Infinite jests: John Banville's The Infinities

Books In John Banville's latest novel, ancient Greek gods amuse themselves by meddling with the quotidian affairs of mortals in a world not quite like our own, Christian Lorentzen writes.

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In John Banville's latest novel, ancient Greek gods amuse themselves by meddling with the quotidian affairs of mortals in a world not quite like our own, Christian Lorentzen writes. The Infinities John Banville Picador Dh86 John Banville's new novel is of a sort rarely seen these days, a comedy infused with the divine. Sacred themes seldom figure in contemporary anglophone fiction - the work of Marilynne Robinson, whose celebrated novels Gilead and Home trace a cycle of Christian redemption, is a notable exception - but Banville has reached back to an even more distant tradition, that of Ancient Greece. The Infinities is narrated mostly by Hermes, the messenger god; Zeus and Pan also make appearances, meddling in the lives of hapless mortals in a manner familiar to anyone with a grade-school familiarity with Greek myths.

And who are those mortals? They are the family of the unsubtly named patriarch Adam Godley, a renowned mathematician, whose work "exposed the relativity hoax and showed up Planck's constant for what it really was". The world of The Infinities is a world in many ways alien from our own. Among the supposed implications of Godley's hypotheses is that "everything endlessly extends and unravels world upon world- Other worlds, other worlds, where we are not, and yet are". In the terms of conventional science fiction, this is the theory of parallel universes.

Thus Banville's title supposes at least a double meaning. The infinities are the immortal gods of Olympus and the limitless possible realities posited by Godley's formulae. The world of the novel is one such alternate realm. We hear offhandedly of "the recent overturning of Wallace's theory of evolution". Godley's work has also solved the carbon crisis: cold fusion is commonplace, and cars run on brine, now the source of "the greater part of the world's energy". Geopolitics is also askew: "Bellicose Sweden- was on the warpath again, mired in yet another expansionary struggle with her encircling neighbours." Danes, beware.

It would be misleading, however, despite these two layers of the fantastic, to classify The Infinities as a work divorced from realism. Hermes's more or less omniscient narration cleaves closely to the very human members of the Godley family. They have gathered at the family manor, Arden, to be near the comatose Adam, who has suffered a stroke that his physician, Dr Fortune, predicts will be fatal. Adam's wife Ursula, once a pure maiden who offered the genius solace in the aftermath of his first wife's suicide, has grown into a daytime tippler, haunted by "so many fogs and fumes in her head". There are two Godley children: young Adam Jr, in his late twenties, tall and awkward, who dreams of becoming a professional gardener; and "his loony sister", Petra, a few years younger, who is compiling an amateur catalogue of diseases.

Filling out the cast are young Adam's wife Helen, a beautiful actress who has recently suffered a miscarriage; Petra's sweetheart Roddy Wagstaff, a dilettante journalist angling to become her father's biographer; Ivy Blount, a middle-aged woman whose family once owned Arden and who lives in a nearby cottage and serves as a sometime maid to the Godleys; and Adrian Duffy, an illiterate cowman enamoured of Ivy's "peculiar, subtle beauty".

Into their midst the gods insinuate themselves. First, Zeus - or "Dad", as Hermes calls him - ravishes Helen. Impersonating young Adam as he does so, the father of the gods re-enacts his mythical rape of Alcmene, the mother of Hercules. In the novel, Helen is supposed to play the role of Alcmene in a theatrical production of Heinrich von Kleist's version of the Amphitryon, which tells the story of how Hercules was conceived; in this world, apparently, von Kleist is still widely read, and Goethe forgotten. Later Hermes assumes the form of Adrian Duffy to have his way with Ivy Blount, setting off a romance he will steer toward marriage.

If the steady accumulation - over the course of one day - of this burlesque and ultimately comic plot and the narrator's Olympian insights and casual revelations about the novel's parallel world afford a wealth of pleasures, they are bettered still by Banville's stylistic facility. Here is Hermes observing Petra, late in the novel, performing an habitual act of self-mutilation: "It pleases her how snugly the razor fits into its bed of scarlet satin. The ivory handle is cool and smooth, like cold cream made solid, and the round-headed blade is the colour of water. She takes the lovely thing and balances it lightly on her palm- She shrugs back the kimono's loose sleeve. The underside of her arm is cicatriced all along its length, the crescents of healed skin brittle and shiny, like candle wax. She leans against the window-sill in a sort of anxious trance, all her flesh yearning for the kiss of the chill, steel blade- When she cuts, the world suddenly has a centre, everything on the instant realigns itself and points to this edge, where the skin draws back its thin white lips and the first beads of blood make their shy début."

It is a daring passage, stunning for its precise diction, its aestheticising of the grotesque, and for Banville's narrative turn toward empathy in a novel that is more often acerbic. "There is a difference", Hermes tells the reader, "between us and your mealy-mouthed Saviour, so-called - we do not pretend to be benign, but are playful only, and endlessly diverted by the spectacle of your heart-searchings and travails of the spirit." Banville is himself a benign shepherd of his characters, but he too is mischievous, and it is his mischief - as he eschews, even mocks, current pieties - that sets him apart from his Olympian peers writing today. He forgoes opportunities for the sort of social commentary fashionable among today's high-end novelists. revelling instead in classical themes and age-old conundrums. Every epoch throws up its bellicose nations and resource crises; self-knowledge, love and death are, for us mortals at least, eternal problems.

Christian Lorentzen is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.