The gods play a key role in this novel. John Banville lets them loose on a family somewhere in the countryside preparing to lose the patriarch of the household. They are, however, pretty mundane gods – gods engaged in relatively trivial pursuits. Maybe its a slow season for them and they are bored? Or maybe gods, as Banville sees them, are relatively simple minded?
This is John Banville’s first novel under his own name – he has written as Benjamin Black in the interim – since publishing the Man Booker Prize winning The Sea in 2005. For this book, Banville has created a universe full of infinities, and even infinities within infinities. A place so huge there must be room for more than what we see, hear and smell. And, indeed, he has constructed a universe where deities, seeming mostly of Greek origin, do exist and even mingle with humans. In The Infinities they flit about English manors and play gleeful and lustful tricks on the inhabitants.
The story in The Infinities takes place in Arden – a large family home somewhere in Ireland or England or thereabouts. The family patriarch, Adam Godley, has had a stroke, is seemingly unconscious and about to die. He is a famous man in some circles. He is a mathematician renowned for having developed a set of equations that turned relativity theory upside-down and proves the existence of the infinities; actually “an infinity of infinities … all crossing and breaking into each other”.
The patriarch’s family is now gathered around him – his much younger wife Ursula, his son Adam with his beautiful wife Helen, and his strange daughter Petra with “something missing” who writes an encyclopedia of human morbidity, and several guests. Also present are the various servants. And among the guests, unbeknown to the humans of course, are gods. They are disguised as humans, and have marvelous powers; they can be invisible if they want, they can sneak around and observe, and they can even sneak into beds. The deities present include Hermes and Zeus, in an interesting competition where godly rules of conduct are observed at all times.
The primary narrator is Hermes. He is a somewhat philosophical fellow. He comments on virtually everything taking place in the house – including the letting of bodily fluids in various forms – and among the characters. At the same time he keeps an eye on Pan – in the guise of chubby, goat-footed Benny Grace – and his father, the randy Zeus.
As Hermes explains, having himself been attracted to one of the women present, “You must understand, a god is not a gentleman and likes nothing better than to trifle with a lady’s affections, but,” he believes, “there are rules that apply even to a divinity, and it was incumbent on me to proceed with caution and deference, if the niceties of the game were to be preserved.”
The narrative is extremely rich; the story is full of small side stories and odd observations. Banville’s considerable fantasy is at full display, and the references to philosophy, mythology and even physics and mathematics are abundant. The Infinities is a playful novel, and the writing and use of symbols and metaphors makes it interesting to read. An excellent novel by John Banville!