Murmur by Will Eaves: An imagined life

Will Eaves’ Murmur was originally published by CB Editions, a ‘one-person-venture’ as its website describes it. A brave decision, then, to publish an experimental piece of fiction which makes considerable demands on its readers’ attention but it’s paid off handsomely. Eaves’ book was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths and James Tait Black Prizes then bagged both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Wellcome Book Prize. In this extraordinarily ambitious novella, a man is undergoing chemical castration having been convicted of gross indecency. Although the man is given a different name, it’s clear Alan Turing’s is the experience that Eaves is imagining.

In a jubilant mood after finishing a difficult paper, mathematician Alec Pryor has picked up a young man at a fair and taken him home. Shortly after their encounter, Cyril attempts to blackmail Pryor, then Pryor’s flat is burgled. Pryor takes the matter to the police but finds himself under arrest. This is 1952: homosexuality is a criminal offence. Pryor is sentenced to chemical castration which not only changes his body but also induces vividly hallucinogenic dreams, offering glimpses into his past and an exploration of his theories about consciousness and artificial intelligence.

Murmur is impossible to encapsulate in a short review, although had I taken note of Annabel’s words and read up about Turing I might have grasped a little more of what Eaves’ cerebral book has to offer. Made baroque by the Stilboestrol injected by a kindly nurse once a week, Pryor’s dreams together with his correspondence with June, his ex-fiancée and Bletchley Park colleague, make up the bulk of the novel, sandwiched between two short journal entries. Recurrent tropes of fairgrounds, mirrors, a nocturnal swim with his beloved schoolfriend Chris and confrontations with his family run through these dreams which are beautifully described in poetic sometimes lambent prose. Eaves manages to combine a gorgeous use of language, erudition and an occasional playfulness with an aching compassion at its most poignant in his description of Pryor gazing at his changed body in the mirror:

His hands were mine, too, formerly, of that I’m sure: but I’m not him, not any more. His hands caress me and I can’t feel anything

Pryor no longer quite recognises his reflection as his body becomes other than it was. His desire has been stolen from him by the barbaric ‘treatment’ deemed necessary by the state. We know how this ended for Turing, of course. When I’m feeling particularly dismayed by the state of my nation, or even the world, I remind myself of just how much has changed for gay men. Some things do get better.

I’ve barely done the many and varied ideas explored by Eaves’ book justice, I’m afraid. If you’d like to read a more articulate review you might like to visit Annabel’s, Clare’s or Rebecca’s.

17 thoughts on “Murmur by Will Eaves: An imagined life”

  1. Sounds challenging and very interesting. Each year I make a vague pledge to read the Wellcome shortlist (after the event because it clashes with my Stella Prize reading), although I never quite manage it in a orderly way – maybe it’s the year to be disciplined?!

  2. My goodness, this sounds like a powerful, important story and one told in a quite challenging way. I imagine the dream sequences are as disorienting for the reader as they are for the central character, which is presumably the point. As you say some things have changed for the better, it’s good to remember that sometimes.

    1. Definitely a book that would repay rereading with a little more knowledge for me. As I wrote those last sentences I remembered that the last book that had made me feel that way was Old Baggage. Helpful to remember that when things are bleak.

  3. Thank you so much for the link. I’m so glad you read this book and despite not knowing much about Turing, got so much from it. I plan to reread it soon, as there is so much I missed first tie around I think! Rebecca did so, and her review is just masterful.

  4. This is a powerful, inventive novel. I’ve been reading Will Eaves’ work for years and I’m so happy to see him finally garnering the attention he deserves. And in spite of all the attention young novelists (under 30) seem to receive, this book shows how a measure of maturity and experience allow an author to take on a challenge like this and really make it special.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly, Joe. It takes patience and maturity to research and write a piece of fiction as inventive and profound as this one. I’m so impressed with CB Editions for publishing it, too. Quite a leap of faith for a one-person operation.

      1. CB Editions has been supportive of Eaves’ work for some time, publishing two earlier, more experimental works. You’re right, Charles Boyle deserves to be recognized for his faith in non-mainstream literary projects.

    1. Wasn’t it appalling. It’s chastening to think that it was happening a mere 67 years ago. I have to admit I’d not come across CB Editions before but I’m sure their list would repay a bit of exploration.

  5. This sounds like a very arresting story and one told in an innovative way. No wonder it scooped the Wellcome Prize (always an interesting one due to the inclusion of both fiction and non-fiction on the shortlist). It’s great to see such inventive, thought-provoking fiction being rewarded like this – a positive sign for the continued relevance of the novel in today’s world.

  6. This sounds very good, but also completely heartbreaking. The movie about Alan Turing was so sad. I just might have to read this sometime, anyway. I noticed that our library ordered it!

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