review: bitter reckoning

Bitter Reckoning by Heather Graham (2018)

You know how you read a book by a prolific writer, and you think to yourself: Self, this book just doesn’t feel like it was written by the same person who wrote the other books in this series I love so much. Yeah, that feeling. Moving on.

Bitter Reckoning is (technically) the sixth book in the Cafferty & Quinn series, which you will likely find in the mystery or suspense category of your favorite bookstore (don’t be fooled—the main characters are in a committed, loving relationship, but these books aren’t romance novels). If you haven’t stumbled upon this series yet, please find the first book, Let the Dead Sleep (and if you’re on a book budget like me, you’ll be glad to know that this book is available through my local library in both physical and e-book format). Furthermore, I don’t want to bury the lede here. Let the Dead Sleep, Wake the Dead, and The Dead Play On are the primary books in this series. If you haven’t read any of these books, focus on those three and then if you feel like you must, you can read the…off-shoots. If you have read the first three books in this series, well, maybe you want to stop there. Continue reading

review: loitering with intent

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark (1981)

I discovered Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark by accident last year when I was reviewing novels to teach in a class focused on the 20th century British novel.  I just completed my third reading of this book, and with each reading I like it more and more.

The protagonist of the novel is Fleur Talbot.  Fleur is writing her memoir, and the specific period of time she is recounting is the middle of the twentieth century, from September 1949 to June 30, 1950.  As she unfolds the events of the past, we learn that it was during this time that Fleur was writing her first novel, Warrender Chase.  Because she wasn’t yet a successful, published author, it was in September 1949 that she found herself in need of a job, and her search leads to a secretarial position with the Autobiographical Association, established and led by Sir Quentin Oliver.  Fleur explains that the purpose of the members of the Autobiographical Association is to write their memoirs and once completed, to lock them away for seventy years in order to avoid any accusations of libel.  One of Fleur’s responsibilities is to edit the drafts of the memoirs, but she takes the liberty of “livening up” the memoirs by adding events, details, and people that never really happened or existed.  Though the writers at first find the changes disturbing, they eventually allow and accept them to the point that they begin to believe fiction to be reality.  Further still, the nature of Fleur’s own autobiography becomes questionable when we come to learn of the two autobiographies she admires most—that of John Henry Newman which she calls a “beautiful piece of poetic paranoia” and that of Benvenuto Cellini which appears to embellish the truth to the extent that it is difficult to believe everything in it to be true.  Consequently, the reader questions whether Fleur’s autobiography is a piece of poetic paranoia or if it is embellished to the point of fabrication.  Or is it a little of both?  These threads of the narrative allow Spark to deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction and question the nature of autobiography.

The line between fact and fiction is further blurred by Fleur as she relates the creation and evolution of her first novel, Warrender Chase.  As the story continues, it becomes difficult to be sure if Fleur is telling us the truth when she claims that none of the characters or the plot of her novel were inspired by Sir Quentin, his mother Lady Edwina, or the members of the Autobiographical Association.  Particularly when Sir Quentin and the Autobiographical Association begin to act out some of the events that occur in Warrender Chase.  It is also difficult to determine if Fleur has not only written a work of fiction but also created the “real” individuals that populate her memoir. Throughout the story, Fleur tells her friend Dottie that she could have invented Sir Quentin, and even Dottie becomes a character type for Fleur—an English Rose—a character type that appears in her novel.  The result is that readers not only question whether or not Fleur, who is writing her memoir, is actually a reliable narrator but also what parts of Fleur’s memoir are fact and which parts are fiction.  The answers to these questions are certainly left up to the interpretation of the reader.

Beyond the questions of what is real and what is fantasy, Fleur Talbot is a wonderful example of an emerging modern woman of the 20th century.  In fact, Fleur’s refusal to submit to male dominance and traditional expectations for women makes her a refreshing character in terms of how women placed within a mid-20th century setting are typically represented.  She is career-oriented, ambitious, and focused upon success and achieving her goals, and though she is not by any stretch “perfect” and some readers will question her morality, she’s appealing as a character, and her characterization is one of the many strengths of the novel.

Another of those strengths is the way Fleur reflects upon her development as a writer.  More than once she remarks on how wonderful it was to be a woman and a writer in the middle of the twentieth century.  As I was teaching this book last week, I contemplated whether this novel fits into the category of a Kunstlërroman (“novel of the artist”).  We don’t see Fleur’s coming of age and development as an artist from childhood, so perhaps in the strictest sense it doesn’t fit this category.  And yet, I want to put it in this category.  Fleur’s recollections about writing her first novel and how she sees herself as a consummate observer of human experiences and emotions so that she can incorporate those into her fiction offers an interesting look at how Fleur understands the craft of writing (and, I suspect this applies to Spark as well).  For someone who writes, it’s an interesting look into how one person (even a fictional person) finds inspiration.

