Books

Ottaviani and Purvis's 'The Imitation Game' Is an Extraordinary Achievement

I thought of the notion of purity of the mind, of a kind of almost frustrating innocence, as I read this new biographical graphic novel about Alan Turing.


The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded

Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
Illustrator: Leland Purvis
Format: Hardcover
Price: $24.95
Author: Jim Ottaviani
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: 2016-03
Amazon

There’s a wonderful flashback scene in season five, episode 10 of Six Feet Under. As his younger sister watches, Nate Fisher (played by Peter Krause) is bent over in his room, listening to “All Apologies” by Nirvana, crying, and smoking a joint. When he sees her staring at him, he chokes up and says, “Kurt Cobain died today. He killed himself. He was just too pure for this world.”

I thought of this notion of purity of the mind, of a kind of almost frustrating innocence, as I read the new, biographical graphic novel, The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, by Jim Ottaviani (and illustrated by Leland Purvis). Turing is lauded today as the “founder” of artificial intelligence -- or what scholar Damien Patrick Williams has dubbed “machine consciousness” -- and as a groundbreaking mathematician and computer scientist who found a way to pursue his love of puzzles and logic while simultaneously helping the British crack Nazi ciphers during the Second World War. Yet, Turing’s genius came at a terrible price, and his innocence became his liability, especially for a British government that did not allow him to enjoy the lifestyle he wanted, all the while benefiting from his knowledge.

I haven’t read a lot of graphic novels, but I'm confident that there's something unique about this one. Ottaviani and Purvis have pulled off something extraordinary -- not really a stream-of-conscious approach, but a writing and artistic style using different narrators that doesn’t transition smoothly, and leaves the reader a bit puzzled as to who exactly is speaking. But that seems precisely the point; Turing’s life was also hard to understand, so this graphic novel tries to approximate the disjunction.

Nowhere is this more evident than the heady undercurrent about sexuality that seems to pulse through the novel. While the nameless narrator -- possibly in the guise of an interviewer talking to different people who knew Turing-- attempts repeatedly to broach the subject of Turing’s homosexuality, Purvis’s illustrations tell a story through not telling. Like Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Killing and Dying, there's an emphasis in The Imitation Game on using art to tell a story sometimes without the need for dialogue, which creates an atmosphere of silent sex. For example, Turing’s sexuality is not even discussed openly until page 77, but there are many allusions towards it in in cels depicting sports-esque ass slapping, and once, just two doors to two adjacent rooms.

In one scene, two half-naked female operators at Bletchley Park comment on the fact that their nudity, necessary due to the high temperatures generated by the machines, would normally be a problem if Turing “wasn’t, you know …” There is even an exchange on page 35 between Turing and James Atkins where the former says, “I’m happy to tutor,” and after exchanging knowing smiles, the latter responds with, “Yes. I know. We’ll see. I could use the help … in math.”

For those who have seen it, it’s impossible to not think or reference the 2014 film version of The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch. Like any movie inspired or based on a literary work, the line between truth and slightly modified truth is hard to distinguish unless one knows the base material well. However, I have to believe that the graphic novel medium allows for a telling/retelling of Turing’s life that does not have to be embellished like that of the big screen.

For example, one of the most poignant scenes in the film version involves Turing, as a boy, returning to the Sherborne School to discover to his utter pain that his best friend, Christopher Morcom, had died and Turing didn’t even know he was ill. When the headmaster tells him the news, he adds that it must be especially hard to hear because it was well known that the two were best friends. However, Alex Lawther, playing the young Turing, assumes a level of stoicism that I thought would be impossible for a child, and just says that he hardly knew Morcom, and he leaves the headmaster’s office, forever changed.

Yet, this is not how the scene plays out in The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded. While we see Turing unaware of Morcom’s illness, we also see him openly distraught, and even taking the steps of writing to Morcom’s parents to let him know how special he thought their late son was. Later, Turing arranges for some of his late friend’s books to be made available to other students at the school in the form of a student prize, which Turing himself wins … twice.

While a graphic novel about science, the content is not casual math or logic puzzles. I frequently found myself lost in trying to understand what was going on. In other words, this is a graphic novel for a fan, and would make a wonderful and well-received present for someone who already had an interest in Turing’s work. In some ways, The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded falls into the “pop science” category, along with books by and about Richard Feynman, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, and John Nash. For example, I am sure many people saw A Beautiful Mind and thought they could understand the Nash Equilibrium and Game Theory just because of what they saw in the film. But then these same people tried to read the book that inspired the movie, written by Sylvia Nassar, and probably realized quickly that reading about math was a heck of a lot different from seeing it on the screen, especially in the context of the famous bar scene in the film and Nash’s “revelation” that “Adam Smith needs revision.”

Yet, despite the higher mathematical understanding of machines and computing that underscores this graphic novel, it's still a very human tale, and one that dwells on someone whose innocence lead to his own death. While it's well known that Turing plead guilty to a charge of engaging in a consensual homosexual relationship, and was forced to undergo chemical castration, I didn't know that Turing actually admitted as such to the police because, well, he didn’t know it was still a crime. He was “too pure”, too different … one of those rare individuals to whom we bow in respect and acknowledge with the title “iconoclast”.

Whatever modern understanding we may impose on him -- Asperger’s Syndrome, savant, closeted -- still does not get at what made this man so unique. Paraphrasing Brian Wilson, Turing just wasn’t made for these times. We are, of course, very lucky that he was there, during World War II.

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