THE INFINITIES, by John Banville. Alfred A. Knopf, 273 pp., $25.95.
Reading the new novel by Irish writer John Banville, I fell under some kind of spell, mesmerized by its shimmering language, overflow of ideas and heady allusions to metaphysics, Greek mythology, Shakespeare and even quantum mechanics.
In the book, a great mathematician named Adam Godley lies in a post-stroke coma at his countryside home, while his alcoholic wife, Ursula, and adult children - feckless Adam and unbalanced Petra - hold vigil, joined by various acolytes and hangers-on. Overseeing this human drama is our narrator, Hermes - yes, that Hermes - with cameos by the King of the Gods, Zeus (in pursuit of female flesh, of course) and the mischievous deity Pan. The story may take place in our contemporary world, or in some obliquely alternate reality; passing references are made, for example, to J. Robert Oppenheimer's failure to build an atomic bomb and to Sweden as a "bellicose" nation "on the warpath."
Finishing "The Infinities," with all my frames of reference jumbled, I felt like I'd emerged from a dream state: What was that all about? My disorientation felt wholly appropriate, for that's how Banville's characters feel after the mysterious interventions of the gods who slow down time or seduce them in their dreams. What is a novelist, after all, but a god at play in his own self-created universe?
"The Infinities" is Banville's first novel since winning the Man Booker Prize for "The Sea" in 2004, though he has published two crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. (A third, "Elegy for April," is due on these shores in April.) Writing under his own name, Banville has something of a reputation for dense, challenging books, and I doubt my description of the new one has convinced you otherwise. Sure, "The Infinities" will have you looking up "invigilate" in the dictionary (I'll save you the time: "to keep watch") and Googling "Amphitryon" (a Greek myth dramatized by the 19th century German writer Heinrich von Kleist).
But none of this legwork feels like a chore, because "The Infinities" is constructed as a tantalizing puzzle you're eager to piece together. And Hermes is a delightfully cheeky and amiable narrator, constantly mocking randy old Zeus and guiding us through the multiple worlds of the novel.
Moreover, Banville is a glorious stylist whose prose holds sustaining pleasures, both large and small. A pair of shoes is a "sickly shade of pale tan, like sucked toffee." A draft is described "snatching" the flame of a lighter. A character, as he speaks, is "bending and swaying with hooped arms out-thrust in the effort of scooping up from his orchestra greater and still greater surges of magnificent noise." On a gray day, "[v]ague rain drifts out of the air." You keep turning the pages just to gather more of these bouquets.
But when Banville - or should I say Hermes? - waxes philosophic he's even better; he's heartbreakingly poignant. Here's Hermes on human love, which the gods did not foresee when they created sex (and cannot themselves experience): "But lo! see what they made of this mess of frottage. It is as if a fractious child had been handed a few timber shavings and a bucket of mud to keep him quiet only for him promptly to erect a cathedral, complete with baptistry, steeple, weathercock and all. Within the precincts of this consecrated house they afford each other sanctuary, excuse each other their failings, their sweats and smells, their lies and subterfuges, above all their ineradicable self-obsession. This is what baffles us, how they wriggled out of our grasp and somehow became free to forgive each other for all that they are not."
It's not all so transcendently spiritual. "The Infinities" can be bawdy and perversely funny, as in the scene of old Adam's stroke, which occurs on the toilet as he "crouched too low and strained too strenuously in the effort of extruding a stool as hard as mahogany." (Banville has a thing for bathroom humor; elsewhere young Adam's beautiful wife, Helen, "lowers herself on to the lavatory like. . . . a big white soft hen getting ready to lay an egg.")
Don't expect much in the way of plot. Not a lot actually happens in "The Infinities," aside from a day's small activities, including the set piece of a luncheon that assembles all the novel's characters. And the climax - if you can call it that - comes a bit precipitously. No matter. Banville has fashioned a gloriously rich and strange novel, as ambitious in its reach as it is delightful to read. This god has outdone himself.