Rating: 8.5 / 10
The quest for truth is a theme that has been revisited countless times in the annals of literature. Whether personal or universal, truth is something of an obsession for many writers.
Columbia University scientist Janna Levin is no exception, as her first work of fiction, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines” can easily be added to the list of “truth books.”
A thoughtful and well-written first novel, “A Madman Dreams” is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the mysteries of the universe – or of the human mind.
It tells the stories of three great, but tortured minds – Kurt Godel, the ingenious logician who composed the incompleteness theorems, stating that not all of mathematics can ever be proven; Alan Turing, the gifted mathematician who broke the Nazis’ “enigma code” during World War II; and Levin herself, the 21st century physicist and astronomer obsessed with the lives of the two mad geniuses.
Theirs are stories that shape and parallel
each other, but never quite intersect.
Delusional and paranoid, Godel manages
to forever alter the study of logic before being driven out of his native Austria after Nazi occupation. In the end, however, he is unable to escape his personal demons, inadvertently starving himself to death in a New Jersey hospital during a particularly acute bout of paranoia. Turing’s ending is also an unhappy one. Driven apart from his peers by both his homosexuality
and his almost sociopathic awkwardness,
Turing takes his own life, lonely and misunderstood. Neither man, for all their genius in deciphering the universal, is able to sort through his own, more personal truth.It is this truth that Levin turns her eye to, not as a scientist but as a fellow human being.
Casting aside her lab coat, she picks up her pen as an artist, determined to solve the mysteries of these mad geniuses, the mysteries left untouched by decades of biographical writing.
“The unsorted catalog of biographical facts,” writes Levin, “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 by proven by adhering the rules.”
The story told by Levin may not be entirely true, but what it lacks in authenticity, it more than makes up for in the strength of her prose. For a scientist, Levin is an unusually talented writer, leading the reader unscathed and relatively unconfused through the complicated logic of both Godel and Turing. Her prose might cause the unknowing to assume she is a member of Columbia’s English faculty, rather than physics or astronomy.
Though it revisits an oft-used theme in its quest for truth, “A Madman Dreams” reads as fresh and thoughtful. The sparklingly clear prose of her dual fictional biography leaves the reader wondering if Levin is incorrect when she writes: “Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.”
Peter Chomko can be reached at email@example.com.