Book Review: Murmur

Murmur, by Will Eaves, is a stunningly original imagining of how the mathematician Alan Turing may have responded to the punishment imposed on him by the state – chemical castration – following his conviction for gross indecency. It is a mingling of self-awareness and dreams, both fascinating and heart-breaking. It is a study of what it means to be conscious within a world where understanding of another’s inner being remains out of reach.

Alan Turing was more than just a member of the team that cracked the wartime Enigma code using a machine akin to an early computer, impressive though this achievement may be. He was a mathematician and theoretical biologist who pioneered ideas on artificial intelligence.

Murmur opens with the events that led to his trial. His punishment was administered over the course of a year during which he attended a hospital for weekly injections and met fortnightly with a sympathetic psychoanalyst.

“Dr Stallbrook often asks me how I feel. I reply that I do not know. How does one feel? It is one of the imponderables. I am better equipped to say what it is that I feel, and that is mysterious enough. For I feel that I am a man stripped of manhood, a being but not a body. Like the Invisible Man, I put on clothes to give myself a stable form. I’m at some point of disclosure between the real and the abstract – changing and shifting, trying to stay close to the transformation, not to flee it.”

“much of life is a pointless algorithm, an evolutionary process without an interpreter.”

The narrator muses on the kindly nurse doing her job to the best of her ability whilst taking no responsibility for the effects of the drugs on her patient – the suffering and wasted potential.

“Soldiers are permitted to kill each other and are maddened, sooner or later, by the realisation that someone else, somewhere relatively comfortable, thinks this is the right thing for them to do.”

The author names his protagonist Alec Pryce – he has stated that he did not wish to put imagined words into the mouth of a genius who in reality existed.

In the second and longest section of the book, Alec exchanges letters with June (the author’s name for the real Joan Clarke), a trusted friend he was once engaged to. They discuss Alec’s changing condition during his treatment with mutual fondness and candour. Between these letters are details of vivid dreams Alec suffers – a mixing of events from his past, present and future.

Alec is exploring his reactions to the changes wrought on his body – the shrivelling and burning away, the growth of fatty deposits on hips and breasts. The harrowing pain he suffers is both physical and mental. In one exchange he describes what he is becoming as a freak. He remains curious and stoic but fears that what he is losing is his sense of self – that his mind will be irrevocably changed.

“Somehow it is the case that the mind arises from a biology and a physics to which it may not return. That is what I mean when I say that we won’t know what machines are thinking once they start to think. We won’t know because once consciousness has come about, it looks out of different eyes.”

The narrative is devastatingly effective at conveying the pain of losing what one is and values about one’s self. Those responsible for Alec’s care show more prosaic concerns, failing to understand the essence of what their patient is going through.

“It’s all about the “how” they get you stable […] “How would you cope? How would you pay for that?” Nothing about the who – the who is left. To deal with this. […] What will be left of you.”

“they’re treating me as if I’ve gone away or been exchanged and will not ever really understand again.”

Alec dreams of futures now lost. He has been tortured, altered. As others congratulate themselves and each other on what they have made, what is left of the old finds they do not wish to live in the new. It is not them.

“When I began to look better, like my old self, after the changing treatment stopped, I seemed to disappear from the inside. I felt as if I’d been replaced.”

I pondered the wider message of how society continues to demand that all conform, encouraging rejection of those who resist.

Alec imagines his essence as an inner room that he furnishes with memories and objects he is free to choose. This freedom exists because the room will never be seen by others. Ultimately each person lives alone, something that parents struggle with in their desire to help and guide offspring.

“nothing is guaranteed by education; nothing is assured; of how I am, and always was”

The work Alec has done with machines, his belief that one day they will achieve consciousness, relies on the development of algorithms for thought as well as behaviour.

“Therein lies a conundrum for thinking machines. They can do nothing by halves. In theory, they will be made to remember everything, and with such a lot to remember they might not grasp how important it is, sometimes, for persons to forget.”

This is an exceptional novel that gets to the core of what it means to be a conscious member of a conformist society. Piercing yet beautifully written, it is an intelligent and recommended read.

