Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Infinities by John Banville

Occasionally, I’ll look through the books on my local library’s recommended list and generally end up requesting one that looks interesting even if it isn’t my usual fare.

The Infinities by John Banville falls into that category. At the center of the novel is the dying patriarch of a dysfunctional family: Adam Godley. Adam is a famed theoretical mathematician, a man who stood on end the conventional wisdom about mathematics. However, we don’t get much insight into his brilliance; we have to take that as a given. By the time we meet Adam, he has had a stroke and is essentially non-communicative. Readers do get to glimpse inside his head where his life is flashing before his eyes– only to discover a surprisingly mundane life.

Gathered around his bedside, awaiting his demise, are his second wife and his children. His wife, Ursula, is a timid woman who drinks too much and has never earned the love or respect of her stepchildren. Adam’s son is a rather dull man who has managed, somehow, to marry a beautiful actress. His daughter, Petra, is withdrawn and maladapted to the world. She has a suitor, an unpleasant young man who wants to write Adam’s biography and uses Petra to gain entrance to the household. Yet no one is under any illusions about his interest in Petra.

As a deathbed vigil story, there isn’t much to the novel. The relationships are superficial and the characters are more interested in themselves than each other. Despite Adam’s supposed contributions to mathematics, he hasn’t touched the world very deeply.

The saving grace of the novel is the narrator/observer, Hermes. The ancient Greek gods are still around and occasionally still dabble in the human world. Zeus primarily pops down to earth to chase skirts. Pan makes mischief. Hermes actually cares about people and hangs around to clean up the messes. Hermes also philosophizes about why the gods envy humans and what a burden immortality is.

This is an interesting concept for a novel, but the execution is somewhat weak. It’s fairly short and an easy read, but despite its lofty themes, it’s a forgettable story. If you are, for some reason, looking for a gather-around-the-deathbed novel, I’d recommend The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy instead.