Book review: 'The Infinities,' by John Banville

(Courtesy Of Knopf - Courtesy Of Knopf)
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By Troy Jollimore
Saturday, March 6, 2010


By John Banville

Knopf. 273 pp. $25.95

When the Irish novelist John Banville won the Booker Prize for his 2005 novel "The Sea," a lot of people thought: It's about time. Banville is frequently compared to such masters as Beckett and Nabokov, and for years his books have been among the most haunting, beautiful and downright strange in contemporary literature. His latest novel, "The Infinities," is haunting, beautiful and perhaps even stranger than those that preceded it.

"The Sea" began with a memorable sentence: "They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide." (Of course, if Banville is capable of writing an unmemorable sentence, he has successfully concealed the evidence.) "The Infinities" takes place in a world in which the gods -- that is, the Olympian gods, Hermes, Zeus and their ilk -- never departed at all. They are still hanging around, passing the time, observing, wryly commenting on and occasionally intervening in the affairs of human beings. "Why in such times as these would the gods come back to be among men?" muses Hermes, who serves as the book's main narrator. "But the fact is we never left -- you only stopped entertaining us. For how should we leave, we who cannot but be everywhere?"

Although Hermes "cannot but be everywhere," he is particularly attached to Arden House, the Irish country home where the distinguished mathematical genius Adam Godley lies dying with his family gathered around him. Adam, whose innovations led to the discovery of cold fusion and thus solved the world's energy crisis, may not seem like an especially dynamic lead character, given the stroke that has left him comatose. But Adam is more alive than it might at first appear. Ursula, his second wife, insists that Adam sometimes opens his eyes and looks at her, and indeed the reader soon discovers that he is still conscious within the decrepit shell of his body. Several of the book's most beautiful and memorable interludes -- Adam's reminiscences, for instance, of a visit to Venice during which he patronized a brothel -- take place entirely within the confines of his head.

These episodes might be narrated by Adam, or they might be related by Hermes himself: Hermes not only reads minds but enters them, and it is often impossible to tell exactly who is in possession of the narrative football. (It is worth noting that in addition to being a patron of cowherds, thieves and liars, Hermes is also a patron of boundaries and of those who cross them.) This might sound frustrating, but in fact the reader's frequent uncertainty as to the identity of the narrator, like the apparent instability of historical fact and the psychological inscrutability of most of the major characters, adds to the novel's power.

"The truly mysterious ones," Hermes says of Adam, "are the ones who are most familiar to him, his sad wife, his neglected offspring, his desired daughter-in-law. That they should have an existence independent of him, and, indeed, of each other, too, is an affront to the laws of -- of what?" The question that ends that contemplation is never definitively answered, like so many of the questions that will confront the reader. Did Adam's son make love to his beautiful wife early this morning, or was her lover in fact the god Zeus in disguise? ("Oh, Dad," the discomfited Hermes groans, more than once, in response to his father's antics.) Is Adam's daughter, who has set herself the task of compiling the first complete list of human diseases, genuinely mad or touched by divinity, or both? What does that highly odd visitor want, what role did he play in Adam's life and is he really, as Hermes suggests, the god Pan in disguise? Why is Arden so oddly isolated from the rest of the world? And why is the novel set in an alternate reality in which Sweden is a warlike nation, in which Goethe is a forgotten writer, and in which Alfred Wallace is popularly credited with the (now discredited!) theory of evolution?

Ultimately, "The Infinities" is a kind of mystery novel, one that respects its mysteries too much to try to resolve them. The real subject of this unforgettable, beautifully written book is nothing less than the enigma of mortal existence. And who better than a cast of lusty, bemused, mischievous and quite possibly imaginary immortals to cast a new light on that?

Jollimore is the author of "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," which won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for 2006.

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