Murmur is published by CB Editions

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Gig Review: Will Eaves in Bath

It is rare for me to attend an author event when I haven’t yet read the book being discussed. However, when I spotted that Will Eaves was to visit Toppings in Bath I couldn’t resist. His latest book, Murmur, has garnered many rave reviews on a wide variety of sites. Also, it is published by CB Editions. If Charles Boyle is willing to get behind an author then they must be worth checking out.

On the day of the event I was caught somewhat on the hop. Due to a clash with a popular sports broadcast the start time was changed, a message I received only a couple of hours before. It was worth the rush to get there. Will proved to be a friendly, patient and considerate speaker, attributes that were needed given some of the persistent questioning he encountered from one particular member of his audience.

Murmur was inspired by Alan Turing and is written from the point of view of an avatar based on the famous mathematician, biologist and philosopher. Will did not wish to cover Turing’s role at Bletchley Park as this has been much written about already. Instead he was interested in how such a genius would cope with the state sponsored torture of chemical castration, his barbaric punishment, having being charged with gross indecency. The book is about the experience of taking the drugs prescribed – the pain, stress and humiliation. It is about intelligence and secrets, trying to to decode a biological response.

Will imagined that Turing would study his own reaction, attempting to strip away the personal yet never being able to get away from this. Any experience is only ever fully felt by the person involved. Will’s Turing wishes to discover where his pain lies, emotional as well as physical.

The central section of the book is a series of dreams that are relayed as they occur. The importance of each dream isn’t what happens – other people’s dreams are rarely of interest to any other than them – but rather how they felt. These dreams are book-ended by letters between Turing and his fiancée in which he tries to work out what is happening to him. The dreams are at times surreal. They are written with a pulsing beat, a structure that sometimes constrained the author but also provided discipline.

Turing was administered the prescribed drugs at the Royal Infirmary. He was also required to meet with a psychoanalyst who proved more sympathetic to Turing’s predicament than expected. What he had been, a past self, would remain irretrievable. Will believed Turing would wish to understand what he had become, to uncover any pattern formation.

Two readings provided a flavour of the book. The audience were then invited to ask questions.

Will was asked if he understood the maths.

He talked of wanting to solve a puzzle, of Turing’s theory of consciousness, of artificial intelligence. He mentioned that in any system there are aspects that will never be proved. He consulted with a mathematician and physicist, not from the university where he works.

He was asked if he thought that Turing had committed suicide (this seemed to be veering even further away from the subject under discussion but the questioner was proving persistent). Will didn’t know, and the event chair intervened to bring things back on line.

Will told us that the book had taken six years to write. To gain background information about dreams he read Freud and Jung but wouldn’t describe this as research.

He was asked why he changed Turing’s name.

This was to avoid the sticky situation of putting words into the mouth of a genius. None of Turing’s dreams were written down so these were entirely invented. The pivotal sexual encounter occurred in London rather than Manchester as Will is unfamiliar with the latter city.

He was asked what started him on his journey to write the book

Will couldn’t remember. Perhaps it was the centenary of Turing’s birth, reading essays he had written. Will had just started a new job and was looking for a fresh project. Turing’s voice was asking to be heard.

The evening was drawn to a close with time to have books signed. I enjoyed a conversation with one of Will’s former students who was most complementary of his teaching. I then made my way to the front with my purchase. By this time the persistent questioner had once again commandeered Will’s attention so I did not have the opportunity to talk further. Whilst I regret the missed opportunity it did not spoil my evening. I now look forward to reading what sounds like a fascinating book.

 

Murmur is published by CB Editions. Signed copies are currently available at Toppings in Bath.

Guest post by independent publisher, CB Editions

As part of my feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. Today I am delighted to welcome Charles Boyle from CB editions, which published An Overcoat by Jack Robinson. Jack Robinson is one of Charles Boyle’s pseudonyms.

CB editions publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’. Charles provided me with a few sentences which succinctly express his thoughts on being longlisted for this prize.

 

During the last decade in British publishing, nothing has been more interesting than the blossoming of a range of small presses publishing writers, most of them new, whom the old guard had got too tired and hidebound to be interested in.

