Of Gods and Men
“Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day.”
So begins The Infinities, the Irish writer John Banville’s first novel since his 2005 Booker-winning The Sea. As you might have guessed from the novel’s opening sentences, The Infinities is told from a divine perspective. More specifically, it is told from the perspective of the Greek god Hermes, the cunning but kindly (at least in comparison to the other, meaner inhabitants of Olympus) messenger of the gods. As befits a novel so soaked in classical Greek culture, The Infinities displays Aristotle’s unities of time and place, covering a single midsummer’s day at Arden, the Irish countryside estate of famed mathematician Adam Godley. Adam has suffered a severe stroke and is currently in a coma (though we will learn in the course of the novel that he may be more conscious than his family supposes); his doctor expects him to die any day. Over the course of this particular day, Adam is visited at his bedside by his wife, Ursula, a patient soul who is also a closet alcoholic; Adam, Jr., his oldest son who, in his loyalty and gentleness, is compared to a golden retriever; Petra, his daughter and his favorite; and a strange figure named Benny Grace who Hermes tells us is really the goat-footed god Pan in human disguise.
We can’t really trust Hermes’s word, though, in this instance or in much of the rest of the novel. He is, after all, one of Greek mythology’s most noted tricksters, and he joins a long list of Banville’s unreliable narrators. (My favorite remains Victor Maskell, the art historian and spy from The Untouchable.) Take the novel’s first sentence. The gods of The Infinities decidedly do not exist to give humans comfort—Zeus at one point takes the physical form of Adam, Jr. in order to sleep with the poor man’s wife, while mischievous Hermes, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, delights in playing tricks on mortals. Moreover, on this particular day, dawn does not work: Hermes delays the sun rise for an hour so that Zeus can engage in his seductive games.
What we can trust, though, is Hermes’ claim that the gods stand in awe of the spectacle that is creation. The novel is filled with breathtaking sensual descriptions—descriptions of light refracting off water, of the heavy feel of air right before it rains, of the taste of “gluey” cereal after it has sat in milk. Banville is such a beautiful stylist that I’m tempted to simply quote some of his most lyrical turns of phrase: a blushing character’s face “is tinged with palest pink, like milk with a drop of wine in it”; an estuary has “sheets of shiny, indigo-tinted mud arrowed all over with the prints of wading birds” (what a strange, wonderful use of the word “arrowed”); a child blows bubbles from a clay pipe, and the bubbles “seemed to be rotating inside themselves, as if the top was always too heavy, and the iridescent surplus kept cascading down the sides.” Banville’s prose is itself an “iridescent surplus”: his physical descriptions offer us shimmering beauty that exceeds what we might expect (and what the plot strictly requires).
Banville’s lyricism is impressive—and, in this case, justified by his choice of narrator, since Hermes is the inventor of the lyre—but its relentlessness runs the risk of alienating the reader. When every page, almost every sentence, contains a gem-like descriptive beauty, surplus can turn into surfeit: we all love ice cream, but few of us would want to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Banville, however, is able to avoid this lyrical overload, largely through his interesting treatment of Godley’s discovery of “the infinities.” Early in his career, Godley proves mathematically that there is not one but an infinity of universes: we inhabit one particular, contingent world, but innumerable possible worlds exist simultaneously alongside ours. As readers of science fiction know, the postulation of other, co-existing universes, what physicists call a “multiverse,” can be great fictional fodder. The universe that the characters of The Infinities live in is slightly different from our own, and not just in the fact that Greeks god actually exist there. In the world of the novel, someone named Alfred Russel Wallace, not Darwin, is credited as the father of evolution (a theory that has been discredited); Goethe is a forgotten poet; Mary, Queen of Scots, ascended to the throne and beheaded “the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth”; and, in my favorite twist, Europe is in danger from a “bellicose Sweden,” which is “on the warpath again, mired in yet another expansionary struggle with her encircling neighbors.”
Godley’s discovery leads to many practical applications (including, somehow, the perfection of cold fusion), but it also leads to existential questions. If we live in only one of a possible infinite number of universes, what does this say about the pettiness of our tragedies and our triumphs? Where can we find meaning within a universe that is defined by infinite contingency? Is it within consciousness? If so, doesn’t this lead to pure solipsism? Adam wonders, “How can people go on being fully real when they are elsewhere, out of [my] ken?” Banville’s easy wedding of lyricism, philosophizing, and sheer playfulness reminds me at times of Saul Bellow.
The Infinities is a refreshing read, clearing away the film from our regular, dazed perceptions. As Adam lies in a coma, he thinks of how he will miss “this frightful and exquisite world and everything in it, light, days, certain faces, the limpid air of summer, and rain itself, a thing I have never become accustomed to, this miracle of water falling out of the sky, a free and absurdly lavish, indiscriminate benison.” Banville’s novel reminds us that, from the perspectives of both gods and men, this world is pure gift.