Loitering with Intent is definitely one of my recommended reads.  The story is entertaining and neither Fleur nor the novel takes itself too seriously; and yet at the same time the complexity of the interlocking narratives, the ambiguous line between fact and fiction, and the presence of a strong protagonist make it easy for me to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  I will say that getting my hands on this book proved a bit of challenge initially, but if you can find a copy, give it a try.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

review: the unicorn

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch (1963)

“Everyone here is involved in guilt.”

The Unicorn is the first novel by Iris Murdoch that I have read.  The narrative weaves in elements of the Gothic, the allegorical, and the mythical, and it does so within the framework of suspense.  There’s a lot going on in this novel, and by the end, Murdoch leaves it up to the reader to determine what it all means.  Some readers will be frustrated by Murdoch’s ambiguity and that the meaning of the story is open to a wide variety of interpretations.

The story begins when Marian Taylor, a thirty-year-old former schoolteacher, arrives at Gaze Castle to perform the duties of governess.  When she arrives, she learns that she is not to be a governess, but instead a lady’s companion to Hannah Crean-Smith, owner of the big house in what is presumably the Irish countryside.  Gaze and the surrounding lands are repeatedly characterized as being ancient, alien, and isolating, and its inhabitants and their ways are more akin to people living in medieval times, not a mid-20th century Western society.  Perhaps the epitome of this is that upon Marian’s arrival at the train station, she searches for a way to get to Gaze and someone recommends that she travel there by horse.  Arriving at Gaze is like going back in time, and it frightens Marian.  What worries her most though is the revelation that for the last seven years, Hannah has been effectively imprisoned at Gaze by her husband, Peter Crean-Smith.  The other inhabitants of the house—Gerald Scottow, Violet Evercreech, Jamesie Evercreech, and Denis Nolan—are her jailers.  Marian wants to help Hannah escape from Gaze, and the question of how to release Hannah from her prison drives much of the plot.

The narrative structure of the novel offers the events of the story through two points of view—Marian’s and Effingham Cooper’s.  Effingham (or Effie) is a frequent visitor at Riders, the only other house within miles of Gaze.  Riders is the home of Effie’s mentor, Max Lejour, and his adult children, Alice and Pip.  Alice has been in love with Effie for years, but he’s paid no attention to her though his egoism is such that he hasn’t spurned her entirely.  Effie, like Marian, is an outsider, and he fancies himself to be in love with Hannah.  Although he is an outsider, he also shares in the guilt of keeping Hannah prisoner in the form of inaction and because he likes the idea of Hannah being sequestered and shut-up, deluding himself into thinking that she is being shut-up just for him.  At last, Marian convinces Effie to help her break Hannah out of the prison-house.  The consequences of this attempt, the reasons for Hannah’s imprisonment, the meaning of Hannah’s suffering, and the ways in which the characters respond to that suffering and see it as being significant, drive the plot to its somewhat ambiguous climax and conclusion.

The title of the novel is an image that finds its figurative representation in the character of Hannah.  Through a conversation between Max and Effie, we are told that the unicorn is a Christ-like image in that it is an innocent creature that is captured and turned into a scapegoat, sacrificed to purge away the sins and crimes of others.  This is the allegorical aspect of the novel, but this is a modern allegory in that the meaning of Hannah’s suffering is not interpreted for us.  As readers we have to decide what her suffering means, if it means anything at all.  Iris Murdoch doesn’t tell readers what to think in this novel, and I like that.  On the other hand, I did find the novel a bit frustrating.  In order to leave the interpretation of the story up to the reader, there has to be a certain level of ambiguity.  It’s that very ambiguity, however, that I find frustrating.  There were several moments when I wasn’t all sure what had just happened or what was going on.  Admittedly, while this irked me, it kept me turning the page, and after finishing the novel, I still find myself thinking about it and puzzling it through and modifying my interpretation of the story.  I’ve always thought that that was one mark of a great book, so on that level the story succeeds in capturing my interest and making me think.