The traditional ways in which new books get known about and distributed have not kept pace. The Republic of Consciousness Prize is a wonderful and necessary means of focusing attention on the essential work of the small presses and enlarging the readership for their books.

CB editions has been publishing for ten years. Number of staff: one. Office: living-room desk. Start-up cost: £2,000. Arts Council funding for the books: zero. CBe currently has around 50 books in print, and that’s as far as the one-man-and-his-cat model can stretch. Rather than pursuing the ‘growth’ model, CBe is now reducing its activity. Ten years is a good innings and there are plenty of others to celebrate.

CBe published just two books in 2017. Following the Republic of Consciousness shortlisting of one its books for last year’s prize, it is immensely heart-warming to have one of these two books on this year’s longlist.

Does there have to be a winner? Boringly, yes. It’s how the world tick-tocks. But that doesn’t matter, because the real point of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is to celebrate a movement and a community.

 

My thanks to Charles for participating in this feature. You may follow him on Twitter: @CBeditions

Click on the book cover above to find out more about An Overcoat. 

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

An Overcoat by Jack Robinson, published by CB editions

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on An Overcoat by Jack Robinson.

 

“Here’s another tip: if you’re planning to write about someone who existed in history, be wary. Once you’ve put an actual person into a book, they become larger than life, because larger than death.”

CB editions is a very small UK publisher, which publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’.

One notable success was The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves which made the incredibly strong shortlist for the 2014 Goldsmith award.

Jack Robinson is one of the pseudonyms of Charles Boyle the founder of CB Editions, which is largely a one person operation.

And this book is an imagined afterlife of Marie-Henri Beyle – the 19th century author who operated under a number of pseudonyms, most famously Stendhal.

The book imagines Beyle in a modern day city, reflecting on what he sees around him, just as he did in life of other cities, together with a seemingly similarly reincarnated ex-lover M (Mathilde Dembowski) and a cast of contemporary characters such as a waitress Anna and a hotel manager/tour guide Franco. However this is vastly simplifying the complexity of this short book.

As a far from exhaustive list of examples of what it contains: two chapters create an imaginary dialogue of which alternate lines are taken first from a Spanish primer and secondly a Colloquial Persian phrase book; copious footnotes (some of which give rise to further sub-footnotes) pick up on themes in the text and relate them to Stendhal’s life or writing – often in fact pointing out that Stendhal’s writing (even his supposedly non-fictional writing) had a best a troubled relationship to his actual life and experiences; characters move into and out of the book – including the author who at one point joins Beyle for dinner; references are made in the text and footnotes to the works of other artists and authors – typically but not exclusively those who mention of implicitly reference Stendhal or his works in their own works – such as Sophie Calle, Ford Madox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen, Gogol Nikolai; there are frequent meditations on the afterlife and comparisons to worldly sensations.

Stendhal syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder arising from physical reactions (from rapid heartbeat to fainting) that are linked to the emotional impact of art – or as the book puts it “being overwhelmed by art”

For me the reading equivalent is to read images or phrases in a book which simply stop my reading in its tracks, making me pause and reflect on them and note them down. I experienced this often during this book:

“He discovers that in a town frequented by tourists it is hard to walk in a straight line. Tourists walk slowly and stop for no reason at all in the middle of the pavement, like children before the dawning of spatial awareness.”

“The light is silent now. It’s like bottled light. As you might bring back from holiday a bottle of some local liquor that on a winter night at home will taste sickly sweet, nothing like it tasted on the terrace by the sea. This light does what it is expected to do – there are shadows behind where it gets blocked – but it is a little clotted, heavy tired, which is understandable, given that it’s been travelling from so far away and at such a ridiculous speed and with no notion of where it is headed or why”

“People don’t die in novels … you flick back to chapter 2 and they are still there, in the bloom of youth. You look up to your shelves and they are still there. Even when you don’t look up to your shelves, they are still there. And when you tell what happens in novels, you speak in the present tense – everything still in play, all options open.”

“He likes watching people who are doing repetitive work – cashiers at supermarket checkouts, scaffolders, soldiers, street-sweepers, married couples, writers.”

