Fake oils and chats with the fuzz

ATHENA John Banville Secker & Warburg £15

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?