The Playground of the Gods
By John Banville
Here we have John Banville, the current-day luminary of Irish literature. When I worked in a bookstore in Dublin, people spoke of him like he was an angel. And he can, indeed, write like an angel. He has that Irish troubadour’s way of making elegant speech seem colloquial, and colloquial speech seem elegant. I’ve read a lot of young authors recently, and when I opened the pages of this book I could feel the difference immediately. The sentences felt more impressive, and less designed to impress. His newest work, The Infinities, opens with this incantatory passage:
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 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. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy. Many of them sleep on, of course, careless of our cousin Aurora’s charming matutinal trick, but there are always the insomniacs, the restless ill, the lovelorn tossing on their solitary beds, or just the early-risers, the busy ones, with their knee-bends and their cold showers and their fussy little cups of black ambrosia.
It got my attention, and I prepared myself for what I was sure would be an important book. This felt like The Sea, Banville’s Booker-winning novel of 2005 that takes a simple story – an old widower looks back upon his past – and tells it with verbal majesty. Banville can go from description to action to dialogue to inner monologue and back again like he’s waltzing around a room – without a change in tone, an awkward segue, or a single word out of place. That first paragraph of The Infinities promised just such another work. But it never really happened. The characters came and went, time passed, things were revealed, but nothing ever struck with the weight I was expecting.
All these young authors that I’ve been reading are aching to say something perceptive and wise. The strain of it is present in every paragraph. Every character they introduce is obviously ripe for an epiphany. Banville, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be straining at all. I got the impression – although it is likely an impression he works very hard to cultivate – that Banville could sit down on any given day and write a good book. The Infinities, I believe, is Banville toying with an idea to see what happens. He cooks up a scenario – a slightly odd one – and helps it take its course. But this genial fooling about subsumes the promising combination of his prose and his characters.
It all starts on very familiar ground. An old man is dying and his family gathers at the country home to wait for it to happen. The man, Adam Godley, is a world-renowned theoretical mathematician, famous for formulating a theory of infinities. His son, also Adam Godley, is bland and mild and will never measure up. He is constantly wearing ill-fitting clothes. Young Adam’s wife, Helen, is extraordinarily beautiful, and therefore most people, including her husband, have a hard time connecting with her. Old Adam’s daughter, Petra, is sad and wayward. She idolizes her father and spends long, emotional hours in his room. Petra’s boyfriend, Roddy, also idolizes Petra’s father, and it is a known secret that he only stays close to Petra because he wants to write a biography of old Adam. Their mother, Adam’s second wife Ursula, has long been the spouse of a minor celebrity, and struggles with the thought of defining herself without Adam. The family has two servants, Ivy and Duffy, who could be Dickens characters. They kill chickens with their bare hands and roll their eyes at the family’s ways and are extremely superstitious.
I describe them cursorily, because Banville does the same. It’s almost as if he expects you to recognize them quickly, these characters who stray so rarely from archetype. They each have one defining trait, like the figures in myth, appropriately, because the other major characters are Hermes, Zeus, and Pan.
The gods, as it happens, took an early interest in Adam Godley because his theories affirm their existence. So they too are gathered at his deathbed, and while they wait they decide to tinker with the family’s interactions, like dolls in a dollhouse.
So Banville is working on three levels throughout the book – the family drama, the clash of the mortals and immortals, and a rumination on the nature of self. Again, they are woven together so effortlessly that it’s unclear if one of these themes is supposed to be really important. Perhaps the important point is that, on what seems to be an uneventful day for the Godley family, all of these extraordinary things are taking place without them noticing.
The Godley family is neither a terribly happy nor a dysfunctional family, though there are no two people in it who have a good relationship (except perhaps Petra and her father, who is in a coma). For the most part we see their emotional hang-ups hinder them from communicating very well, although no one feels any particular animosity towards anyone else. We see non-confrontational Adam run into his self-centered sister Petra, and neither of them says anything they really mean. Then non-confrontational Adam talks first to his passive aggressive mother, and then to his aloof wife, and there’s a lot more of nobody saying anything they really mean. They are all in a good deal of pain, each dealing with old Adam’s death in different but profound ways, but completely unable to share that with each other. Banville attributes all this miscommunication not to family dynamics or emotional baggage, but to the immense space between any person and the world around them.
Ursula, thinking of her ailing husband, wonders, “Has he ever been a complete presence, for her?” Old Adam thinks of his first wife, and says, “It is as if she had not been sufficiently present, when alive, for her memory to flourish after death.” They are eternal mysteries to each other, even in the closest of relationships. Every marriage depicted in the book is flooded with doubt, from both sides, that either partner has a firm grasp on the relationship. Because every person, Banville says, inhabits his or her own infinite space, which no other person can ever truly enter.