“To reduce congestion, a plan for a bypass from conception to the afterlife is being considered”

(Of films) “For those who are hard of hearing or for whom the plot is just too silly to bother keeping track of, there remains simply “the bits where”.”

(Of a detective who suddenly is inserted in the text) “He suspects that he has caught a but from something rotten in the genre itself , something long past it’s use-by date, a plate of left over subplots at the back of the fridge that are growing mould.”

In style I was at times, in the lightness and playfulness of the style set alongside deeply embedded cross-references, reminded of the early and strongest novels of Milan Kundera or those of Alain de Botton (who more typically references philosophy rather than literature). But there is a uniqueness to the style of the author which makes me both interested to read his other works, and very keen to return again to this one.

GF

 

You may read my review of An Overcoat here.

Next week on my blog look out for a guest post from the publisher/author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Book Review: An Overcoat

“It’s not hard, de Saupicquet once told me, to gain entry into other people’s lives: they generally leave the spare key under the plant pot by the back door, the usual place. But once you’re in, it hits you that they have gone out, and you have no idea when they’ll be coming back.”

An Overcoat, by Jack Robinson, takes episodes from the life of 19th-century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, and muses on them from different perspectives. The book is structured in scenes with copious footnotes. Beyle is portrayed existing in an afterlife where he interacts with people from a variety of times, including our own.

Rarely have I read a book that I feel less qualified to review. I had never heard of Beyle, nor am I familiar with many of the other writers mentioned throughout. Those I did recognise wrote works I haven’t read. Thus I came at this blind and offer my thoughts without prior knowledge of the subject being so imaginatively portrayed.

Beyle dons an overcoat as a disguise. Throughout his life he adopted many disguises in the form of pseudonyms, just as readers today create internet usernames. His attempts at masking his identity are compared to modern day habits of changing hair colour when dissatisfied with one’s own. Those who already know a person see through such behaviour instantly. A person may try to reinvent themselves – adopting a new look, name, place or occupation – but in time will revert to whatever they have always been.

Beyle was an inveterate womaniser who was obsessed with his sexual conquests. He desired Mathilde Dembowski, who he met while living in Milan. She rejected his advances. Many of the scenes involve M, her children, Beyle’s attempts at dissimulation.

He wanders the streets of a contemporary town, visits coffee shops, observes tourists, ponders the continuance of existence after death. Although placed in current times many of the scenes are based on what is known of his life, with footnotes providing references and tangential musings. Beyle concocts fantasies involving himself and those around him. There are deliberations on accepted absurdities. The author’s commentary provides nuggets of insight, the vignettes a sympathetic retelling.

Although somewhat rambling and meandering this was a curiously satisfying book to read. There is no story as such, it is more a rumination on a writer and existence. As a reader I felt a little overwhelmed at times due to my lack of knowledge. What I learned of Beyle did not endear him to me, but I enjoyed the playfulness of the portrayal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, CB Editions.

Book Review: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

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Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, by Diane Williams, is a collection of forty very short stories exploring such wide ranging themes as life, death, love, sex and associated, often fractious, relationships. There is a rough honesty to the thoughts and interactions in each snapshot – for a snapshot is all that can be offered in a tale that plays out in so few words. These are little moments of detail, vividly recalled with a point that is not always clear.

The opacity adds to the sense that the reader is observing rather than participating in each scenario. Characters share their thoughts with a dark, sometimes fevered intensity. There are moments of quiet reflection, gatherings where participants seem barely able to tolerate each other’s company, family groups displaying their love and despair at behaviours. Partners and friends huff over habits that grate.

A number of the stories provide observations on possessions when moving house or dealing with inheritance. The changing dynamics of relationships caused by the passage of time and a perceived lack of appreciation are touched upon. There is an apartness to each individual with occasional geysers of feeling spilling over those who happen to share proximity. Participants wade through many petty vexations.

Although easy enough to read and offering plenty to ponder I did not find this collection satisfying. As with incidents in life few tales offer a tidy conclusion. They are ripples in time, keenly considered, but sometimes frustratingly opaque. There is depth and immersion but too often I missed the point, if there was one, being made.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, CB Editions.