Banville, Baby, Gimme Some Oomph, Will Ya?

Irish novelist John Banville wrote The Infinities with the utmost in British-Isles reserve and formality. Well, tit for tat, Banville, because I am writing this review with a conscious eye towards tempering any enthusiasm I might have for your novel, lest I display any of that emotion you so disdain.

The Infinities is cool and mannered to a fault. Superficially lovely, it declines the many chances it gives itself to develop into anything more substantial. I liken it to a beautiful piece of functionless china ? pretty and graceful, but existing without much purpose.

The novel opens sometime in the early 20th century, with Adam Godley on his deathbed. The wreckage of his family has drifted back to Arden House, the ancestral countryside manse, to prepare for imminent mourning. All the while, a host of gods hovers overhead, observing with detachment and causing mischief to stave off boredom.

The presence of the gods (think “A Midsummer Night's Dream”) is a welcome literary device. Hermes and their ilk look upon the Godley family (that last name isn't so sly, Banville) with curiosity. Immortal as they are, they don't understand the dull deadening of grief or the pain of slow-dying love, to say nothing if strange mortal rituals like having food at a wake. Their detachment (literally and figuratively speaking) gives the reader a fresh perspective on what otherwise seems natural and rote.

As a writer, Banville has formidable skill. Some of his sentences are works of art, adjectives and verbs carefully sculpted into something more than the sum of their parts. I read certain passages a few times, just to make sure I took in how great they were. His observations are precise to the point of being clinical and result in crisp-edged pictures emerging in the reader's mind.

That being said, Banville turns his perceptive gaze to the most inconsequential things ? a stand of trees at the edge of Arden House, a glass of water, the sky ? and kind of leaves the plot to do what it will on its own. As a result, The Infinities kind of hovers without really going anywhere. A lunch scene gets 20 or so lingering pages ? the housekeeper served cabbage with chicken! Are there enough chairs? And the silverware! Gracious me, the silverware! ? but deeper things, like Adam's relationship with his second/current wife Ursula, merit only a comparative mention. It's a strange way to write a book, and it leaves the characters of The Infinities unable to make much of an impression.

Lastly, the book is full of British English. I tried to be dutiful at first, running to the dictionary every time I came across words like “plosive” (“characterized by release via explosion”) and “coeval” (“a contemporary”), but I couldn't keep pace. By the time I got to, “cicatrice” I had just given up.

I definitely don't regret reading The Infinities. In fact, I enjoyed it. But I enjoyed it for what it was ? that sort of good-for-you-reading you hope will impress your college professors.

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