The gods must be crazy

By Matthew Price
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2010

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John Banville once said of his novels that they were about “men in bad trouble.” This is one way of putting it. One of the most distinctive stylists in the English language, Banville, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize, has married intellectual fizz — he is well versed in mathematics, art history, philosophy — to essentially noirish plotlines. It’s a union that has served him well.

And his silver-tongued narrators, how eloquent they are! “The Book of Evidence,’’ one of Banville’s best works, gave us Freddie Montgomery, art thief and murderer, a magnificently gifted sophist who could almost convince you that 2+2=5. Listening to him is like being wooed by the devil — you know you should turn away, but you can’t help yourself. Variations on Montgomery recur throughout Banville’s oeuvre. They are fallen men, masters of dark vocations, who take an almost perverse pleasure in their disgrace.

In his latest novel, “The Infinities,’’ which is loosely inspired by the Latin text “Amphitryon,’’ Banville has traded the devil for God — or gods, rather. Our narrator is no one less than Hermes, the Greek god of science and commerce, who finds himself mixed up with a cast of earthbound characters in a rambling country house somewhere in the Irish countryside (favorite Banville territory). Adam Godley, an unsubtly named, gravely ill mathematician, lies in his bed in a vegetative state. Godley’s second wife, Ursula, drinks too much, and his children deal with their own spiritual oppressions. The son, also named Adam, is an earnest plodder, while his neurotic sister, Petra, morbidly fixates on death and disease.

Over the proceeds looms Hermes, who discourses endlessly about the state of the human species, the nature of language, and much else besides. The haughty Hermes takes a dim view of us, contrasting our “barely articulate gruntings’’ with his own high-flown rhetoric. The gods endowed humans with the potential for greatness, but mortals have made a mess of their lot: “We have been good to you, giving you what you thought you wanted — yes, and look what you have done with it.” Still, Hermes concedes that his kind are “endlessly diverted by the spectacle of your heart-searchings and travails of the spirit.”

The plot, such as it is, unfolds over the course of one day. Hermes flits about, causing mischief, while Zeus, in the guise of the son, seduces young Adam’s wife, Helen. Confusions ensue. Banville has always had a blackly comic streak, and here he gives it free reign. There is also a touch of drawing-room farce at work: Godley’s intellectual rival shows up, as does a rakish young journalist with an agenda, further complicating matters.

This is entertaining enough, but “The Infinities,” dense with the weight of ideas drawn from quantum physics and higher mathematics, veers off into fevered speculations about immortality and the nature of time itself. Godley père is famous for a complex theory dealing with parallel universes. Hovering between life and death, aware but unable to speak, Godley reflects “that in the welter of realities that I had posited everything endlessly extends and unravels, world upon world.” Banville suggests that there is a deep instability to reality. Indeed, in the transitions between Hermes’s and Godley’s recollections of his past, we are never sure quite who is speaking.

Yet there are sly parallels between them — while Hermes exists in infinite space and time, Godley lays suspended in his own temporary eternity. Hermes, pondering Godley’s genius, muses how “he sought to cleave exclusively to numbers, figures, concrete symbols. He knew, of course, the peril of confusing the expression of something with the something itself, and even he sometimes went astray in the uncertain zone between the concept and the thing conceptualised; even he, like me, mistook sometimes the manifestation for the essence. Because for both of us this essence is essentially inessential, when it comes to the business of making manifest. For me, the gods; for him, the infinities.”

Got all that? That’s actually one of Hermes more restrained flights of verbiage. Of all the garrulous dissemblers who inhabit Banville’s novels, Hermes is the most unconvincing. Like most of Banville’s protagonists, he has a fancy vocabulary; but his diction is stilted and overblown. (Besotted by his own voice, Hermes jests that he “should have been a poet, perhaps, apostrophising skylarks and doting on daffodils.” He should keep to his day job). As an experiment in point of view, a visit from the Greek gods is an amusing conceit. However, this is one bit of whimsy Banville can’t quite bring off.

Matthew Price is a critic and journalist in New York.

By John Banville
Knopf, 273 pp., $25.95