Monday, August 31, 2009

Review: The Infinities – John Banville

John Banville is an Irish author who has written 14 previous novels including the Booker Prize winning The Sea in 2005. This latest novel will be supported, it appears, by a massive sales and marketing campaign in the autumn of 2009.

Adam Godley, noted mathematical physicist, has been brought to the family home of Arden (in Ireland) to die of a stroke. The novel charts the events of midsummer’s day as the family congregate to mark his passing. And what a dysfunctional lot they are.

Adam’s much younger wife, Ursula, is a frail creature, a secret drunk. His daughter by Ursula, 19 year old Petra is equally delicate and seems to suffer from a combination of Asperger’s syndrome and a history of self-harm. Adam the son (by elder Adam’s first wife, Dorothy – who committed suicide) is an immature puppyish giant of a man, lost in the modern world and unsuitably married to the beautiful but cold actress Helen.

The small cast of characters is rounded out by Roddy Wagstaff, dilettante-sophisticate and hollow man, who pretends to be Petra’s boyfriend in a manoeuvre to write the great man’s biography; and Benny Grace, sycophantic hanger-on to the elder Adam in the glory days of his groundbreaking research.

It is perhaps necessary to say something about the nature of Adam Godley’s mathematical work, at the risk of reprising Field and Stream’s infamous 1959 review of 'Lady Chatterley’s Lover '. The universe of the novel is not our universe, although this has no implications for the events of the novel. Godley has solved the problems of the infinities which plague unified quantum field theories and his paradigm-busting equations require the multiverse as well as less ontologically-demanding spin-offs including cold fusion. This is of course just whimsy.

Another thread of whimsy is that the Greek Gods actually exist and like a chorus, commentate on events as they occur, with the occasional intervention. This is a hard suspension-of-disbelief act to pull off but Banville succeeds.

What is this book actually about? Note the fine descriptive and atmospheric writing. Add closely-observed personal interactions amongst the characters - flashbacks in the case of the torpid elder Adam, finely tuned to yield telling observations of the human condition. What you get is a microcosm of insights which keep those pages turning. To tell you the truth, nothing much really happens, and based on how we come to know the characters the final, upbeat, God-given prognosis for all their futures seems exceptionally unlikely. But perhaps that’s also part of the message of this perceptive novel.

[Amazon Vine Review]