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"Birth and death are sources, it seems, out of which mortal ones derive their sensations of love and loss.",
This review is from: The Infinities (Hardcover)
John Banville, in his first "literary" novel since his Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea, presents a most unusual novel which takes place in Arden, a large family home somewhere in Ireland or England, as the family gathers to pay homage to the dying patriarch, Adam Godley. Godley, who has had a stroke and is thought to be unconscious, is a mathematician renowned for having posited an "exquisite concept, time's primal particle, the golden egg of Brahma from the broken yolk of which flowed all creation...the infinities." Gathering round him are his much younger wife Ursula, who has a drinking problem; his son Adam and his beautiful actress wife Helen, who bears more than a little resemblance to Helen of Troy; and his strange daughter Petra in whom there is "something missing," a young woman who is working on an "encyclopedia of morbidity." Several servants and and guests are in attendance, and an assortment of Greek gods, invisible to all, are also very much present--disguising themselves as people and sneaking in and out of their personalities-and even beds.
Hermes, the son of Zeus, is the primary narrator, commenting on what is happening in the house and among the characters, while, at the same time, keeping an eye on his father, the randy Zeus. As Hermes explains, having himself been attracted to one of the women present, "You must understand, a god is not a gentleman and likes nothing better than to trifle with a lady's affections, but," he believes, "there are rules that apply even to a divinity, and it was incumbent on me to proceed with caution and deference, if the niceties of the game were to be preserved."
Through the additional points of view of Benny Grace, and, surprisingly, Adam Godley himself, the lives of the characters take shape. Adam Godley's past, his youth, his first marriage, his wife's suicide, and his marriage to Ursula are revisited, while the others all deal with complications in their love lives, made more complicated by the tinkering of the gods. When various characters disappear from the house for assignations in various bowers, wooded and otherwise, the novel begins to resemble A Midsummer Night's dream, and the huge thunderstorm which breaks before they can all return, brings the action to its climax.
The novel often resembles a farce, but it lacks the spontaneity that makes that genre so much fun. Instead, it feels as if every aspect of the novel has been composed and organized to the nth degree. At times it also feels like a novel of ideas, but those ideas are often murky. Clearly, he is commenting on life, and love, and death, all ideas which interest Hermes, since the gods share none of these experiences, yet the novel does not seem to jell. The characters' names suggest a modern allegory, but the disguises and the mischief of the gods complicate the characters' lives, and the reader cannot always be sure which characters are real and which are the incarnations of various gods. While the novel is sometimes fun to read, it seems stuck halfway between reality and infinity-not quite an "entertainment," a la Graham Greene with his mystery novels, but not quite the serious novel that his Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea represents. Not a comedy despite its absurdity, and a bit amorphous for serious literary fiction, this Banville novel is a puzzle in terms of the author's intentions but still fun to read. Mary Whipple