On the other hand, while The Unicorn made me think, I’m not sure how much I liked it.  Because we get the story through two different points of view, there’s an element of psychological realism in the novel. We get to see how everything that is happening is impacting the psyches of both characters.  We spend a lot of time in each person’s head, and so there are a lot of interior monologues throughout the novel, and less dialogue.  I found this to be a bit tedious, though why exactly I can’t say because normally this doesn’t bother me in a novel.  Perhaps I just didn’t find Marian and Effie’s thoughts to be sufficiently interesting, or maybe it’s that I wasn’t as invested in them as characters.  I understand the purpose of multiple points of view, but I wonder if I would have felt more engaged if there had only been one.  When rating this novel elsewhere I gave it two of five stars, and now that it’s time for me to decide whether or not I would recommend it to other readers, I’m still conflicted and undecided.  While I enjoyed teaching this novel in a college literature course and I got good response to it from a handful of students, I don’t think I would recommend it to friends.  In fact, I would recommend a lot of other books before even thinking about The Unicorn.  In the end, I’m glad I can finally say that I’ve read a novel by Iris Murdoch, but I’m not exactly rushing to the bookstore to purchase another.

review: nineteen eighty-four

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

When I started reading Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, I thought to myself “How is it that I haven’t read this book before?”.  It is, after all, responsible for several words within our common, everyday lexicon—Big Brother, the Thought Police, and double-think, to name only a handful. Now that I have finished the novel, my opinion of it has definitely undergone some change.

One thing I discovered by reading the novel is that I didn’t actually know what it was about.  The narrative follows Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old man who lives in Oceania, one of the three “superpowers” of the world (the other two are Eastasia and Eurasia, and Oceania is constantly at war with one or the other).  Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to alter historical records so that the “official history” of Oceania says what Big Brother wants it to say, and so that no evidence exists that could challenge Big Brother’s power.  This includes erasing all traces of the existence of individuals who are guilty of thoughtcrime—that is, having thoughts that are contrary to the collective thinking Big Brother mandates.  That the past is mutable and alterable and that people can be so completely wiped out of existence bothers Winston to the extreme, and this is exacerbated by his memories of the past, which contradict the official history.  What Winston wants is privacy from the constant surveillance he and everyone else in the Party is under, history to be fixed and unchangeable, and to possess absolute control over his mind and thoughts. He wants to know that in his own mind he is free to think what he wants with impunity, and this is exemplified in his desire to always be able to say that two plus two equals four, even when Big Brother would force him to believe that two plus two equals five.  Winston wants freedom of thought, and this puts him into direct opposition with what Big Brother wants—to control the minds and thoughts of all Party members.  In Big Brother’s mind, controlling thought is the royal road to perpetual power.  As the story unfolds, Winston falls into a relationship with Julia and forms a strong attachment to an Inner Party member named O’Brien, whom he believes to be working with a resistance movement to take down Big Brother.  As you might expect, everything that Winston fears the most and yet at the same time longs for occur, and inexorably he is brought to what can only be understood as an inevitable, hopeless conclusion.

Orwell was writing this novel in the years just after World War II had ended, and so that has to be taken into consideration when reading the novel, because otherwise the fatalistic, hopeless tone might be much harder to understand.  The novel is also a dystopia and so the world of Oceania and Winston’s life are intended to be cautionary tales to the reader.  It warns against complacency and suggests that the reward for such complacency is the kind of life that Winston lives. I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and its depiction of death-in-life.  That is precisely the kind of life Winston is living—he is already dead even though his body is still alive.  Perhaps one thing Orwell intends to suggest is that without privacy, without intellectual freedom, the individual is dead. Of course, this is not all Orwell is warning against.  The dangers of propaganda, favoring collective thought over individual thought, and the consequences of a society in a constant state of war are also things he is warning against.  Indeed, the world that Orwell creates in Nineteen Eighty-Four is more than bleak and inhospitable, it is hell on Earth.  Winston’s fate at the end of the novel only makes this hell more intolerable in that there is no chance or hope that anything else could have happened.

I was reading an article about this novel in which the author suggests that the novel perhaps doesn’t deserve its place as a great book that it currently enjoys in the literary canon.  I thought such a statement preposterous. In my experience so much is made of Nineteen Eighty-Four that I couldn’t imagine such a statement being true.  And yet, now that I’ve read the novel, I understand what the writer was saying.  The novel is divided into three parts, and the third part is hard to pin down. It takes place almost entirely within the Ministry of Love (in which political prisoners are tortured) and the story shows us what happens to Winston after he becomes a political prisoner; however, it seems to me that this is where the novel loses its tension.  I stopped caring about what would happen to Winston, and I can’t completely explain why, but I know this lack of tension is one explanation.  What this final section did show was the power of Big Brother and the futility in trying to defy him.  The thing is, I don’t expect a dystopia to only be a cautionary tale.  I expect it to offer some kind of hope or idea for how the kind of world that is being portrayed could be avoided.  Nineteen Eighty-Four does not offer that.  Instead, Winston capitulates, and nothing has changed.  He believes that two plus two equals five, and Big Brother has complete control of his mind and his thoughts. Big Brother has won, and we have no other choice but to believe that his reign will indeed last forever.

