Tag Archives: Murmur

Six Degrees of Separation – from Murmur to Johannesburg

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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We’re starting this month with Will Eaves Murmur, a slice of experimental fiction which explores Alan Turing’s life and ideas through dreams, correspondence and journal entries. Eaves’ extraordinary book won both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and this year’s Wellcome Prize.

The Wellcome Prize often has an interesting selection of books on its shortlist one of which was Sarah Moss’ Bodies of Light in 2015. It follows Ally in her struggles to become a doctor in nineteenth-century Britain.

Moss also wrote Names for the Sea,  an appealing account of her year in Iceland, which brings me to Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s very funny Butterflies in November in which a dead sheep is wrestled into a car’s passenger seat.

That sheep (and the style of Ólafsdóttir’s somewhat wacky novel) puts me in mind of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase which sees a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd.

Hiromi Kawakami is another favorite Japanese author of mine who also knows how turn her hand to the surreal but not in The Nakano Thrift Shop. The eponymous shop is staffed by an endearing set of awkward and idiosyncratic characters who become so close they’re like family to each other.

As do the characters in Michael Cunningham’s lovely, heart-wrenching Home at the End of the World in which Bobby, traumatised by the childhood death of his brother, finds a family with Jonathan and Clare.

Cunningham is better known for his novel The Hours (although I prefer Home and the End of the World) which was made into an award-winning film. It was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as was Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013, the day after the death of Nelson Mandela.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from 1950s Britain and the reimagining of Alan Turing’s life to a tribute to Virginia Woolf, set in Johannesburg in 2013. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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.