This point is driven home by the narrator’s shifting perspective. Hermes, actually, is the narrator of the book, but he seems to be omniscient, and he skips from one Godley to the next, reading their thoughts and narrating the action through their eyes. What this demonstrates, more than anything else, is that they have no idea what’s going on with each other. After every conversation, and sometimes during, we see the Godleys puzzling over each other, trying to fathom the motives behind each other’s words. As I said, Banville has painted these characters with broad strokes, but it seems to serve his purpose here. When young Adam and his wife Helen have a private conversation, they come across to each other as they’re coming across to us – as two-dimensional and immutable. Both Adam and Helen know that the other is as complicated and three-dimensional as themselves, but their inability to break through to each other frustrates them. That frustration is present in all the family’s relationships, and sits at the center of the novel.
Young Adam ponders this impossibility after he sees a child staring intently at him from a train window:
He thinks again of the child on the train and is struck as so often by the mystery of otherness. How can he be a self and others others since the others too are selves, to themselves? He knows, of course, that it is no mystery but a matter merely of perspective. The eye, he tells himself, the eye makes the horizon. It is a thing he has often heard his father say, cribbed from someone else, he supposes. The child on the train was a sort of horizon to him and he a sort of horizon to the child only because each considered himself to be at the centre of something – to be, indeed, that centre itself – and that is the simple solution to the so-called mystery. And yet.
This is the book I wanted to read: a family’s tenuous bond scrutinized by Banville’s piercing yet sympathetic prose. And that book is there, but Banville didn’t leave it at that. He took this central premise of each person as an isolated world and connected it to theoretical mathematics, and then gods.
Old Adam became famous when he introduced the theory of “an infinity of infinities…all crossing and breaking into each other, all here and invisible, a complex of worlds beyond what anyone before him had imagined ever was there.” But this theory of colliding worlds, beyond merely explaining the relational hiccups in his family, attracted the attention of Zeus. Old Adam himself realized, when he formulated his theory, that he had convinced himself of the divine:
Adam has always entertained a lively sense of the numinous. Oh, yes, he has, unlikely though it might seem, for a man of his cast of mind. The gods that oversee his world are not divine, exactly, the demons not exactly devilish, yet gods they are and demons, as palpably present to him as the invisibles he has devoted his life to studying…For all the famed subtlety of his speculative faculties, his is a simple faith. Since there are infinities, indeed, an infinity of infinities, as he has shown there to be, there must be eternal entities to inhabit them. Yes, he believes in us, and takes it that the hitherto unimagined realm beyond time that he discovered is where we live.
I got the impression that the gods like hanging around the Godley house because they feel that old Adam understands them. Hermes introduces himself thus:
I am Hermes, son of old Zeus and Maia the cavewoman.
You don’t say, you say.
I understand your scepticism. Why in such times as these would the gods come back to be among men? But the fact is we never left – you only stopped entertaining us.
As old Adams entertains them, they reciprocate the attention. Hermes and Zeus are inhabiting the Godley house unseen. When the novel opens, Hermes is delaying the sunrise by an hour so Zeus can have time to sleep with Helen. Pan shows up later in human form, as Benny Grace, a longtime friend of Adam, and makes the whole family uncomfortable by staying all day.
Banville has a bit of fun, as any novelist would, in making up the parameters of how the gods operate. They are basically omnipotent (the only harness on their powers are their ramifications) but not omnipresent. While Hermes is spending the day with the Godleys, he has no idea what’s going on anywhere else. They can inhabit the bodies of humans to work some mischief (Hermes kicks up a little romance between Ivy and Duffy) but they have to fake the voices.
This is all very clever, and frequently amusing, but it’s also where the book lost me. It gets rather crowded. Besides being connected with old Adam’s theory of infinite worlds, I’m not sure what the gods are doing there. The book opens with a likable cast of characters, and then they’re completely upstaged by three deities who come through making messes and laughing about how trivial it all is. I’m left with the impression that John Banville thought it would be an interesting exercise to tell the story of an Irish family who are being manipulated by gods without their knowledge. While this turns out to be an enjoyable novel, the problem is that you can see this other, more crystalline book buried underneath, but you never get to finish it.
Janet Potter has worked in bookstores in Boston, Dublin, Greece, and Chicago. If you ever meet her, she will try to make you read Cloud Atlas.