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John Banville seems incapable of writing an inelegant sentence. His books are consistently beautiful, often somewhat tricky in construction, and oddly, vaguely disappointing in the end.
In "The Infinities," his first novel since "The Sea" won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, Banville remains true to form, with writing so fine that, again and again as I was reading, I felt compelled to repeat lines to anyone who would listen, yet so finely integrated, so perfectly balanced, that the lines, out of context, had little of the power that they had on the page. You cannot distinguish the threads from the weaving.
The formal conceit in this case is that Hermes (aka Mercury, Argeiphantes, Logios, Psychopompos!) is narrating the tale. That is, we are seeing the story from a godlike perspective that moves fluidly among the points of view of the people involved in the drama, allowing us to understand each character's part within a larger sense of what's happening. Further complicating matters is Hermes' old dad, the endlessly horny Zeus, who has a hankering for the protagonist's wife.
The gist of the story is that a great man, Adam, is dying, while his troubled family gathers at his country home (near woods that lend themselves to magic, of course) to witness the end. The dying man, an outsize character akin to those at the center of so many of Iris Murdoch's books, is a brilliant physicist whose greatness lies in seeing beyond what seems to be the unified theory that is the grail of science today. It's all a bit confusing, but that may be me. Here is how it's described: "It came to him as a flash of lightning that in those dark infinities which had been disrupting his sums for so long there lay, in fact, his radiant solutions." Or: "My final series of equations, a handful of exquisite and unimpeachable paradoxes, was the combination that unlocked the sealed chamber of time."
Yes, well. It really doesn't matter, except that Adam's greatness seems to have been frittered away in an unholy alliance with a character -- Benny Grace, a "happy faun" -- who also shows up at his deathbed, much to the discomfiture of the family (and of readers who are trying to make sense of the story behind the story).
Adam's second wife, considerably younger, is in attendance, along with their children, the deeply disturbed Petra and the big, clumsy, lovable Adam Jr. Adam Jr.'s beautiful wife, Helen, so alluring to Zeus, is unhappily there, as is Petra's prim suitor, who appears to be using her to get closer to the great man, whose biography he hopes to write. Also present are the maid/cook, whose people once owned the property, and her somewhat reluctant suitor, Duffy, the rough old family retainer.
What follows is a "Midsummer Night's Dream" of a story, with lovers bewitched and misled, surprising appearances prompting revelations, and all coming to a not-quite-satisfying end that nonetheless does nothing to diminish the pure pleasure encountered along the way.
Ellen Akins is a novelist who lives in Cornucopia, Wis.