Janna Levin’s book is an odd one: written about two mathematicians, focused on mathematical ideas, but with virtually no specific mathematical discussion. The book dances elegantly around the real meat of the lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Godel, but shows it all from the perspective of an outsider focused on emotions. This is freely admitted in the concluding notes:
The depth and magnitude of both Turing and Godel’s ideas are only barely touched upon here.
While this is a novel and not a reference work, one nonetheless feels that Godel and Turing would think it captures mostly what was not essential about their lives.
Putting words and thoughts into fictitious forms of historical figures is always a dangerous business, because it carries with it the false precision of reasoned invention. The danger that the speculation could be wrong is constant, so the book takes on the feeling of a friend-of-a-friend story, while maintaining the trappings of an omniscient direct account. The book also fixates far too much on apples, in an attempt to set up the story of Turing’s suicide.
The book’s strength lies in conveying the tragedy and isolation that seems to be the burden of most of the greatest mathematicians. The contrast between being able to perform mental feats beyond the capacity of almost everyone, while being largely unable to perform the basic actions of a normal life, has long been rich material for writers. In this sense, Turing comes off much stronger; by the end, the account of Godel’s life is both pathetic and pitiable. At least Turing is driven to suicide by the homophobic cruelty of others – Godel just stumbles into it through deepening paranoia.
While the book made for satisfying reading, I much prefer the math-related non-fiction works of Simon Singh. His Code Book includes an admirable description of the breaking of Enigma. In Fermat’s Last Theorem Singh also does a good job of telling about the lives of mathematicians, without ignoring the math. Something comparable on Godel’s incompleteness theorem would make more satisfying reading than this novel.