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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Infinities

John Banville

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To purchase The Infinities

Title: The Infinities
Author: John Banville
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 256 pages
Availability: The Infinities - US
The Infinities - UK
The Infinities - Canada
Infinis - France
Unendlichkeiten - Deutschland
Teoria degli infiniti - Italia
Los infinitos - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing take on myth and mortality

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B 24/2/2010 Keith Staskiewicz
Financial Times . 5/10/2009 Adam Thorpe
The Guardian . 26/9/2009 Christopher Tayler
The Independent . 11/9/2009 Patricia Craig
Independent on Sunday . 20/9/2009 Joy Lo Dico
London Rev. of Books . 11/3/2010 Colin Burrow
The LA Times . 24/1/2010 Tim Rutten
New Statesman . 3/9/2009 Alex Clark
The NY Times . 5/4/2010 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/3/2010 Laura Miller
The New Yorker . 5/4/2010 Daniel Mendelsohn
The Observer . 4/10/2009 Adam Mars-Jones
San Francisco Chronicle . 14/3/2010 Jacob Molyneux
The Spectator A+ 2/9/2009 Justin Cartwright
Sunday Times . 13/9/2009 Tom Deveson
The Telegraph A+ 19/9/2009 Tom Payne
The Telegraph . 27/9/2009 David Robson
The Times . 12/9/2009 Matthew Dennison
TLS . 18/9/2009 Giles Harvey
The Washington Post . 6/3/2010 Troy Jollimore

  Review Consensus:

  Mixed -- though practically everyone thinks Banville had a good time with it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Banville's lush, stylized language -- which usually has a sort of self-puncturing pomposity -- here feels overinflated and downright purple." - Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Banville is once more circling around grief and mortality, but this time in a suspended manner that better matches his tendency to forego action for reflection (.....) This will not be to the taste of those who read novels for the drama and drive of relationships; the dialogue in The Infinities, stretched out over the knobbles of observed detail, can lose tension. But the somewhat chilly, lacquered quality to Banville’s recent fiction -- mainly due to the choice of narrator -- is here dissolved by the playfulness of Hermes, unable to understand human love but utterly entranced by it; as he is by death, for these gods desire mortality." - Adam Thorpe, Financial Times

  • "(S)erves as a kind of catalogue of his favourite themes and props. (...) This elaborate intellectual structure rests on skimpy dramatic foundations, however, and the book only really sparks into life when old Adam is recounting his memories. (...) Banville has shown before that a heavy gloss of style doesn't have to rule out artistic restraint and some resemblance to a speaking voice, but, sad to say, he doesn't do so here." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian

  • "The Infinities is played out as a kind of celestial-cum-earthly comedy, with unsettling undertones. (...) The interwoven texture of the novel, and its unimpeachable poise, are what gives point to its randomness of incident." - Patricia Craig, The Independent

  • "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." - Joy Lo Dico, Independent on Sunday

  • "(A) dazzling example of that mastery, as well as of the formal daring and slyly erudite humor that make his novels among the most rewarding available to readers today." - Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Yet it is no accident that his central character is a man who has devoted his life to scrutinising the meaninglessness of such divisions: loss, we understand, is with us whether or not it has actually happened. The success of this novel -- at an emotional level, at least -- is to make us curiously optimistic to have got to the bottom of that one." - Alex Clark, New Statesman

  • "(A) narrative that makes intricate use of this material’s mythic, dramatic and philosophical possibilities while remaining improbably comedic (.....) Mr. Banville manages to write compassionately about his mortals without sacrificing his deities’ exalted wit and wisdom." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "If The Infinities has the bones of a novel of ideas, it’s fleshed out and robed as a novel of sensibility and style. Its drapery is velvet and brocade -- sumptuous and at times over-heavy." - Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Such premises give Banville a useful vehicle for his themes of mortality, creativity, and the possibility of making something truly new in a world that seems increasingly exhausted morally, politically, and spiritually. And yet the book lacks a certain urgency. As often with this author -- not least in his highly overwrought The Sea, which won the Man Booker Prize -- the conceits, the symbolic names and the ostentatiously "lyrical" diction are striking, but too often you feel that the author is simply amusing himself, swatting, like a cat at tinsel, at notions that have caught his eye." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker

  • "By rights The Infinities should be rather a hermetic exercise (though that word derives from a different god), but this is where the uncertain boundaries of John Banville's book pay such dividends, giving the sense of a fringed curtain blowing lazily back and forward between this world and ours, a movement like the book's breathing." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "If letting Greek gods hang around sounds irritating, it isn't; these deftly handled deities give Banville a supple tool for talking about the numinous in human experience. Writing in scannable prose with the iambic heartbeat and heartbreaking alliteration of the best of the Norton Anthology, composing his scenes like painterly tableaux shot through with emotion and possibility, Banville achieves real depth in this alternately grave and bawdy exploration of the nature of time, the legacy of grief, and the costs and sources of inspiration." - Jacob Molyneux, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "It seems to me very odd indeed that this book is not, according to the Booker judges, one of the 12 best books of the year. It may be one of the 12 best books of the decade, or even of several decades. The plot is both extremely simple and vastly complicated. (...) The Infinities is a shortish book, but densely loaded with Nabokovian slyness, gorgeous imagery and disturbing insights into what it means to be mortal. Along the way, everything is described with sensual delight. (...) This is unequivocally a work of brilliance." - Justin Cartwright, The Spectator

