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THE INFINITIES by John Banville


by John Banville

Pub Date: March 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-27279-9
Publisher: Knopf

The Booker Prize–winning Irish author’s 15th novel is a (perhaps excessively) droll romantic comedy reminiscent of both Shakespeare’s gossamer romps and Iris Murdoch’s playful metaphysical gameswomanship.

It’s an unexpected offering from the creator of such mordant psychodramas as Ghosts (1993), Eclipse (2001) and Shroud (2003), though mortality and all its disagreeable attributes are its subject. The setting is Arden, the Irish countryside home where renowned mathematician and physicist Adam Godley is dying, consoled by his still-functional mind’s concentration on his pet theory that the existence of an infinity of infinities—and therefore of innumerable multiple worlds for us all to inhabit—is a logical, and hence arguably a literal possibility. Outside “Old Adam’s” thoughts, downstairs Arden houses the patriarch’s son and namesake, young Adam’s super-gorgeous spouse Helen, his paranoid termagant sister Petra (who’s compiling an encyclopedia of indignation and despair) and the siblings’ well-meaning but basically ineffectual mum Ursula. Their somewhat dreary lives are…well, enlivened by the presence of the Greek gods themselves, whose interrelations with humans (notably, the randy Zeus’s, with Helen) are recounted to us in accents of unimpeachable archness by Hermes, messenger to the gods, son of Zeus, and patron of assorted scalawags and doers of misdeeds. Not much happens, alas. But we do get to watch Hermes emulate his dad by seducing the ungodly Godleys’ housekeeper while rather fetchingly disguised. And Petra is so engagingly nasty, we almost wish she had found her way into a play written by Samuel Beckett (whose skeletal prose style broods gently over these pages, along with oodles and scads of Shakespearean echoes). It’s a strange bird of a book, perhaps a cross between Thorne Smith’s caper The Night Life of the Gods and the aforementioned Murdoch at her most inventive (one thinks of her 1969 novel Bruno’s Dream, a brilliant improvisation woven around another old man’s looming death).

Beautifully written, perversely entertaining and well worth a close look.