A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is a most unusual novel.  For one thing, the author is a professor not of English or literature but of physics and astronomy at Barnard; her other book is How the Universe Got its Spots:  Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space.  For another, the plot is an imaginative linking of the parallel lives of two mathematicians, Kurt Gödel (known foremost for his incompleteness theorem) and Alan Turing (who went mostly unrecognized during his lifetime for breaking Germany’s Enigma Code in WW2).  Further, the stories of these two men are told by a mysterious narrator, whose opening paragraphs reveal the themes and the style that make this such an unusual book:

“There is no beginning.  I’ve tried to invent one but it was a lie and I don’t want to be a liar.  This story will end where it began, in the middle.  A triangle or a circle.  A closed loop with three points.

At one apex is a paranoid lunatic, at another is a lonesome outcast:  Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of many centuries; and Alan Turing, the brilliant code breaker and mathematician.  Their genius is a testament to our own worth, an antidote to insignificance; and their bounteous flaws are luckless but seemingly natural complements, as though greatness can be doled out only with an equal measure of weakness.

These two people converge in history and diverge in belief.  They act out lives that are only tangentially related and deaths that are written for each other, inverted reflections.  They are both brilliantly original and outsiders.  They are both loyal to reason and to truth.  They are both besotted with mathematics.  But for all their devotion, mathematics is indifferent, unaltered by any of the dramas—Gödel’s psychotic delusions, Turing’s sexuality.  One plus one will always be two.  Their broken lives are mere anecdotes in the margins of their discoveries.  But then their discoveries are evidence of our purpose, and their lives are parables on free will.  Against indifference, I want to tell their stories.

Don’t our stories matter?

I shouldn’t even be here but some things you can only get to in the most awkward ways.   Even if I tried to hide it, to lie, the truth is it’s still me telling this story.  The unsorted catalogue of biographical facts provides nothing without stories with their dents and omissions and sometimes outright lies to create meaning that just won’t emerge from the debris of unassembled facts.  Because some truths can never be proven by adhering to the rules.  So this whole story about Truth is a Lie.  The liar says, This is a lie.

I am that liar, the third and final point on the triangle, the weak link, the wobbling hinge, the misaligned vertex.  I am meant to carry on from the previous point and give over to the next.  But I don’t know where to begin…”

What follows is a remarkable meditation on determinism and free will, on the existence (or not) of God and the beauty of mathematics, on the seemingly inverse proportions of infallibility to intelligence.  Levin takes up the “unsorted catalogue of biographical facts” about these men and interweaves “dents and omissions” to create—in a handful of scenes—an intimate and plausible portrait.  

And it is a portrait rendered with striking beauty.  Levin employs scientific language to sumptuous, palpable effect, as a few more excerpts will demonstrate:

“The iron frame of Kurt’s bed was a brutal conductor of the chill singeing his hand so sharply as he hoisted himself awake this morning that it might as well have left a burn, and the cloud of condensation that escaped from his damp mouth could have been smoke.”

“The Circle doesn’t take shape until Moritz Schlick arrives.  He enters like a gale, his entrance embellished by a curl of eddies in his wake that flow around the door and into the room…  As he rocks into a chair, hands are waved, more coffees are ordered, and in the darkening room, darker than the ebbing day, they all begin to settle amid the clanking dishes, knocking elbows, their collective weight leveraged inward.  The table wobbles as cups rise and fall and a circle forms.”

“His glasses beaded with water.  Liquid pebbles refracted all images that struck his spectacles to create a melted kaleidoscope.”

“He doesn’t know how to voice his humiliation or even how to experience it.  It rattles around in him like a broken part, dislodged and loose in his metal frame.”

“In the comfort of the soft fold of his arm, his face sizzled under fruit-sized tears that boiled off and dried to mineral salt on his stinging jaw.  Alan was drenched in loneliness so viscous he couldn’t believe it wasn’t an actual substance.”

Readers who appreciate careful attention to language will find a feast here.  So will those with an interest in mathematics, philosophical arguments for God’s existence, or the personalities of the Vienna Circle. 

I was introduced to this novel by an interview last year with Levin on Speaking of Faith, a favorite podcast.  Brandon and I were intrigued by the discussion and the excerpts featured on the broadcast, and later he bought me the book.  It was the first novel I read in January, and here at the mid-point of March it still ranks as the most provocative and strangely beautiful text I have read this year. I hope you will wrestle with it and then come back to tell me of your discoveries.

13. March 2009 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 2 comments