In John Banville’s latest novel, the gods might be crazy, but they’re also pretty bored. The Infinities finds Hermes sharing narration duties with a British family as its patriarch lies in a coma from which they know he’ll never emerge. Hermes occasionally interferes, but also shares their painful wait.
After notable physicist Adam Godley endures a stroke and a long hospitalization, his wife Ursula decides to bring him home for his final few days. She keeps vigil at his bed, accompanied by her mentally unstable daughter Petra and son Adam, whose wife Helen fondly remembers the old man who lusted after her in front of her husband. Helen is even more sought after than she realizes: Zeus originally dispatched Hermes to the Godleys’ home to hold back the dawn so Zeus could seduce the young actress unnoticed. In his monologue, Hermes weighs his guilt about being complicit in the adultery (and witnessing some of it from outside the house) and his yearning, shared by all the gods, to share in the mortal love they created without understanding it. While Adam lies in bed, more alert than anyone in the house can tell, he waits for an Olympian visitor of his own, whom he believes has been following him for years.
The Infinities is playful, but not inappropriately so, given that it’s planted amid a family tragedy. Banville skillfully flips among personalities as diverse as the elder Adam—swept up in a reverie of a long-ago trip to Venice—and Petra’s prim boyfriend Roddy Wagstaff, who had been hoping to write the elderly man’s biography. But eventually, the way Banville hides significant traits among the stream-of-consciousness rambling of the rest of the family resembles an elaborate game rather than authorial confidence. In particular, one character’s true attitude is revealed so deep in the book that it calls into question the stilted conversations around the sickbed that drove several earlier scenes.
What’s missing from those moments is Hermes’ thoughtful perspective, which dominates the tone of the first half, as he tracks the Godleys’ distracted errands. As an outsider unaccountably drawn in, he captains the objective view, but longs more than anything to be one of the suffering mortals he knows too well. The tension between those poles adds an intriguing layer to his narration without diminishing his insight, without which the mortals are lost.