October began with finishing Will Eaves’s Murmur, his balletic novel-in-prose based on the tragic life and surreal afterlife of Alan Turing. Why novel in prose? Well, because half the time the wonder of it is that it is written in prose at all. It feels like it’s been downshifted into words on the page from some higher dimension. It starts and finishes with putative journal entries from a Turing avatar (Pryor) suffering the chemical castration that drove the scientist to suicide, with, in the middle, a longer run of letters mixed, improbably, with dream narratives. It is at once as weird as that sounds, and absolutely plain and straightforward.
I have long had a problem with novelisations of real people’s lives. It feels like the biographers have done all the hard work: primed the canvas, blocked in the background, worked up the figures, and all that remains for the lazy novelist to do is to dot in a few highlights, idiosyncratic and humane, to ‘bring it to life’. Rather as a mortuary assistant might make up the face of a corpse, you might think.
This book is nothing like that. For a start Eaves has clearly worked incredibly hard on it, thinking through the implications of artificial intelligence on consciousness as assiduously as any critical biographer, quite apart from the nasty effects of the drugs on Turing’s body and mind. And the ‘novelistic’ touches are anything but perfunctory. The journals entries are quite compelling enough, in their view of closeted gay life in 1940s England, and the way it shattered class boundaries, and how it was treated by the establishment. But it is the dreams and letters that take the book definitively out of the realm of the mundanely novelistic.
They move backwards and forwards through aspects of Pryor’s life, from gorgeous, creepy remembered childhood to an imagined future that even goes so far as to include parenthood as part of a heterosexual couple. If this is disorienting, then it is also tangentially illuminating. Is it too much to say that it reads like alternate quantum lives peeling off the central narrative and floating wispily away? Well, yes it is too much, if only because I’m now well outside the limits of my scientific understanding, unlike Eaves’s. If you’ve read his columns in the Brixton Review of Books, or his interviews (like this one, or this one, in which he navigates the TLS 20 questions with greater dexterity than anyone before or since, especially the last 10) then you’ll know he is as at once forbiddingly intelligent and engagingly – mercifully – sympathetic.
It’s a quite brilliant book. I need to read it again. More slowly.
(Aside: it’s odd, isn’t it [no it’s not] that ‘sympathetic’ has turned into such an ambiguous, two-way road of a word. Its original meaning is of someone who is characterised by sympathy, i.e. who is able to reach out and understand the feelings of others, usually in a benign, benevolent way. But it has also come to mean, more simply, nice, attracting the liking of others. It’s almost as if – gasp – we tend to like people who are kind and understanding, and then tend to attribute the fact of that liking to us, rather than them.)
Last month I also read Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, a first of hers for me. Her name is one of those that bounces around a little on Twitter, and turns up on the Backlisted podcast. The Vet’s Daughter is an odd, short novel, that trips between a down-at-heel Edwardian realism and glum Gothic fantasy. I didn’t really enjoy it. There is a horrid bullying father, a dying then dead mother, and a bright daughter who can’t escape the awfulness of her life except, occasionally, by spontaneously levitating into the air. Only, of course, even that offers no escape. It is all very depressing. It is also all rather desultory.
A book that did so much more for me was the long, big, wonderful For Love Alone by Christina Stead, another woman writer in the permanent state of being ‘rediscovered’. Continue reading
Looking down the long tunnel of September towards its distant beginning, I can make out Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, but in outline only, little in the way of detail. I know I found it a hard book to like – I didn’t like it – but not in the way I was expecting. It came riding in on a wave of fierce praise, including some from names I trust, and I approached it with, appropriately enough, flame-retardant gloves, as I do any book that shares a subject matter with my own novel: art and artists in the latter half of the twentieth century. I was ready to envy it, ready to throw it against the wall in despair, ready to rip it up and eat it if that meant I could take it out of the world.
Instead, I found it fussy, in a rather butch way, and drifting. It’s the story of Reno, a young woman artist who comes to New York in the late 70s, from the outer sticks of Nevada, to find her way in to the post-Pollock scene. Soon enough she finds herself the lover of an older, male artist, Sandro, and follows him to Italy, where his family, owners of a major motorcycle company find themselves attacked by their rising-up workers.
(Reno is a biker: some of the best and most lauded scenes are of her racing across the American desert, drawing a line with the machine so light it barely touches the earth.)
It is a book about the mystique and muscle of art, as mine is, and the strange black hole that grows in and eventually engulfs the ‘great’ (male) artist. Some of that was good, but I just couldn’t get on with the prose. It is American prose, made in America. It swaggers, but with a limp, or drag, affected to distract from the swagger. It looks at the world obliquely, drawlingly, always focused on the thing half glimpsed over the shoulder of the thing it’s looking at. It is like a man in a bar, spieling drunk wisdom, while he fingers patterns in a puddle of spilled beer on the counter. But it wants you to know the man, and wisdom, through the doodles.