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The Infinities, By John Banville

A dying mathematician discovers he can play god

Joy Lo Dico
Sunday 20 September 2009 00:00 BST

It is nothing if not audacious to have the Greek god Hermes as narrator of your novel. But, having won the Man Booker Prize for his previous book, The Sea, the Irish author John Banville has moved on to a higher plane. While The Sea had its protagonist in an upward conversation with the Graces, The Infinities looks down upon mere mortals.

Arden is a house in the English countryside, in the attic room of which the aged and eminent mathematician Adam Godley lies on his deathbed. Beneath him, his family has assembled. His adult son, also Adam, has returned to the family home and is sleeping in his childhood bed with his wife, Helen. Ursula, the mother, drinks secretly, clinging to a belief that her husband, though unconscious, is still cognisant. And Petra, the daughter, a self-harmer, indulges in her obsession of cataloguing all human diseases alphabetically.

Though Godley should be about to meet his maker, there is no sign of the Christian God. Instead, we have the forgotten ones of Greek mythology: Hermes, Zeus and Pan become interlopers on what seems to be the last day of Adam Godley's life.

There is a central conceit, lightly worn, that Adam Senior was the man who mathematically proved the existence of alternative universes. These other worlds are most evocatively suggested in the opening scene, at dawn, when young Adam notices the early light "falling in unaccustomed corners, at odd angles." One is reminded of Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, where a skull, distorted by perspective, skates across the bottom of the picture. It is these slants and snags that Banville ploughs for other ways of seeing Godley's dying. Though Infinities sticks to the Aristotelian unity of time and place, the action all taking place over 24 hours, Banville uses the conceit of other universes to wrap in the meandering thoughts of all members of the family – even the dog Rex gets his turn. And in one of the novel's most striking passages, the mathematician in his coma thinks lustfully of his daughter-in-law, Helen, but cannot feel his body to know whether it is acting upon his thoughts. So Zeus becomes the agent of his desire, descending into Helen's bed while young Adam is surveying the suspended dawn (Zeus has instructed Hermes to hold back the sun from rising) and, in the guise of her husband, drives Helen into a sexual frenzy.

While at the heart of the book lies death, shrouded in some exquisitely cast sentences and myriad cultural references, this novel also has a levity, even comedy. There's a cast of supporting characters worthy of a modern-day Shakespeare, to whom one assumes the house name Arden is a reference; bathetic descriptions of using the lavatory that would have had Beckett smiling; and the Gods' playful pursuit of women that could be lifted straight from Ovid's The Art of Love. Banville, already esteemed for the brilliance of his language, proves in this novel to have a mastery, too, of these many colliding universes.

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