Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Infinities by John Banville

John Banville is far too subtle and sneaky for the likes of me; I'll read his books (and enjoy them, too), but I'm not going to pretend that I'm qualified to criticize them in any depth. And even though  The Infinities dabbles in the fields of the fantastic -- a piece of the literary landscape I usually would say I can cover reasonably comprehensively -- I'm still going to keep my comments brief and try not to make any obvious missteps.

This is the story of two families: one human and one divine. Well, I need to back up immediately: Banville does have gods tracking through the fields of The Infinities, but they're not "divine" in any conceivable sense of that word -- and that's likely one of his points. But the human family of noted mathematician Adam Godley has gathered in his large, isolated house -- in a quietly, subtly alternate world in which the British still rule North America and other, larger changes are only hinted at -- in the aftermath of a stroke that has left him in a coma and which they all expect will lead to Adam's imminent death. That family consists primarily of Adam's son and daughter, the son's new wife, the father's younger-than-you'd-expect wife, and a few hangers-on.

The other family begins with our narrator, who claims to be Hermes of the Greek pantheon, or to be an eternal, animating spirit that was once called Hermes. His father, Zeus, also takes an active part in The Infinities -- and anyone that knows how Zeus reacts to attractive young women can guess which part is primarily active in his case -- and Pan turns up, as well. They float through the lives of the humans, laughing at and commenting on their small lives and relationships, and Banville's novel takes its viewpoint from Hermes: it looks at its human characters like specimens anatomized on a table, seen from all angles and with no illusions.

I've described two of the three fantastic elements of The Infinities: it's set in an alternate history, and contains real gods that affect the action of the novel. But the physics of The Infinities is also different; the comatose Adam, in his younger days, was instrumental in creating a theory that proved Einstein wrong, and provided vast energy from sources Banville leaves vague -- hinting only that they are (one of) The Infinities of the title.

Like most of Banville's work, The Infinities is not a novel of plot; it takes place over a few days, and things do happen, but Banville's emphasis is on the angle of view, rather than the events in sight. And it would be profoundly frustrating to a reader trying to come at it from a speculative-fiction perspective. But for readers who can let Banville's -- and Hermes's -- point of view take over for them, it's a deeply thoughtful, immersive dive into the lives of a few people, seen thoroughly and without illusions.

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