My final analysis is that I came into my reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four with a set of assumptions and expectations based upon what I thought I knew about the book.  Maybe my expectations were too high, and that’s why the book feels like a bit of a disappointment.  Still, I would recommend reading the book because I do think it continues to be relevant in the 21st century.

 

 

review: a scanner darkly

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)

It’s taken me some time to write this review.  I like to start these reviews by giving a brief synopsis of the novel, but getting down in one short paragraph what this novel is about has been a challenge.  A Scanner Darkly follows the story of Fred, an undercover narcotics agent living in Southern California.  Fred’s true identity is supposed to be a secret from everyone, even his handler at the police department, Hank.  In order to maintain his anonymity, Fred meets Hank in a “scramble suit” that continuously scrambles his exterior features, obtaining such characteristics as eye and hair color and other facial features from a database containing millions of possibilities.  Fred’s job is to gather information on and eventually bring to justice various drug dealers, specifically those who deal in Substance D, which alters a person’s brain to the point that it separates his or her left and right hemispheres and ultimately leads to brain death.  Early in the narrative, Hank tasks Fred with the job of conducting surveillance on a man that the police believe may be a major player in the Substance D drug trade—Bob Arctor.  Bob Arctor shares a house with two other “heads”—Barris and Luckman—and he has an unrequited love for Donna, also a drug addict.  The wrinkle is that Fred is Bob Arctor, and so his job is to conduct surveillance on himself.  In his identity as Bob Arctor, he is also addicted to Substance D.  As the narrative unfolds, Fred begins to suffer the effects of Substance D to the point that he forgets that he and Arctor are one and the same person.  One of the primary means of surveillance are “holo-scanners” and as Fred begins to watch the surveillance tapes from the scanners, he comes to see Bob Arctor—the man in the surveillance tapes—as his dark image.  It is in this way that Dick plays upon the biblical verse from I Corinthians 13 which talks of seeing “through a glass darkly.”

The wonderful thing about A Scanner Darkly is that it is making meaning on so many different levels.  On one level, it is a social commentary on how drug addicts are perceived in our culture.  Dick is exploring the ways in which drug lords are able to manipulate supply and demand in order to make money and how these drug lords ruthlessly profit from their customers, unconcerned about the life-altering affects of the drugs they push. While Dick’s commentary is on the drug trade, it can apply to so many other aspects of our contemporary life—pharmaceuticals is the first thing that comes to mind.  So this novel, though published in 1977, is still culturally relevant.

On another level, the novel is exploring questions of identity.  Fred is Bob Arctor, but his ability to remember that fact breaks down as the story progresses as a result of his addiction to Substance D.  His left and right hemispheres separate entirely and fail to communicate but instead compete with each other, so that Fred and Arctor—instead of working together to avoid capture—become adversaries.  In the last fifty pages of the novel or so, Fred receives another identity, and this further complicates his ability to know who he is as well as define his identity.  Another thing that complicates Fred’s identity is the scramble suit.  While wearing it, the image reflected in a mirror is not his own, further distorting his sense of his own identity.  For Fred, identity is fluid, changeable, and available for manipulation, and once he loses his identity as Bob Arctor, he effectively loses a part of himself.  Indeed, it seems as though Dick is playing with that “what if” question that Robert Louis Stevenson was playing with in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—what if we could divorce our “better” half from our “worse” half?  What would happen?  I wouldn’t call this a Jekyll and Hyde story, but shades of that story do resonate through A Scanner Darkly.

On still another level, A Scanner Darkly is a dystopian fiction.  The story itself is set in 1992, fifteen years in the future.  This device allows Dick to imagine how a drug as deadly and widely abused as Substance D could impact a society and have a forceful effect on the norms and values of that society.  It also acts as a cautionary tale and encourages the reader to consider how other addictions—chemical or not—effectively trap and keep its victim in bondage.

