The Infinities. John Banville.

Banville, John. The Infinities. Vintage paper New York, 2009. F; 06/13

I remember being very impressed with The Sea. This one however missed me by a pretty safe margin. It felt like picking through a fabulous museum after a tornado. The wonderful pieces are all there but they are scattered around and disorganized.

A family awaits the death of their world-famous mathematician dad, visited by his sinister canny old friend and an amoral narcissistic journalist, all overseen and partly narrated by the Greek god Hermes, of all people. Characters and relationships develop, huge and masterfully-orchestrated tone and emotion loom, but eventually not much happens.

Banville flexes his intellectual muscles with more or less convincing reference to theoretical mathematics, physics, religion, metaphysics, love and relationships. And he develops (at least twice) a hair-raising feeling of ambiguous emotional tension, built upon simple mundane events and conversations. The lunch pulsates to a crescendo thanks to language like: “Ivy watches (Ursula), still with that shivering look of a retriever, moving only her eyes.” Everybody seems to be preparing for something enormous. PLOT ALERT But in the end it’s just asthenic unconvincing Roddy stealing a kiss from Helen and getting slapped after they wander into the woods. Zeus cracks a perfectly-timed thunderbolt, but there’s not enough human dramatic significance there to support its meaning much. END PLOT ALERT.

But what language! There is so much heartbreakingly gorgeous description and figurative riff you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the hands of a master. You are, only he’s got a bit of the shakes, has bitten off more than he can chew, or is just not on his game. Eventually even the beautiful sentences start to sound self-regarding, flowery, and archaic. Without a convincing story — something that matters happening to the characters — beautiful talk and ideas peter out. Pagan religion is impressively evoked in that scene in the woods, but when we takes a run at Christianity, he dithers: “We too have our hierarchies, our choirs, thrones, all that. Seraphim. Cherubim…. What am I saying? I am mixing up the heavenly hosts.”

It can’t be possible, but old Adam and Hermes seem almost to have become confused in the author’s mind. This could be some kind of deification attempted but at best it’s lame. At worst Banville just lost his way and the editor didn’t know how to deal with it.

The very serious themes (the math and physics by themselves ring quite true) are weirdly trivialized almost to a sitcom by the cute dog Rex and horny old Zeus. Not that those lighter characterizations shouldn’t be there at all, but they should be timed to indicate they are subordinate, and they aren’t.

Is John Banville in a temporary slump, or is he past it (he’s 68…)? We’ll find out. 4.8/8.7

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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