Book Review: The Absent Therapist

“because a thing is unseen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In order to see it properly, you may find you need to look away. Some things do not like to be observed too directly. Staring fixes them and creates a blind spot.”

The Absent Therapist, by Will Eaves, is a book of vignettes arranged into five sections. The voices are various and rarely explained other than to provide necessary context. Written in the first person, they come across as thoughts and personal opinions. Some may appear shocking to more sheltered readers. Mostly they highlight situations the author may or may not have encountered, that he then runs with for effect. A superficial read may raise questions as to what is being conveyed – the intention in writing the piece. Somehow, though, the stories linger. They are clever – perhaps too clever at times for me to fully appreciate.

“Thinking is the set of mental processes we don’t understand. It is the soul in conference with itself.”

Many of the entries cover encounters with people – friends, colleagues, love interests. They highlight aspects of character that may concern the narrator along with recollections from memory that, with hindsight, shaped them. Settings vary across continents although Australia features regularly. A recurring theme is musings on AI and how it is unhelpful to anthropomorphise machine intelligence.

Certain entries go back to ancient times but mostly they offer thoughts on more contemporary, day to day situations. The narrators have varying careers, including that of a writer.

“‘I could have done that’, people cry, especially relatives. ‘You’ve taken my story and written it down verbatim. How dare you?’ To them I say: ‘Well, you weren’t doing anything with it. You didn’t see that it was a story worth telling.”

I enjoyed the final section the most and wonder if it took me this long to find the author’s cadence. Throughout the book I was questioning how much of the deeper aspects I was getting.

“What draws everyone on is knowing that we’re denied objectivity by the limits of our perception while simultaneously denying that we are denied it”

I wouldn’t wish you to think I did not enjoy what I was reading. It is more that I felt unable to fully grasp all that could be gleaned from the shadows cast by the author’s carefully crafted words.

A book that will doubtless offer more on subsequent read throughs. An intriguing and intelligent glimpse at facets of lives recognisable, here offered careful and perspicacious consideration.

The Absent Therapist is published by CB editions.

Book Review: Broken Consort

“There are a lot of serious idiots out there who could do with being a shade less convinced by themselves.”

A good number of the people I follow in the book world have degrees in English or similar. My degree is in Computer Science. Although I achieved A grades in the various English subjects at ‘O’ level (Literature, Language, Use of), I opted not to take English at ‘A’ level. My older sister had been through this and I had seen the books she was required to read. I had no wish to spend two years slogging through Chaucer, Shakespeare and some of the more modern classics published in previous centuries.

As a teenager I was enjoying books by various romance writers, along with output from the likes of Jeffrey Archer and James Clavell. At fourteen, I had given myself a pat on the back for finishing The Lord of the Rings but, truthfully, found the endless journeying tedious. In my twenties I tackled the likes of Homer, Ovid and Plato in an attempt to become better read. I skimmed the surface rather than gaining understanding. I could now enjoy Austin, Hardy and Eliot. I still disliked Dickens.

My appreciation of the more worthy tomes in literature was much like my reaction to the little known films or music my university friends discussed in rapturous terms. I wanted to be a part of their arty circle but, in truth, still preferred instant gratification to clever depth. Looking back I suspect I was tolerated by these, mostly male, friends because some found me attractive – opinions I voiced were of little interest.

Why am I telling you this? What I wish to get across is that I have always read voraciously but do not consider myself well read. Unlike Will Eaves who, in the many book reviews included within Broken Consort, references a plethora of mighty works. His reviews are detailed critiques, written in a style that I could only aspire to. Not having read the books he mentions, I found few hooks to draw me in.

Broken Consort is Eaves’ latest published work and offers exactly what it claims on the back cover.

“a chronicle of close attention (to books, films, plays, paintings, music, notebooks and car-boot sales) which will confound anyone who thinks rigour and generosity are contradictory.”

The entries are mostly presented in the order they were written, from around 1992 to the present day. Several include more personal details – a relocation to Australia, a back injury, mention of relationships. The essays musing on human reactions and other behaviours were the ones I found most interesting.

I engaged more easily with the film reviews than those offering opinion on books or art. This is likely because I am familiar with the Bond series and Titanic. It was entertaining to consider the depths with which these could be viewed.

Please don’t think I drew nothing from the many book reviews included. Being and Doing was fascinating in its discussion of attitudes across centuries to what we now call homosexuality. Laura Riding mentioned the ‘notion of an intellectual oligarchy’ – it seems high minded literati have long held the view that they are better than the hoi polloi, as my university friends were wont to do.

Beginnings is the car-boot sale essay mentioned and I very much enjoyed the author’s observations. In this, he came across as more self-deprecating than in certain later entries.

Situation was written during his time living in Australia and muses on many interesting ideas of home and how we deal with the past, and potential futures.

“I sat down on a bench, on which someone had carved the words ‘You Are Here’ and I realised, a bit late, that the answer to my mid-life jitters was just that.”

The more high brow literary and artistic commentary may have gone over my head but I could still learn from the perceptive writing style. I enjoyed the essays on writing, and on the author’s experiences teaching the subject at university. He notes that some students are eager to have written a book, more than actually writing one. He pokes fun at texts regarded by some as essential. Although at times playful in this way, what comes across is the rigour with which he approaches any subject.

The later essays and articles are, as I mentioned, less generous than the earlier entries. In Trees and Sympathy he offers a glimpse of what appears to be disdain for bloggers.

“If I had a pound for every blogger who demands relatable characters, I could retire.”

In Q&A he offers a view on those who consider themselves writers.

“Writers are presumably people who write. It’s too vague a term to be much use, though people do like to call themselves writers, Don’t they?”

The same interview provides a hint as to why I have enjoyed Will Eaves’ fiction. He is asked if he feels ‘any ethical responsibility as a writer’.

“Lots of books have been written about the social role of the artist, and I don’t wish to misrepresent the complexity of that commentary, because there are many different ways of making an artistic contribution to society. But, as I see it, my ethical responsibility is not to wear uniform.”

The author is published by CB Editions, a tiny press run by Charles Boyle since 2007. I have met Charles on a few occasions, at events attended by authors and publishers of high end literary fiction. He was obviously well regarded and appeared a tad embarrassed by the veneration. His reaction to me came across as bemused – what was I, a book blogger, doing amongst these peers of his? I suspect I was, as in my university days, mixing with those I admired but would never truly belong alongside.

And I doubt I am the target audience for Broken Consort. I can admire the quality of the prose, and enjoy the more personal musings, but my lack of knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman texts too often stymied full appreciation.

This is a fine collection for those of a more intellectual persuasion – those who can appreciate art beyond its superficial aesthetic. I may have moved beyond my desire for instant gratification, but doubt I will ever reach the literary heights of Will Eaves and his ilk.

Broken Consort is published by CB Editions.

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

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.