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Infinite pleasure

John Banville's playful universe
By ED SIEGEL  |  February 16, 2010


The Infinities | By John Banville | Knopf | 288 pages | $25.95
Admit it, fellow scribblers. You'd sell your soul to come up with an opening sentence like "Of the things we fashioned for them that they may be comforted, dawn is the one that works."

The speaker is a god named Hermes; the "we" refers to his big daddy, Zeus, and the rest of the Olympians; and the writer is John Banville, Booker Prize winner for his previous novel, The Sea. And of the things this author has fashioned for us, this new book, The Infinities, borders on the divine — mysterious, warm-hearted, and elegant, with traces of such literary gods as Vladimir Nabokov and fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde.

What Banville shares with those two, along with the ability to write great prose, is a sense of mischief — here grown to cosmic proportions with his playful attempt to grasp not only infinity but also an infinite number of infinities.

Worry not. The operative word is "playful," and though mathematics enters the picture, you needn't share one of the main characters' love of numbers to guess where Banville is headed. That character's name is Adam, as is his son's. Adam II has come to his dying father's bedside, along with his sister, his stepmother, and his wife, who's named — not for nothing — Helen.

The gods are also there (they're everywhere), with Hermes spreading tender mercies and Zeus hurling thunderous orgasms. Banville, however, is interested less in magical realism than in infusing the everyday with a sense of wonder. He's hardly unique in that — one could say the same of James Cameron — but the philosophical underpinnings of his quest and the sly way he goes about it are what make The Infinities — dare I say it — Banvillean.

The dying Adam, for example, finds a rigorousness in numbers. He had hoped they would make order out of chaos, but the deeper he went into the world of the rational, and the more he contemplated infinity, the more poetic the world became. If there's an infinity of worlds, then everything is possible.

Got that? Well, never mind — just sit back and leave the driving to Banville, whose gods are imps as they hold back the dawn, invade our dreams, and, all in all, make the world a far more interesting place than the one left to us by Moses and our "mealy-mouthed Saviour." We are, after all, in a place called Arden, and Hermes/Banville looks on humans as midsummer-night dreamers denying the mystery around them in order to get by in the world ("The secret of survival is a defective imagination").

For all the possibilities, though, and for all the playful tampering with what we define as reality, rules are rules, and even the gods have their limitations. Adam lies dying in his world, and there's not much that anyone can do about it apart from accepting the mystery of existence.

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