Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Infinities

John Banville's The Infinities is a brilliant comedy. Since Banville won the Booker for The Sea in 2005, some reviewers (including Laura Miller, who reviewed his new book for The New York Times) have hinted that his literary Joycean style can be excessive and off-putting. What's to complain about? This is such an enjoyable book. Charm, humor, and crystal-clear prose are in abundance. The Sea is now on my reading list, too, though I have been trying to break the Cycle of Awards Addiction and not get carried away by reading every one. The Infinities is a very easy, quick, baroque read, with a gorgeous style, and light years superior to the other contemporary novels I've read this year (though, alas, that is not many).

Adam Godley is in a coma and dying. A brilliant mathematician, he is not good with people. His family, who are also not particularly good with people, have gathered at his bedside. But they are not the only ones there. Hermes, the psychopomp, is telling the story; Zeus has spent the early-morning hours having sex with Helen, Adam Jr.'s wife; and Pan visits in the guise of an old friend, Benny Grace.

This quirky novel is set in an alternative world, which at first seems a bit amazing. Godley's mathematical theories destroyed the Relativity Theory and other staunchly-taken-for-granted scientific formulae long ago. The world is powered by alternative energy: cars run on a sea compound of some kind. What? What? I kept thinking at first. I can deal with the gods, but the "rattly old Salsol" threw me for a minute. Banville reveals these things slowly, as though we are in the know.

Hermes shows us the day's events from the point of view of all the members of the family, including Adam himself, who thinks about the past. Especially interesting is Petra, the rather crazy 19-year-old with the shaved head and obsession with compiling an encyclopedia of diseases in a leather notebook with a steel pen. Hermes loves her, and says she'll be coming to the gods early, but not yet.

To give you an idea of Banville's style, here is Adam considering his inability to connect with people:

"I have never been any good in dealing with people. I dare say I am not alone in this sad predicament, but I feel acutely my incompetence in the matter of other folk. You know how it is. Say you are walking down a not particularly crowded street. You spy, at quite a long way off still, out of the corner of your eye, out of the corner of your watchfulness, as it were, a stranger who, you can see, has in his turn become aware of you as you approach him. Even at that distance you both begin to make little adjustments, covert little feints and swerves, so as to avoid eventual collision, all the while pretending to be perfectly oblivous of each other."

Goodness, isn't that exactly the way it is?

I'm very much enjoying this. Two-thirds done, I see no signs of any let-down.


Sigrun said...

Thank you for reminding me of Banville!
I first got to know his literature when he won the Booker prize. I have since read "The Sea" and "Shroud", I really enjoyed them both.
Cleverly intriguing and intellectual challenging - very well written!

Putting "The Infinities" on my list.

Frisbee said...

Yes, I love Banville. This is one of my favorites! I'm glad my list is helpful.

I haven't read The Sea and must put this on MY list.