom, Eaves’s protagonist observes: “The thirty lives in this cold room, seen from some distant vantage point, are like the hopeful lanterns of a struggling ferry.” Murmur is a poignant meditation on the irrepressible complexity of human nature and sexuality, and a powerful indictment of the cowardice and groupthink that sustain state-sanctioned barbarism. It also poses timely questions about the digital world Turing’s pioneering work helped bring about, as Alec ponders the “welter of connectedness, the phones and messages, commuters trailing wires, staring past bodies into space, the sound-image of ghostly callers in your head wherever you may be, whatever time it is”.
At this uncertain cultural moment arrives Will Eaves’s remarkable new novel Murmur – a novel of both science and subjective consciousness, painfully aware of the shortcomings of the act of narration... Murmur’s transgressive power lies at the level both of language and of structure. Episodes from Alec’s life are recounted out of sequence, from a plurality of viewpoints, through a variety of forms... Eaves delights in dissolving the boundaries between categories and forms of knowledge... Through Alec’s fractured, maze-like narration, Eaves refreshes and renews the self-reflexive narratorial tradition. This is a novel transfixed not only by the limits of consciousness, but also by the limits of mapping consciousness’s limits... It is Murmur’s singular achievement that, even after conveying so beautifully the limits of human understanding, it is able to see life rendered in numbers, the very basis of “real” life’s supposed antithesis: artificial intelligence... Will Eaves has achieved one of the pinnacles of novelistic endeavour: he has given deep thought to human experience, and in doing so brought to life the “self-conscious wonder” of thought itself.