Containing multitudes

John Banville opens his latest novel, The Singularities, with a pun and a question: “Yes, he has finished his sentence, but does that mean he has nothing more to say?”. It’s a question that becomes all the more pressing as it emerges that Banville’s freshly released convict is, in fact, on furlough from a few of the author’s other novels, and is condemned to spend his familiar new-found freedom hanging around with a bunch of fellow escapes.

The first chapter finds our felon “striding out into the world a free man, more or less”. Decked in the kind of dashing felt hat his author used to sport when promoting his Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014), he “savours the birdsong and the breeze, the very emblems of freedom”, and is soon behind the wheel of a car, “a nippy little number painted a racy shade of red”. But he has “gone only a little way out on the road” when he comes to “a sighing stop by the kerbside”, “suddenly overwhelmed” by “the stark facticity” of “The sporty car, the swanky clobber … even the innocent sunlight sparkling on the molded panel of glass in front of him … What’s the point of all this overwrought talk, low facetiousness aspiring to the level of art?”.

“Pulling himself together with an effort”, Banville – or his behatted character – “grasps the wheel more firmly”, directing the car “onwards. No going back.” But instead of driving on “into the frightening thickets of the world”, within a paragraph our jailbird is heading back to his childhood home. He may call himself “Felix Mordaunt” – recalling both Mr Morden from Banville’s Athena (1995) and Max Morden from The Sea (2005) – but our dapper delinquent is none other than Freddie Montgomery, the cold-hearted murderer at the center of Banville’s The Book of Evidence (1989).

Arriving back at the family seat, Freddie is transformed, “as if he were not he but his own reflection passing through a flaw in a windowpane, or better say rippling over a crack in a full-length mirror”. He he finds the house transformed as well, into Arden – the setting of this novel’s most direct precursor, The Infinities (2009). Twenty years have passed in Arden since then, but the household still revolves around the late Professor Adam Godley, god-like inventor of the “Brahma theory”, which proposes “that our infinity is only one among an infinity of infinities”, putting even self-identity in doubt”.

In an echo of Godley’s confinement in The Infinities, his wife, Ursula, molds in an upstairs room. Meanwhile, Godley’s daughter-in-law, Helen, drowns the pain of her dead children in crisp Chablis – echoing both the loss of the despairing painter in The Blue Guitar (2015) and Ursula’s drinking problem in The Infinities. It is not long until a biographer turns up – this time not the debonair Roddy Wagstaff of The Infinities, but the shambling Professor Jaybey – geddit? – who is determined to dish “what dirt remains hidden” and to paint Godley as the abominable husband, father, friend and colleague that he really was.

While Jaybey pads about the house, looking for clues and mooning after Helen, another revenant arrives. Freddie dreams that Anna Behrens – the former lover in whose house he bungled the burglary that made him a murderer – will address him by his old name and blow his cover. So, following in Max Morden’s wake, he whisks her off to the seaside, where he reflects on childhood memories while Anna suggests he should turn killer once more. But this is no novel by Banville’s thriller-writing alter ego, Benjamin Black. Here the author drains the episode of drama, undercutting any peril in the revelation of Freddie’s identity with Helen’s repeated insistence that “he’s going under a false name”, and relegating the upshot of Anna’s shocking proposal to the world beyond the final page.

Jaybey gives us a chapter from his biography of Professor Godley, complete with wry footnotes, and – like the biographer in Banville’s The Newton Letter (1982) – worries whether it is useful, or even possible, to nail down the facts, the “tintacks that hold a life in place”. The despairing professor may not get his girl, but there’s little dramatic tension either in another unlikely coupling for Helen or in her summer party, despite the inevitable appearance of another fugitive from The InfinitiesBenny Grace.

Godley’s Brahma theory hovered in the background of The Infinities and The Blue Guitar, placing the novels at one remove from the world so the author could give our world back to us enlivened by his prose. Here it is both more present and less dynamic. As The Singularities pulls ever more of Banville’s work into its orbit, the indeterminacies of the Brahma theory allow enough flexibility to assemble the pieces, one character remarking to another that his sense of dislocation is “all the doing of our late friend the less than godly Adam”, a narrator questioning if the transformations are due to “Godley again, and his infernal meddlings in the essence of things”. While the “unimagined realm” that Godley revealed was already “too much for us” in The Infinitieshere the “Retrograde progression” identified in The Blue Guitar has turned into general decay, as if the theory is “flatting out the very contours of the planet”. In a physics fit for our post-truth era, Banville imagines Godley’s theory requiring that “every increase in our knowledge of the nature of reality acts directly upon that reality”, so that “each glowing discovery we make brings about an equal and opposite darkening “. The universal ban on Godleyan geometry leaves university departments shuttered, technology reduced to “clumpy and defective artefacts”, and the world “gradually, ever so gradually winding down” – a feeling Freddie recognizes because “this is how it was in prison”.

The Singularities is the kind of novel in which a traveling circus is named after Prospero, where one narrator sees into another, quipping at one moment”Flaubert, c’est moi”, and at another giving the reader who may recognize them from an earlier Banville novel a cheery wave – “Hello, yes, me again!”. The author delivers on the promise he once made to the broadcaster RTÉ that “all experience is material” when he revisits in a footnote the prank call that made him think he’d won the Nobel prize in 2019 (“for about forty minutes”) , winking that, in the case of the “Sobrero Prize” hoax, Godley “of course” goes on to win. There’s even space for one of Banville’s avatars to poke fun at the “florid and excitable prose style” of another.

The real Banville’s prose is – of course – better than that, his eye still keen, with melodious phrases and arresting images sprinkled throughout the book. Anna’s dodgy knee gives her a limp or a “lurch, with a forward-plunging motion of one hip, as if she were poling a heavy punt through a reed-choked stretch of stream”. A teapot sits on a silver trivet “like a smooth white hen, a frail scroll of steam lazily curling from its upturned beak”. The tablecloths at the party ripple in the summer breeze as if “waltzing, or dreaming of waltzing, by themselves, languorously”. But in the absence of anything much resembling plot, The Singularities subsides under the weight of its declining universe: “The day moves on, the sunshine comes and goes, the clouds make their stately, indifferent rearrangements, and the world wanes.”

While Benjamin Black can tear through a novel in a few months, John Banville has compared writing the novels published under his own name to “wading neck-deep in mud”. Here his blurred narrators complain that they are “weary. Even a god flags, sometimes.” Unable to summon the energy for a bravura finish, the novel sighs out a fragment from Rilke’s final poem and ends on a dying fall. As the author turns the page on Godley’s decaying world, we can only hope that such a gifted stylist sets course for a livelier universe as he braves the mud again.

Richard Leais the editor ofFictionable

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