  • "John Banville’s intriguing new novel aims to resemble a classical drama. (...) The reader can, however, feel forced into acknowledging portentous -- significance that doesn’t seem to have been fully earned. (...) But there is, nevertheless, some superb writing scattered throughout the book." - Tom Deveson, Sunday Times

  • "The Infinities is a Beethoven string quartet of a novel. It deals with huge ideas -- plenty of them -- and in doing so, breaks new ground in its own medium. It obeys the laws of classical elegance, with its movement from dawn into darkness, with its three parts and its nods to the poetic guidance of Aristotle; and its language as harmonious, with a balancing of all the senses." - Tom Payne, The Telegraph

  • "(S)o deliciously dotty that, if it had been a first novel, it would never have found a publisher. (...) (S)uch is the exuberance of the writing that the novel does not feel like a hotch-potch. As Banville develops his barmy mix’n’match tale, a good deal of his pleasure in creation communicates itself to the reader." - David Robson, The Telegraph

  • "The Infinities is not, for the most part, either a kindly or a happy novel. With insouciant omnipotence, it bestows upon each of its characters an approximation of a happy ending. It is, however, often a funny book -- and one written in such saturatedly beautiful, luminous prose that every page delights, startles and uplifts." - Matthew Dennison, The Times

  • "John Banville's latest novel is good fun, to say the least, although it can sometimes feel as if he's the one having most of it. (...) Banville has already played this game with considerably better luck elsewhere. (...) The Infinities is certainly something new. Whether it's a direction worth following remains unclear." - Giles Harvey, Times Literary Supplement

  • "His latest novel, The Infinities, is haunting, beautiful and perhaps even stranger than those that preceded it. (...) Ultimately, The Infinities is a kind of mystery novel, one that respects its mysteries too much to try to resolve them. The real subject of this unforgettable, beautifully written book is nothing less than the enigma of mortal existence." - Troy Jollimore, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Infinities is yet another take on the Greek gods still being active in modern times, with Hermes as a narrator, hovering over the scene, "this voice speaking out of the void". The story is set in an isolated household, where the old father, brilliant and successful mathematician Adam Godley, lies dying, and family and a few visitors flutter about, concerned about their pasts and futures.
       As the dying man's names alone suggest -- he's Adam, and he is Godl(e)y -- Banville lays it on pretty thick; there's a son, too, also named Adam (suggesting the possibility of another start, and indeed by the end leading to one). Godley Adam's great insight was into the infinities, seeing what others had missed, "a complex of worlds beyond what anyone before him had imagined ever was there". He is -- or was -- an originator:

He can conceive of anything. Conception of impossible things is what he does best. He was ever pregnable by the world.
       But Adam's intellectual prowess and achievements are only a small part of the story -- indeed, it barely rates more than an incidental mention that here cold fusion has been discovered (all based on Adam's "notorious Brahma equation") and so: "the greater part of the world's energy nowadays is derived from brine". Despite this, there's little sense of this being any sort of alter-world (beyond the presence, in various forms, of some Olympians); instead, The Infinities is an almost entirely domestic novel, the characters concerned with the dying man, their various relationships, and their ambitions in life. Among them are such characters as a visitor who hopes to write Adam's biography, and a daughter working on an "encyclopedia of human morbidity".
       The dying Adam, too, looks back at how he lived his life -- and, among other things, how he treated his wives. One unsettling visitor -- "The name he is going under is Benny Grace" -- is a particularly strong presence; a significant companion and almost literal counter-part (or Mephistopheles to his Faust) from Adam's past, he has an effect on the entire household.
       With its unity of time and place -- the action all takes place on a single day, though there is some reflection on the past -- The Infinities feels very much like a Greek play, and Banville sets this up well enough that the very neatly tied up conclusion -- explicable only as being entirely deus ex machina -- seems entirely appropriate.
       Much of the novel meanders about, and 'lush' barely seems to begin to describe some Banville's writing, but if one can overcome one's irritation with this style the work itself turns out to be a rather enjoyable mix of the playful and the philosophical.
       The Infinities is a meditation on mortality -- or rather on coming to terms with it. The gods know man could not endure immortality (as Hermes specifically points out), but there's also the fact that:
     The secret of survival is a defective imagination. The inability of mortals to imagine things as they truly are is what allows them to live, since one momentary, unresisted glimpse of the world's totality of suffering would annihilate them on the spot, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gas.
       Adam, the one who could conceive anything, has now had his mind blunted by a stroke, rendering him truly mortal, But, of course, behind it all there is the author, the one who still can conceive anything -- and driving that point home even further Banville literally presents himself as a god, Hermes.
       The Infinities feels, in almost every respect, staged (though the gods here are not completely omnipotent, and Hermes does keep looking over his shoulder, careful to avoid his own father's ire, knowing the possible consequences of that ...) -- appropriately enough, since the story also leans heavily on Kleist's Amphitryon. It's an enjoyable play, however, with its various characters and their small agendas and hopes (and the mysterious stranger).
       Yes, it's an odd sort of novel, difficult to get a comfortable handle on, but Banville's sure touch -- if one gives in to it (or rather: that particular style) -- makes it an agreeable journey.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 April 2010

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The Infinities: Reviews: John Banville: Other books by John Banville under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irish author John Banville was born in 1945. He has written a number of highly acclaimed novels.

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