John Banville is a great novelist, and this latest novel is moving in its focus of the last days of one man’s life.
Adam Godley, the comatose hero of John Banville’s novel The Infinities (273 pages, Knopf, $25.95), feels quite frustrated that he can’t make his feelings known. Shut up in a darkened upper chamber, the room in which he used to do his mathematical research, he would like nothing more than to be taken into the nearby wood to be given the chance to return to nature.
His middle-aged wife, Ursula—John is in his later sixties—felt that it would be best to put him in the room where he did so much work. She feels his loss actively, but she can hardly stand to see him in the vegetative state.
Adam, their son, has come home with his wife Helen; and they are trying to fit into the oddly dysfunctional life at home. Adam looks for things that need fixing, and he deftly moves his considerable bulk from room to room while he tries to work up the nerve to visit his father’s sick room.
Their daughter Petra, who still lives in the house, has no trouble visiting the sick room. She does not want to lose her father, either, but then she understands him better than anyone else in the house.
There are also a couple of visitors. Roddy Wagstaff, an acolyte of Adam Godley’s, and the one who will eventually write his biography (we are led to believe), arrives as if he is expecting to have a private session with the declining mathematician. Roddy has to fend off the familial expectation that somehow he is also courting Petra. He can’t imagine why anyone would have that idea, but everyone seems to, especially Petra herself. Blond and willowy, he hovers at the edges of the action, and when the experience touches him too closely, he flees.
Another visitor, Benny Grace, chubby and messily dressed, in some ways the opposite of Roddy, has also come for a last audience with the great man. Benny has a great ability to insinuate himself into places where he is not wanted, and it seems that he has in the past been the companion in the older Adam’s exploring the urban underworlds of various cities in which he had speaking engagements.
As these characters fall all over themselves in their attempts to deal with the fact of the dying man in their presence, two other things are happening. First, the dying man himself is both aware of what they are doing, and uses their attempts to reflect on his own relation to all those present. He also thinks about his past, his first wife, his mathematical accomplishments, and so on. And all the time he offers this other perspective on everything that is transpiring.
At the same time, there are a few classical gods who have taken residence in the house and are participating in the action. The most visible of these is Hermes, or Mercury, who narrates the action and participates in it to a certain degree. His own father Zeus, also participates in rather lurid seductions of Helen. Zeus takes the shape of Helen’s husband when he is in dalliance with her, and you can imagine what this does for marital relations.
The novel is beautifully written. Paragraphs of description are rich with narrative detail, and something is happening at every moment in this marvelously paced and lushly imagined fantasy. The texture is luxurious and the narrative itself offers an alternative to the sad tale it is relating.
I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a bit of magical realism. In this case the magic underlines the deep complexity of human experience.