by Tucker Lieberman
“Seven weeks after my arrest,” the narrator of Will Eaves’ novel Murmur says, “I was found guilty of gross indecency with a male person and sentenced to receive a course of organotherapy—hormone injections—to be delivered at the Royal Infirmary.” The man is started on a synthetic estrogen, Stilboestrol, which makes him less muscular, more “flabby,” and with “pouch-like” breasts that he believes look odd, if only “because one does not expect a man to have breasts.”
Eaves, an English novelist, is telling the true story of Alan Turing, a mathematician, code-breaker, and early computer scientist in England during the Second World War. Arrested in 1952 for having sex with another man, Turing was chemically castrated, and he committed suicide two years later by eating an apple laced with cyanide. The fictional narrator is named Alec Pryor, but his tale is essentially Turing’s re-imagined in the first person. The novel was released in the UK in 2018 and in the US in 2019. It deals not primarily with the physical changes to which a man can be subjected but rather with questions of human desire and agency.
The title, Murmur, refers to a deluge of thoughts that afflict the man once his chemical castration begins. Accordingly, this novel is more philosophically driven than most. The hormones immediately start up an internal narrator,
“a sort of rhythmic description of my state of mind, like someone speaking quickly and urgently on the other side of a door.…Anyway, I’ve never had this experience before. This morning I could hear the inner murmuring accompanying trivial actions: ‘I’m up early, it’s dark outside, the path I laid haphazardly with my own hands is now a frosted curve.’”
During treatment, he could retreat into his mind and “still be me,” but after treatment ended, “I seemed to disappear from the inside. I felt as if I’d been replaced.” There is an apparent scientific reason. “I had my body changed against my will,” he reflects, “and that has altered what I took to be my mind.”
He is perplexed by the philosophical problem of free will. He notes that, while the hormone therapy has interrupted his sexual libido, other drives move to fill that vacuum. What is this desire that remains? He’s a determinist (someone who does not believe that there is free will), but still he wonders: where does the illusion of free will come from? Presumably, even the nurse who inflicts this “most extraordinary thing” upon him, making him “a sexless person” to satisfy the law “because she has been told that it is her job,” manages to avoid feeling moral responsibility for this specific action while still believing that she is generally a freely choosing person.
As for the political question of free will, he gives partial answers. People sense “how frail they themselves would be in the face of institutional opposition and stigmatization,” and out of this “intuitive shame,” they oppress others. Furthermore, people who work in large organizations are usually afraid of truth-tellers, as activists are at risk for being “isolated” and “dismissed.” Consequently, most people lie to themselves and don’t stand up for what’s right. As he phrases it: “We agree not to look. It is a simple but profound contract of the collective subconscious with the truth.”
Upon the more private version of the question about what we know and feel and why we choose to act, he broods but cannot weigh in with a final answer. Humans are enigmas in general, even to ourselves, and certainly to each other. Our knowledge, experience, and identity cannot grasp itself. We are conscious insofar as we have this “Godelian element of wonder…something we know we have, but cannot enclose.” Codebreaking, like “a detailed work of art,” is “painstakingly achieved, and yet always a surprise.” Relationships are like that, too. Since we do not even know ourselves, we must also have “respect for not knowing what another person thinks or feels”; this respect for the other “makes us who we are.” Everything we perceive defines us, and yet we cannot be reduced to what we feel. This is “shadow-magician” work, “prophecy”: “it’s you, and how it is to have a life, which is to leave it wondering.”
The narrator had accepted that his passionate feelings for one of his male friends would never be reciprocated, but he had allowed himself to hope that they might live together in a way that was “outrageously Platonic.” He now feels “haunted by his presence,” as the friend “is as near to me as I am near to the person I used to be, and both persons are irretrievable.” It is hard for him to let go of this. How hard it is, indeed, for us to let go of our memories of the way things were and our hopes for what we wanted them to become. The character recalls that, in his anxiety during the Second World War, he bought silver bars, buried them, and never found them again; today, rather than accept that the bars are simply gone and may as well have never existed, he retains the belief in their existence, and thus he feels loss. He likens this to human anxiety over mortality: We resist death mainly because we are attached to what we are now.
One way or another—accidentally or intentionally, with free will or not—events fall into place and form our lives. He visualizes it as “tessellation—where the contours of one form fit perfectly the contours of another.” Escher’s “aesthetics of undecidability” show how everything fits together, but it’s hard to see exactly how and along what lines. If separate shapes fit together perfectly, isn’t it more correct to think of the artwork as an indivisible whole? And are people, too, like those identical, repeating shapes in Escher’s drawings? Isn’t there something in each of us that is unique? Then how do we fit together?
Books, like people, are unique. Murmur is valuable for its first-person narration by a man who claims to have been mentally altered by chemical castration. We don’t know how much of his new perspective is purely the physical effect of castration and how much is the political effect of castration as a tool of humiliation and state control. We don’t know this because—to apply the character’s Escher artwork metaphor—we can’t see where one shape ends and the next begins. The ink lines join as they divide. They look like separate shapes, but they are part of a pattern. For the real Alan Turing, there was no castration that wasn’t an unjust punishment, no castration that didn’t derive its meaning from anti-gay laws following on the heels of the Second World War. Therefore, the fictional character who represents Turing can’t unwrap castration from its personal context in his own life. He can only tell us what his castration means to him; he can implicitly reveal why he killed himself.
In small part, Murmur is a commentary on the overload of modern life. The narrator worries presciently about the “thinking machines” of the future, robots that “will be made to remember everything” and will lack a human grasp of the role of forgetting. He fears that his own introverted human mental murmur may have gotten “stuck in a loop,” having a complete set of facts but remaining “unable to sift any of it.”
Murmur also discusses body dissatisfaction and the effects of hormones. In doing so, it opens questions about our attachment to our assumptions and interpretations of our own bodies. I don’t read this as a transgender narrative at all—I am transgender myself and have paid attention to the narratives of many others like me—but, at the same time, neither is it irrelevant to a transgender perspective. Without using the words 'transgender' or the back-formation 'cisgender' (the words did not exist in Turing’s generation), the story allows us to fit those modern concepts together in an Escherian sketch, as we might come to see how those words can define each other in negative and positive space and join to form a greater whole, describing how different parts of human experience exist in tension with one another.
Furthermore, Murmur entirely avoids an invocation of the “evil eunuch” trope. (This trope is something I’ve investigated in detail; my book of literary criticism, Painting Dragons, was dedicated to it.) In contrast to books that leverage a villain stereotype, Murmur is notable for how moral scrutiny is directed not at the castrated man but instead at the state, as here the state is recognized as having victimized an innocent person. The narrator’s forced castration ultimately destroys him by depriving him of his political freedom and by introducing an unresolved complaint at the root of his desires, yet he is never morally corrupted. He dies trying to break the code.
Click Here to learn more about Murmur and to purchase a copy of the book.
You can find author Will Eaves via his website.
Tucker Lieberman is the author of Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains. His fiction is in Owl Canyon’s anthology No Bars and a Dead Battery and forthcoming in Elly Blue’s anthology The Great Trans-Universal Bike Ride. He had a sex change when the Internet was dial-up, had a same-sex divorce before it was legal in the state he lived in, and wrote Bad Fire: A Memoir of Disruption, a recollection of hallucination. He worked in user experience design and testing for financial software, and he recently appeared on the Robot Eunuchs episode of the Stories We Tell Our Robots podcast. He lives in Bogotá, Colombia with his husband, the science fiction writer Arturo Serrano.