The Infinities--John Banville

I had not read anything of John Banville's before this book.  I hard started (several times) The Sea, but felt too overwhelmed my its melancholy to proceed to the finish.  I still intend to read it--perhaps even more so after this book. John Banville can certainly put together some shapely sentences and he has a deft touch with thematic elements.  He can ask serious questions in what amounts to a domestic tragi-comedy and make them stick.  All of that is on the credit side--there is, however, a considerable accounting on the debit side.  His story reads like some sort of hieroglyphic rebus--the bits and pieces are all there, but one feels oneself holding the book at arm's length and trying to bring the whole thing into focus.  It is reasonable to assume that the author had a purpose in throwing together some of the discrepant elements he has introduced, but the purpose is not immediately evident.  They didn't contribute all that must to the story except, perhaps a playful complexity.

The story of The Infinities, such as it is traces the lingering demise of Adam Godley (the name itself a clear indication of the games that the author is playing) as he is visited by Son, Daughter-in-Law, Wife, Daughter, and Daughter's Beau-to-be--oh, and a few of the Olympians--Hermes, Zeus, and Pan.  It is narrated in part by Adam and in part by Zeus.  As these characters, and a few others, meet and interact, a story of the convergence of the supernatural and the natural and the multiplicity of Infinities gradually plays out--though its stage is domestic tragi-comedy. It becomes evident that Adam lives in a different one of the Infinities than that inhabited by Adam's readers--although this is built up very slowly and subtly, and is, in fact, so subtle as to not have much meaning at all for the overall story.  It may be lost by a great many readers, although it is thematically interwoven into the questions the novel asks.

Perhaps it is this enormous weight of thematic material on a relative slight romp of a story that makes the book seem a bit out of balance to me.  It struck me a bit like using Opera Buffa to tell the story of  Cavalleria Rusticana--just a bit out of place and a bit light, more in length than in texture.

Make no mistake, John Banville is wrestling with some huge issues in the course of the book--the nature of love, of reality, of relationships between persons, of nature and supernature--perhaps often ironically (I have an exceedingly tin ear for irony), but these are just some of the weighty matters that he heaves into a story taht would otherwise be a relatively clean episode of Sex in the City (or so I assume having relatively little exposure to the latter).

All of that said, what is here is a delight, and it holds together well.  It may leave the casual reader scratching his or her head, and some of its aspects puzzle me.  But I have to be completely honest and say, not enough to indulge in the book again.  I'll move on.  I get the impression I may have lighted upon one of Banville's entertainment (to use Graham Greene's term).  I suspect there are more substantial works in my reading future.

Recommended--***1/2

After note:  This makes the third Greek-god themed novel that I have read in the last few weeks.  One remains--Alcestis.

Comments

  1. You raise an interesting issue in your posting. Why does a person persist in reading a book that is by all accounts a less than interesting or worthwhile experience? I recall that I once was obsessive about finishing every book that I began, and I slogged through some questionable books, usually because I had been persuaded by others that the book was a "must read" experience. Now, however, because I am much older (though not necessarily much wiser), I readily cast aside any book that fails to "hook" me rather quickly. After all, life is too short to read books that are neither interesting nor worthwhile. So, tell me, what is it that compels you to finish some books that you would have rather abandoned?

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  2. Dear R.T.,

    I am much like you--if there isn't SOME hook, I will put the book aside--I haven't time for books that do not interest me. In this case, there were a number of "hooks" that made the book compelling to finish; however, they did not gel into a completely successful book for me. I enjoyed it--but I didn't feel as though it was somehow complete.

    I have been fortunately never cursed with the "need to finish," even from very early on as a reader. But I have read some things in the hopes that some of my confusion would clear up or that things would get better, more comprehensible, whatever. For me, _Lolita_ was like that--ultimately abandoned as a pretty language trick with an intensely dark heart.

    shalom,

    Steven

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  3. Notwithstanding its prominence in the canon, LOLITA is a book that I cannot read; although I understand Nabokov's presumed intent, the book remains for me repugnant and unreadable, but perhaps that is my Puritan streak clouding my perspective. D. G. Myers, among others whom I respect, would be disappointed in my response to LOLITA, and I would probably be criticized as being small-minded and literal. And so it goes.

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  4. Dear R.T.,

    Well, given that you have precisely articulated my own reaction to the work, I guess we'll share the title of small-minded and literal. I regard the widespread acceptance of the theme of the work as a hallmark of our present age. Even if the intent was to indict, the effect was to exonerate and the work winds up being odious. And I'm not so certain that we can trust intent given other works in a similar vein.

    shalom,

    Steven

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