The Singularities by John Banville - review by Ian Critchley

Ian Critchley

Peril at Arden House

The Singularities

By

Alfred A Knopf 320pp £14.99
 

John Banville once told an interviewer that he absolutely hates being John Banville. He was contrasting his productivity as a literary novelist with his achievements writing crime fiction under the name Benjamin Black. ‘On a good day,’ he said, ‘Banville can’t write more than four hundred words … With Black it’s ten times more.’ Banville’s literary novels may be painstaking to write, but the results are usually worth it. Full of exquisite prose, humour and stunning flights of fancy, they have secured his reputation as one of the best stylists of his generation.

His new novel returns to Arden House, a crumbling old pile that was the setting of 2009’s The Infinities. In that earlier novel, scientist and ‘thoroughgoing shit’ Adam Godley was nearing the end of his life; The Singularities picks up the story several years later. Now it is Godley’s widow, Ursula, who is at death’s door. Meanwhile his daughter-in-law, Helen, is slowly pickling herself in alcohol and his son, also called Adam, has hired a biographer to set down the late scientist’s life story.

As in The Infinities, we are in an imagined alternative universe, familiar in most ways but with the occasional off-kilter and unsettling detail slipped in. In this world, cars run on sea water and the Dutch have invaded the United States, with New York once again becoming New Amsterdam. This is all apparently due to the workings of Godley Senior’s Brahma theory, ‘a dazzling restatement of the fundamental nature of reality’ which has upset the space-time continuum and opened the door to multiple universes. In addition, we’re told that the Brahma theory has led to a sharp rise in the number of suicides. It’s not worth thinking too hard about how plausible this all is or how it has come about: one of Banville’s jokes, aimed squarely at the pretensions of academia, is that nobody, possibly not even Godley himself, understands the science. The editorial board of the journal that first published Godley’s ground-breaking work ‘were ignorant of the meta-mathematics’ in which the theory was formulated.

Into this strange, beguiling milieu step two outsiders: William Jaybey, the struggling biographer hired by Adam Godley Junior, and Felix Mordaunt, a criminal newly released from jail, who claims to have grown up at Arden House and yet finds the place subtly different from how he remembers it. He also knows the house by a different name: Coolgrange. We soon learn that Mordaunt is not who he says he is. It would be giving too much away to reveal his true identity, but suffice it to say that he is a character who has appeared in previous Banville novels. His reappearance suggests that events are about to take a dark turn.

Banville is no stranger to using recurring characters: he has, after all, written three trilogies. But The Singularities takes this to extremes. In addition to the characters that appeared in The Infinities, old Banville protagonists fill the novel, turning it into something like a literary greatest-hits collection. There are mentions of Gabriel Swan (from 1986’s Mefisto) and Cass Cleave (from the Cleave trilogy), to name just two. Banville appears to be playing a game with his readers – spot the character – though you would have to be intimately familiar with his vast oeuvre to fully appreciate all the references and in-jokes. This playful allusiveness and the slips of time from past to present and back again (Banville uses both past and present tenses, often within the same paragraph) fit perfectly with the novel’s theme of nostalgia.

You don’t read a Banville novel for the plot, and this one is no exception. Jaybey heartily dislikes his biographical subject and looks to use the biography to puncture the great scientist’s reputation. We get glimpses of Godley’s seedy life from his letters and we’re treated to a long extract from Jaybey’s work in progress, but this strand of the story never reaches a satisfying climax. And we never do get to the bottom of why Mordaunt finds Arden House both familiar and strange. Is it a result of different universes colliding? Has Mordaunt dreamed his past? Or has Godley’s Brahma theory played tricks on his mind? The lack of clarity may be deliberate, but it’s frustrating for the reader.

As with many of Banville’s novels, the real joy of the book lies in the exuberant prose. There is a madcap grandiloquence to the narrative. Occasionally this might have the reader reaching for the dictionary – in one sentence alone the words ‘haecceity’, ‘stravaging’, ‘oubliette’ and ‘zygote’ feature – but in general the book is a pleasure to read. There is a descriptive verve, too, that sometimes comes down pleasingly on the side of farce, as in the grand party scene that closes the novel, in which a peeping tom falls from a tree.

So Banville is preoccupied with how past and present intertwine – but what of the future? Will The Infinities and The Singularities be joined by a third book to form the fourth trilogy of Banville’s long writing career? I’d put good money on it. For no matter how much he says he hates being John Banville, he seems to have had the time of his life writing this novel.

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