After an experimental foray with genre noir page turners, John Banville makes his long awaited return to the literary novel. Benjamin Black, Banville’s alter-ego when writing mysteries, may have earned more media attention than Banville, but Black’s novels lack the perfectly weighted lyrical flourishes Banville conducts readers through in each sentence. We read him like sheet music, and lost in the noise, we must recall to look up at the conductor as to stay in time—and perhaps often we do lose our place, but we’re always steered back with the maestro’s help.
The Infinities is a touch different from 2005’s Booker Prize winner The Sea. Banville cited that he was growing bored with his tendency for writing the first person accounts of old men at the end of their careers. It was as if he’d fallen into a rut. It seemed to him all of his recent works contained the same narrative pattern. Benjamin Black, he says, helped him clear all this up. Writing under a disguise aided him in writing from another angle, and so, while The Infinities is the story of an old man who is dying (and he does get to speak his piece a few times), the story is told mostly by the Greek god Hermes.
The novel follows the mythical storytelling tradition of the gods interfering with the lives of mortals. In this case the fittingly named Godley family are the victims of the gods’ interest. Old Adam Godley, a genius mathematician, has suffered a stroke and his family gathers in his large country home. Hermes directs us and makes mischief while Zeus twitters about incessantly pursuing Adam’s daughter-in-law Helen. The gods entertain us. They muse down upon their creations and tell us what it is to be mortal while they themselves also try to understand.
It works well, but as always the true hook to a Banville tale is the language he employs. Through the scope of the gods Banville finds space to give his words a personal and mesmerizing touch. Hermes, on the dawn, lectures, “Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally.” On his father and women, “The Father of the gods is in a sulk. It is always thus when one of his girls, all unknowing, goes back to her true, that is, her rightful, mate, as she must. What does he expect? He comes to them in disguise, tricks himself out as a bull, an eagle, a swan, or, as in the present case, a husband, and thinks to make them love him…” And on the bereaved, “He is grieving for his wife, newly dead. Grief is the shape of an enormous globe that has been thrust unceremoniously into his arms; he totters under the unmanageable, greasy weight of it. Thus burdened he has fled to the sinking city where he knows no one and there is no one who knows him.”
The Infinities is as clever as it is frightening and sad. While blending myth with contemporary story telling, John Banville weaves a map across the spectrum of human emotion. When we read him we feel jealous, angry, and horribly sad—we laugh as well, but not in the way we laugh at other novels or funny movies. We laugh because through his many guises Banville shows us ourselves, and when faced with that what can we do but laugh?