Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by John Banville
ISBN: 9780330513210, Trade Paperback, October 2009, 256 page/s, $32.99 AUD
On the surface of it, The Infinities is a simple story, set, like Joyce’s Ulysses within the space of 24 hours in a single setting – an old country house in Ireland. The story pivots around Adam Godley, the aptly named family patriarch and famous mathematician/scientist who lies comatose and dying after a massive stroke. During this time, although a number of visitors come and go, and there are revelations, resolutions, and perceptions, nothing particular appears to happen, at least by human standards. After all, it’s just one day. However, like Ulysses there is nothing simple about the story. For one thing, it’s narrated by Hermes, sort of, although as you might expect of a god, Hermes is omniscient, and flicks in and out of the consciousness of Adam Sr, his children Adam Jr, and 19 year old Petra, Adam Jr’s beautiful wife Helen (of course), a strange visitor named Benny Grace, and Adam Sr’s wife Ursula, the household matriarch. This creates a theatrical and comic effect, not least of which because every now and then Hermes himself interrupts the reflection to put in his own two cents worth and comment on the value or otherwise of the previous narrative or respond during the deepest moment of reflections to the hot demands of his own father Zeus.
And then there is the mysterious Dionysian Benny, who shows up unexpectedly under the guise of having a quick word with the comatose Adam Sr. We come to understand, just a little, what Benny’s role is in the narrative through Adam Sr’s own reflections, and also through the slightly ill tempered descriptions from Hermes:
Through a gap between the straining buttons of his shirt he palps with idel fingers the folds of his belly, eyeing lazily, like the happy faun he is at heart, the sweltering back of stirless tress that edges the garden. A hamadryad is a wood-nymph, also a poisonous snake in India, and an Abyssinian baboon. It takes a god to know a thing like that.(178)
The gods are everywhere, from the Amphitryon inspired sex-mad Zeus, who hints at his involvement in the family history through an earlier coupling with Ursula, and who reasserts his involvement through Adam Jr’s wife Helen. The Zeus/Helen coupling passages may have won Banville his second nomination for the Bad Sex in Fiction award, but aside from a few bull metaphors, they really aren’t so extraordinary. In fact, there’s a distinct disconnect between the comic and lighthearted passages of the gods: Benny, Hermes and Zeus, and the deep introspection and internal changes of the humans. There are plenty of hints too, that Adam himself has a godlike spirit, partly through his mathematical genius and partly through a kind of melding between all of the gods and the humans that culminates in an almost Buddhistic message underneath all the farce:
He gazes into the twilit garden. Thick, tawny sunlight creeps along the grass, drawing spiked shadows in its wake. The trees tremble, talking of night. The birds, the clouds, the far, pale sky. This is the mortal world. It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved; a world where they may life, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing evening of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed for ever in a luminous, unending instant. (299)
The gods envy the mortals because they exist. The beauty of humanity is in the everyday, limited action morality that involves eating, using the toilet, copulating (human to human, regardless of the guise), bleeding, feeling pain, giving birth, and above all, dying. This is the underlying celebration of the novel: the beauty of flawed humanity amidst the bodiless, bloodless gods. If characters like the self-wounding Petra, or the alcoholic Ursula, the big bumbling Adam Jr, or the hungry Molly Bloom styled Helen are better drawn and richer than Benny, Zeus and Hermes, who claim omnipotence but provide only comic relief, it is because they are intended to be more real. The real poetry is all in the human passages, and this is where the novel shines, pitting poetry against the comical. Overall, and taken at its deepest level, The Infinities is a fun, heady novel that turns over our sense of reality, only to restore it to us in all its tarnished glory.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Repulsion Thrust, Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks, and John Banville is our next guest.