Fake oils and chats with the fuzz

ATHENA John Banville Secker & Warburg £15
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The Independent Culture
There is a problem with reality in this book. The main character, Morrow, is described as a "self-made man" who perceives death as "the suddenly shattered mirror of myself". His "sweet cheat" lover, A., seems to "lack a dimension". His Aunt Corky is a liar with falsified papers, and eventually a fudged death certificate. His temporary employer, Morden, "wasn't born anywhere". Morden's low life associate, Francie, seems "made- up, a manufactured man". The crime boss, "the Da", dresses alternately as a woman and a priest. The policeman, Hackett, could be telling the truth, or following "some shady and convoluted purpose of his own." No one is especially convincing.

The uncertainty that surrounds every detail in Athena is part and parcel of Morrow's ceaselessly solipsistic narration: "solipsism again, my besetting sin." "Was it her I was thinking of, or the idea of her?" he asks, typically, at one point, proceeding to explain the theories that give rise to such a question. Morrow's tale skids constantly to a halt as he ponders whatever morsel he has just thrown out and adds, for example, "I'm sure none of this is as it really happened."

As a matter of fact "this" equals very little, and it happens slowly, but what bare sprinkling of plot the novel provides coheres around a cache of paintings. Morrow is asked by Morden to identify them as either genuine, fake or copies; and in the process he develops a sado-masochistic relationship with A., "my poor Justine," mostly in the room where the dubious paintings are hidden. More than once, in Morrow's telling, his Aunt Corky dies, and there's a visit to a brothel, a couple of drinks in the pub, a couple of car rides, and a couple of chats with the fuzz.

The reader is warned off the lure of the storyline by repeated suggestions that the novel is best approached as a portrait of Morrow's grimy mind. As a result, however, it is hard to resist thinking of Morrow's and Banville's imaginations as being only one inch apart. Banville plays this up by ascribing the paintings to artists whose names (Johann Livelb etc.) are anagrams or translations of his own. At the same time, Morrow is implicitly recast, through the mythical subjects of these paintings, as the cyclops Polyphemus or as Actaeon.

The novel is punctuated by Morrow's academic descriptions of the paintings, and then, creepily, by his meditative voice breaking in and reasserting itself. This voice extends from metrically beautiful descriptions, like the dog, "its pink-fringed, glistening jaws agape," to arrays of bulbous metaphors that seem in dire need of a verbal corset. The phrasing is self- conscious either way, whether self-consciously poetic or self- consciously tedious; and once again the reader is kept from being drawn in.

If Banville is playing a game in all this, then he extends it to serving up implied criticisms of the novel itself. In Morrow's appraisal of L van Hobelijn, for example, as an inferior Botticelli, he writes, "his poor canvas with its jumbled perspectives and heavy-handed symbolism is utterly lacking in the poise, the celestial repose, the sense of unheard music sounding through its pellucid airs, that make of the Italian painter's work a timeless and inexhaustible masterpiece." The fact that Banville is quite aware of what he is doing may serve to throw the charge of heavy- handedness back onto Morrow. However, this does not lighten the overall effect of the book.

Perhaps a game with the reader is all he intends, and perhaps there is good humour to it; but if Banville keeps one step ahead, a further question remains: one step going where?

Rebecca Gowers