I picked up this book because I am in the early stages of planning an introductory level literature course for Spring 2013.  My initial title for the course is “From Page to Screen” and the course would give students the chance to read the text upon which its film counterpart was based.  I’m not sure I would have picked this book up otherwise, but I’m glad that I did.  Dick’s narrative style here is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling.  We get the story (mostly) through Fred’s perspective, and as his brain begins to suffer the effects of Substance D and his ability to discern his full reality disintegrates, so too does his ability to narrate in a coherent fashion break down.  It doesn’t go into stream of consciousness, but it does alter, and as a reader I felt my own level of confusion at the same time that Fred himself (or Bob Arctor) was also confused about what was happening.  He loses the ability to know what is real and what isn’t, and as readers, we experience the same difficulty.  For me, that’s one of the things that makes this novel brilliant.

A Scanner Darkly is definitely one of my Recommended Reads.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I do think it will make you think, and isn’t that one of the things a good book should accomplish?

 

review: the lady in the lake

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943)

This is the fourth novel featuring Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private detective, Philip Marlowe.  The story begins with Marlowe meeting his client, Derace Kingsley.  Kingsley wants Marlowe to find his wife, Crystal Kingsley, who hasn’t been seen by anyone in a month.  Mrs. Kingsley was last seen at the mountain cabin the couple owns, and that is where Marlowe begins his investigation.  As the story develops, Marlowe once again must make his way through a world where everyone has something to hide, surfaces can be deceiving, and law enforcement is not only ineffective but corrupt.  Marlowe continues to be a flawed character and yet, just as Chandler mandated, he is the best man in his world. As is typical in hardboiled detective fiction, the plot is intricate and the disappearance of Mrs. Kingsley opens the door for murder, which Marlowe aims to solve while still protecting his client.  The climax of the novel for readers who have caught some of the clues but haven’t fully figured out the resolution to the mystery is both satisfying and surprising. The novel ends a bit abruptly but with one of Marlowe’s characteristic observations that possess multiple meanings.

The first six weeks of my summer vacation were spent teaching a course on classic and hardboiled detective fiction, and so I just recently re-read the first book in the Philip Marlowe series, The Big Sleep.  I think that rereading the first book in the series and teaching a class on the genre has definitely impacted my reading of The Lady in the Lake.  It adheres to the format and conventions of the hardboiled detective novel—there’s the femme fatale, the corruption of law enforcement, and the alternative forms of justice that the guilty are subject to.  But one of the things that makes this particular installment in this series stand out in my mind is that even though Marlowe is still very much the sleuth as loner and is still isolated and alienated from the world in which he lives and works, he’s not completely alone this time.  At the beginning of the novel he meets Sheriff Patton who is a source of help to Marlowe and who also holds, if not the exact same, then at least similar ideals of justice, morality, and ethics.  He has a personal code just as Marlowe does, and like Marlowe, he doesn’t waver from it while doing the best he can with what he’s got.  Also during the course of the investigation he meets Captain Webber, who once again is not the same as Marlowe and who sees Marlowe as a complication to the murder investigation and a dangerous, loose cannon.  The two men eventually come to at least respect each other and the struggle of the other to do good in a corrupt world.  Like The Big Sleep, Chandler gives us other characters who fall into the same category as Marlowe, and yet, it is still Marlowe who reveals the mystery and in his own (heroic) fashion, brings those who are guilty to justice.  Perhaps this is all to say that what I liked about this novel was Marlowe’s interaction with the other “good” men and I also appreciated that while the plot was intricate, it wasn’t as disconnected as some of the other Marlowe novels in that as a reader, I could see what some of the clues were adding up to and how they fit together.  This novel is by no means a “puzzle” like classic detective fiction of the Golden Age, but I didn’t feel like I was simply along for the ride as the action reached the climax.

There is something about The Lady in the Lake that makes it feel different from the first three novels in this series, but I struggle to put my finger on exactly what that is.  I think it has to do with my sense that the characters in this novel just aren’t as vividly drawn as the characters in previous novels, with Marlowe being the obvious exception.  The rest of the characters felt flat and only there to serve specific narrative and plot purposes.  If I have one complaint about the novel it is that I would have liked to see some of the other characters given more life.  Marlowe is definitely the star and the central focus of the novel (and the series as whole) but it seems that in this novel he has to do all of the heavy lifting without help from the supporting cast. In the final analysis, I would say that I liked The Lady in the Lake and would recommend it to other readers who have read any of the Philip Marlowe novels and/or readers who like early hardboiled detective fiction.  I don’t think you have to read the books in order, though I would recommend starting with The Big Sleep so that you can have a better idea of Marlowe’s philosophy, his code of ethics, and what drives him to do what he does.

 

 

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.