A MADMAN DREAMS OF TURING MACHINES by Janna Levin

A MADMAN DREAMS OF TURING MACHINES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In her first novel, Levin, using two mathematical geniuses, showcases the life of the mind.

The Austrian Kurt Gödel (1906–78) and the British Alan Turing (1912–54) never met, but they were intensely aware of each other’s work. Levin, a mathematics professor, cuts between their life stories. We meet Gödel in 1931 at a café gathering of the Vienna Circle founded by philosophy professor Moritz Schlick (later murdered by a Nazi student). Its members, in Wittgenstein’s shadow, oppose religion and mysticism. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems cause him to break reluctantly with Moritz, another tribulation for a paranoid individual fearful of food poisoning. Despite being mothered by his guardian angel Adele, a nightclub dancer, he must spend time in a sanatorium before leaving for the U.S. and Princeton with Adele. Years later, he will die there from self-starvation, bitter at inadequate professional recognition, unlike Turing. The Englishman now has the higher profile, thanks to the successful play Breaking the Code. His difficulties begin in boarding school, where some boys bury him beneath floorboards. He’s rescued from this traumatic ordeal by his friend Chris, the (unrequited) love of Turing’s life. At Cambridge, Turing rejects God, embraces materialism, debates Wittgenstein and dreams of thinking machines. As a Government cryptographer during the war, he breaks the Germans’ Enigma Code, an important contribution to the Allied victory. But Turing’s homosexuality catches up with him, dooming his engagement to a fellow cryptographer. After the war, involved with a thief, he guilelessly incriminates himself and is sentenced to castration. A broken man, he kills himself by eating a poisoned apple. Levin highlights intriguing details (apples, blue liquids, visits to psychics) that unite these tormented men, whose intellectual journeys may give readers a frisson. It’s a fair bet, however, that the lurid material will resonate more, and that their achievements as trailblazers will be overshadowed by, their plight as victims.

Levin writes with elegant precision, but ultimately her account, hewing closely to the record, adds little to what’s already available.

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 2006
ISBN: 1-4000-4030-2
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2006