Tuesday, 22 September 2009

John Banville: The Infinities

I opened this book with great anticipation; I love John Banville's writing - the way he uses words, shapes sentences. But initially I was disappointed, because I realised straight away that I had read the first chapter of the book already. This first section was published in 2007 as a short story in the Faber Book of Irish Short Stories. I loved it as a story - so much that I rushed out to buy The Sea and anything else of Banville's that was in stock. So you can see that I have really looked forward to publication of The Infinities. After my first reaction, I swallowed my disappointment - after all what is to stop an author expanding a really good story into a novel? - and read on to discover how he was going to develop his ideas further.

The story centres on the Godley family - a dysfunctional Irish family - alcoholic wife - self-harming daughter - emotionally inadequate son - beautiful, though rather detached daughter-in-law - who have all assembled at the family home - a rambling, ramshackle mansion somewhere in Ireland - to wait for the death of Adam Godley, who has sunk into coma following a massive stroke. Adam is a world famous mathematician, who can deal with numbers but not relationships. He is celebrated for puncturing the pretentious 'Theory of Everything' as well as exposing the 'relativity hoax'. Chaos Theory had already discovered that it wasn't the perfect equations that were important, but the imperfect - the ones that mathematicians left alone because they couldn't be worked out - the numbers that scuttled off into the dark mysteries of Infinity. Adam's achievement was to place The Infinities at the centre of the universe, where they make perfect sense, causing the kind of revolution not seen since Einstein.

The action takes place during a single day in summer. Adam, deeply unconscious, can hear everything and reflect on his life and relationships. For the family, he is already dead and his presence, in the Sky Room at the top of the house, haunts the novel.

The narration is in the omniscient mode, but in this case the narrator really is god - the son of Zeus, who also features in the story - all the Immortals inhabiting a parallel universe. This initially bothered me and I had to struggle to bridge the credibility gap - I was fine when the author was inside the minds of his characters, but when the gods began to comment, Banville lost me. But then I began to realise that the novel really needed these Immortals. I can't remember which author it was who wrote 'Never discuss ideas except in terms of character and temperament', but this is one of the uses John Banville makes of the deities. They are a device to discuss and comment on human behaviour, difference and the nature of reality. They also ponder on the benefits and drawbacks of immortality, which is, it seems, sometimes too much of a good thing. But no-one wants to die. Not Adam Godley, or John Banville, who thinks that life is like a wonderful party he doesn't want to leave.

Consciousness of our own mortality is the thing that is supposed to separate us from the animal kingdom. The dog Rex, observes the way in which this knowledge affects human beings.
'There is a thing the matter with them, though, with all of them. It is a great puzzle to [Rex], this mysterious knowledge, unease, foreboding, whatever it is that afflicts them, and try though he may he has never managed to solve it. They are afraid of something, something that is always there though they pretend it is not. It is the same for all of them, the same huge terrible thing, except for the very young, though even in their eyes, too, he sometimes fancies he detects a momentary widening, a sudden horrified dawning. He discerns this secret and awful awareness underneath everything they do.'

What is our place in the universe? At times the novel seems to suggest that we are the playthings of the gods who are capricious and fond of jokes. The Immortals have an additional function in that they do add humour (Pan is unforgettable) to what otherwise could have been a rather bleak situation. And they are also necessary to make the ending (no spoilers here!) work.

I still find it hard to look at the book as a whole - I can still see the first section as a story - densely written, beautifully shaped. The rest of the book is thinner, inevitably stretched. I can't quite see it as the blurb promises 'A gloriously earthy romp and a delicately poised, infinitely wise look at the terrible and wonderful plight of being human', but the writing is everything you would expect from such a brilliant author.

John Banville talking about mortality on You Tube.


  1. "the narrator really is god - the son of Zeus, who also features in the story"

    But is it really? My money says the whole thing is just old Adam's death dream.

  2. That's a really interesting theory Castor. And it would tie in with the Grace character being in both parallel worlds. But I'm not sure - will probably have to read the book again now to find out!

  3. Loved the Utube extract of JB hesitating over thoughts of his own death. I remember the short story but now I'm not so keen, in a book-riven world, to spend time reading the book. I think there is a real problem in a novel evolving from a short story. Like an unravelled jumper remade into a coat with added wool it will never be right, having lost its integrity. But then I haven't read the book and shouldn't comment ...

  4. I love the image of the jumper made from unravelled wool - yes, you've put your finger on it. But maybe only the people who read the original story will notice.
    x kj

  5. "it would tie in with the Grace character being in both parallel worlds."

    Not sure what you're meaning there cause while the book allows for the existence of parallel worlds I'm pretty certain there's no travelling between them in the book - the world narrated by 'Hermes' is the same as the world narrated by Godley.

    If you're curious, JB did an interesting interview on Irish radio recently - you can hear it here http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2009/pc/pod-v-180909-24m08s-arena-banville.mp3