One Guided Meditation

Will Eaves, Murmur

CB Editions, 184pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781909585263

reviewed by Oscar Yuill

‘My own predicament – 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 – seems very unremarkable.’

Readers in search of anything as straightforward as the above had better avoid Will Eaves’s fourth novel, Murmur, for it has achieved the holy grail of modern prose: conveying consciousness. And being in the stream of another’s mind would not be a coherent experience. ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ as Thomas Nagel’s essay famously put it. No matter how much we learn about bats scientifically, we shall never inhabit the interior life, or ‘qualia’, of a bat.

Likewise, we shall never know what was going through Alan Turing’s mind as he endured state-sanctioned chemical castration for the crime of love. And yet, reading Murmur, I felt treated to precisely that knowledge – the fruits of a heist, the discovery of a burial. As Turing’s stand-in, Alec Pryor, writes: ‘In the third century of the Roman occupation, people buried money for safekeeping. . . . I, too, amassed my savings . . . and bought two silver ingots and buried them. I did not find them again.’ It is an apt metaphor for what amounts to a 176-page dream journal, beginning with his sleeping with a boy, Cyril, in the dark outskirts of a vintage fairground. The dreams are few but recur in Gödel-like loops – themes and motifs that undergo subtle revisions – all dug up from their burial places with the help of a Dr Stallbrook, Pryor’s ‘pleasant Jungian’, who ‘encourages me to write’.

Using a pseudonym for Turing might have been an arbitrary decision. But plenty of novelists impose their artistic visions upon real historical figures. Julian Barnes, in The Noise of Time, created a convincing Shostakovich. Alec Pryor, then, feels like a conscious choice, especially given the novel’s subject matter: consciousness, AI, personal identity, and a few doses of Ovid. The work alludes constantly to mirrors, hive-minds and fractured identities. Whole theories of mind and of mathematics are reduced to glittering aphorisms. Using the name Alec Pryor is a way of saying this could be you – an uncomfortable thought. But then Murmur trades on discomfort, and part of its success is in how it handles the necessary trade-off between accuracy and coherence.

Many writers have attempted this. Will Self, in Umbrella, for instance, eschews paragraphs and most punctuation for much the same reason Gertrude Stein abhorred commas and James Joyce let fly in the last chapter of Ulysses: we don’t think in paragraphs or semicolons. Eaves is no less audacious but more formally accessible. Dreams, interspersed with letters to and from Pryor’s wife, June, are separated with simple asterisks, and that impressionistic approach is reminiscent of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, whose entries cover similar topics. In some places the prose is too sickly-sweet. Barely a noun escapes an adjective. There are ‘glossy-dark’ leaves and ‘donnish crows’ I could have been spared. I half expected a stately elm. As for similes, a fairground’s ‘wiry protrusion’ is ‘like an undergraduate’, which I get, but still. There are hints of Proust, too, in the discursive and sensational treatment of the act of drinking a glass of water (Proust famously devotes the first 30-pages of In Search of Lost Time to the feeling of falling asleep). To Eaves’s great credit, I never felt as if the book’s formal audacity was beyond his powers to direct it. Every time I felt like I was drifting off, awash in the vagaries of a dream, some strong image or fact would pull me gently farther along, and in this way the whole book could be read in one sitting, one guided meditation.

Some passages are of such genuine beauty that we are reminded of Eaves’s standing as a poet. Pryor’s boyhood swim with his friend and lover Christopher Molyneaux, for instance, was so trained a set-piece that nothing after came close. ‘Their nakedness a fact, the boys seek warmth, a cave, some rest. . . . The armour of his chest unfastens in the presence of his friend, whose nervous heat is life.’ In the innocence of these moments I found myself above all angry that so humble a genius (Bletchley, the famed code-breaking centre where Turing worked, is seldom mentioned) was ever tortured (the word Pryor rightly uses).

Anger becomes pity with the physical changes wrought by the drug Stilboestrol, basically a toxic dose of oestrogen. ‘I am growing breasts . . . flattish, pouch-like and red,’ Pryor writes to June. These insidious glimpses of his physical transformation (hence references to Ovid) are piteously revolting. By the end, a fracture has taken place, signalled by Pryor’s referring to himself in the third-person: ‘My guardians are talking over me, and I can see we are to leave. I seem to be in some discomfort or distress.’ This raises all sorts of questions about the philosophy of mind: is mind matter – i.e., in the brain? If our minds ‘split’, do we become two people? Pryor’s answer is every bit as intelligent and affecting as we might expect from Turing. That Eaves can ask these questions in this medium puts him beside the best of Iris Murdoch.

Even the chapter titles demand scrutiny: ‘The Class of All Unthinkable Things’ and ‘The Council of Machines’, besides sounding like episodes in TV show The Big Bang Theory, introduce other concepts such as artificial intelligence. Murmur is not about AI per se, but Eaves treats the prospect of machines sitting in judgment ‘like a parliamentary sub-committee’ with less alarmism than the late Stephen Hawking. After all, if the material world is all there is, it seems to follow that the human mind is nothing more, though indeed nothing less, than biological machinery. In any case the link between Pryor and AI is clear: ‘I was left to imagine what sort of extraordinary mental realm it was they inhabited in which pain and lies and deceptions were still said to offend, but offended as depressing inexactitudes rather than injustices, and I realised that I did not have to imagine very hard. . .’ This hurt, childlike petulance has echoes of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the inspiration for Blade Runner). ‘You gave us power to pass beyond the first rude rules’ could equally have been said by a replicant. Whether or not AI is even possible, and that, too, is explored, Murmur treats the subject both originally and with deft nods to its fictional forerunners.

If art is defined as concealed effort, Murmur is high art. Though at times prone to prolixity, it is nevertheless an exquisitely crafted novel, best read in a single sitting to experience the shape of its dreams and its pay-off of moral indignation. Even if it were merely another tale about a courageous man or woman overcoming the odds and discovering the fruits of love, nature and memory, it would still be a very original handling. In taking those themes and weaving them with our anxieties about the future, it is among the first and best of its kind.