review: the infinities

The Infinities by John Banville (2009)

“Everything blurs around its edges, everything seeps into everything else.  Nothing is separate” (65).

This novel has been on my to-read list for a while, and the first response to that statement might very well be “Why?”.  I have read two other novels by John Banville—The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable.  Both books have a narrative style that take a while to get accustomed to, but once entrenched in the fictional world his frequently unreliable narrators reveal, I find that I want to keep turning the page to see what happens next.  It is true that some readers may find Banville’s narrators reprehensible or unappealing, but as much as this may or may not be the case, the one thing I can say for them is that, for my part, they are all entertaining and complex.  I don’t have to like the narrator to like the narrative.  I think of myself as a fan of Banville’s work, and so I have wanted to read The Infinities since finding it on the shelf at my local bookstore.  Now that I have read it, I find that I am struggling to articulate what I think of the book.

The Infinities gives us a narrator who is, on the surface, the mythological god Hermes (or Mercury, if you will).  Yet, it becomes clear as the narrative unfolds that the narrator is not just Hermes, but also Adam Godley (père), who at the beginning of the novel is comatose after suffering a second stroke and lying on his deathbed at the top of Arden, his family home, in what the inhabitants call the Sky Room and what was previously Adam’s office.  Petra, his daughter, Adam, his son, and his son’s wife, Helen, have come home to attend upon Adam whose death is imminent.  Ursula, Adam’s wife, is also present and waiting upon him.  Banville attributes qualities to some of these characters that are easily recognizable within the mythological allegory he seems to be weaving—Adam at one time wanted to be a gardener (like the first Adam); Helen takes after that other famous Helen whose beauty launched a thousand ships and is pursued throughout the narrative by Zeus, father of the gods; even Ursula is compared to Hera at one point.  About halfway through the novel, the god Pan arrives mysteriously at Arden, and he and Hermes are placed in opposition to each other, the former seeking to create disturbance and the latter seeking to bring order from chaos.  As the narrative unfolds, the mortals (the Godleys, their servants, and one of their guests, Roddy Wagstaff) become the sport of the gods in some way or another, to the point that it is the meddling of the various gods—namely Hermes, Pan, and Zeus—that bring the characters to their “happy” ending.

There are two things that I think make this novel clever.  One is the persistent shifting of the identity of the narrator from Hermes to Adam to Hermes.  This permeability of identity points to one of the main ideas the novel is engaging, suggested by the quote above—that nothing is separate.  Hermes and Adam are not wholly separate entities, and thus we get the slippage that occurs in the text when we’re not sure who is speaking—Hermes or Adam.  Indeed, we come to believe that Hermes is Adam, and Adam is Hermes.  This leads me to the second thing that I like about this novel, which is the way that Banville is playing with the answer to an age old question—where does one thing end and another thing begin?  He does this by doubling his characters—Adam (père) and his son, Adam share the same name and is the most obvious instance.  Banville also doubles Helen and her mythological namesake, Helen of Troy; but it gets more complex and more difficult to distinguish between one thing and another when he doubles Hermes and Adam (père), Hermes and Zeus, Adam (père) and Zeus, and those are only a handful of examples.  Early in the novel the question is raised: “Was everything in the world so intricately linked and yet resistantly disparate?” (63).  This is a question that the novel, in an interesting way, is trying to answer, and how this question engages with the former idea—that nothing is separate but instead one thing flows into another thing—is the level on which I think the novel is completely fascinating.

While I think the novel is clever in the two ideas (or questions, or themes, however you want to label them) that hover over the narrative, I’m not sure that the novel works.  I happened to get a glance of a review of this book where the reviewer stated that the characters weren’t very likable.  Again, I don’t have to like the characters to like the book.  What I do think is faulty about the characters is that I’m not really invested in most of them.  I enjoyed Hermes/Adam as the narrator, seeing what they saw when they looked at the events taking place in Arden.  If I had taught this novel in one of my literature classes, some students would likely say that nothing happens in this novel.  For me, my complaint is not that nothing happens, but rather that I don’t care much about what happens.  This is complicated by the narrative style.  While I like the narrative style, it also further distances me as the reader from the characters, to the point that I didn’t feel any particular attachment to the characters or what was happening to them as they awaited the anticipated event—Adam’s death.

I always ask myself if I would recommend a book to friends and family.  Unfortunately, The Infinities does not make it into my “recommend” category.  There are many aspects of this book that I found thoughtful and provocative, but on the whole, my expectations were disappointed.

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