The Singularities: A Novel

  • By John Banville
  • Knopf
  • 320 pp.

This witty yet vexing mashup seems meant for the author’s longtime fans.

The Singularities: A Novel

James Joyce famously observed that the artist should be like a god behind his creation, indifferently paring his fingernails. In The Singularities, acclaimed Irish novelist John Banville positions his first narrator more overtly as a god, “perched at ease as is my wont up here among the chimney pots, enjoying the panoptic view. We have met already in one of the intervals of my faltering infinitude.”

Yes, this god was in another book, too; here, he will assemble characters from several previous Banville novels under the roof below and lead readers on a merry chase.

It begins with a sentence — the end of one, that is: “Yes, he has finished his sentence, but does that mean he has nothing more to say?” One of Banville’s characters has just been released from prison. He has changed his name to Felix Mordaunt because he can’t afford to let the past follow him into a new life. A newly renamed man then, dressed in expensive new clothes, who rents a car from another ex-con and heads for his childhood home.

Mordaunt remembers this home as Coolgrange, and while he drives there, we learn a bit more about him. The sentence he served was for murder:

“Most sins can be denied, suppressed, forgotten even, but not the absolvable one he nurses perforce within him, like a withered foetus. What’s the point of all this over wrought talk, low facetiousness aspiring to the level of high art? It won’t afford him a moment’s reprieve from the awful predicament of being himself.”

Once you’re onto the game, especially if you’re a longtime Banville reader, you might get sidetracked trying to guess who Mordaunt is. Then you begin to realize that a lot of Banville’s characters seem interchangeable in name as well as nature. I went after just such a red herring trying to place him. Doesn’t he have a nasty streak like Max Morden in The Sea? There’s also a Mrs. Grace in The Sea, mother of the aforementioned Morden’s childhood friends and object of his first erotic fantasy. Mrs. Grace, for her part, was like Mrs. Grey in Ancient Light, who had an affair with her son’s 15-year-old friend.

But this speculation is a waste of time. Far better to let go and join the god in his bit of fun. Besides, if The Singularities is to stand on its own merits, the characters must be approach freshly.

So, Mordaunt parks the car and walks to Coolgrange via a very old shortcut. Later in the novel, he remembers something strange about this walk. “He seemed to turn into, have been turned into a new form of himself.”

Cut to Helen Godley, who sees Mordaunt walking along the path one morning as she rises from her bed looking “like the ghost of herself come back to haunt the place where she had died only a minute or two ago.” The sight of this stranger in a camel hair coat wending his way up from the bottom of her garden intrigues her.

She dresses roughly and goes down to meet him. Soon, they are sitting in the old, familiar kitchen getting acquainted. Helen is married to Adam Godley, son of the late, renowned mathematician — also named Adam Godley — who discovered the existence of a parallel universe. Readers will recall these characters from Banville’s novel The Infinities.

Mordaunt realizes that just like him, the house has changed its name. No longer Coolgrange, it’s now called Arden House. Furthermore, the Godleys have no knowledge of anyone like Mordaunt ever having lived here. He has stepped through “that ripple, through that rip in the upholstery of the world.”

These are just a few of the characters we meet at Arden House. Later, another character who knew Mordaunt in another book at another time wonders if it all means something. But then, “for something to mean something it would have to be directed by somebody, like a bad stage play. And then there is the question of a point of view.”

Which brings us to The Singularities’ second first-person narrator, another “godlet” called Jaybey, sent down by Zeus from Mount Olympus. He once wrote a biography of Sir Isaac Newton, but his academic reputation is fading and he needs a new project.

Jaybey meets with Adam Godley (the son) at a bar in New Amsterdam — or the Grote Apfel, the New York of a parallel universe — and is persuaded to take on the daunting task of writing the elder Godley’s biography. He will conduct his research at Arden House, where he’ll have access to all Godley’s papers. When Jaybey arrives at the station, he’s picked up by Felix Mordaunt, the new driver now ensconced at the home of the Godley’s maid, Ivy.

One of Banville’s signature devices is the double plot. But as we progress through The Singularities, so many plotlines intersect, pass each other by, and sometimes fizzle out entirely that it’s impossible to follow them all. The question is, does it matter?

We do get a big chunk of Jaybey’s early draft and learn more about Godley’s Braham theory: “topological/field equations, through miracles of elegance and immaculate simplicity; the laws that govern the ‘infinite fissuring’ of world-liness, and even the meta-mathematical technique for combining and recombining the singularities,” which answers some questions.

But as often happens when you’ve been wound up so thoroughly, things get more confusing the deeper into the book you go. And anyway, what is Mordaunt doing here other than screwing up everybody’s life? At a big party toward the conclusion of the novel, the guests are looking at him covertly, trying to work out who he is.

“See how pinched and costive we are becoming, at the end,” says the god. “But ah, it’s sad, the poor creatures hardly have time to get the hang of being here before they’re summoned away.”

If you’re a Banville fan, you’ll get a lot of what you came for in The Singularities: brilliant writing from the extraordinary mind of an author who can sometimes be a little too clever, along with a good dose of nastiness — especially when it comes to describing the women his male characters find attractive. Helen Godley, for example, has “the must of sleep, the piney scent of soap, the smell of sweat, and cigarette smoke — is it? — and also a faint trace, a very faint trace hardly a hint, forgive my mentioning it, of the excremental, for she has yet to take her morning bath.”

Another example: In the Godley biographical writing, Jaybey gets sidetracked in his description of the professor’s sojourn in Venice with a much younger mistress by a lengthy explication on scabs. Who but the gods could indulge in stuff like that?

Honestly, I found it tiring to be constantly reminded of the presence of a god and his hijinks. (Even Banville gets sick of it: “I am weary — even a god flags, sometimes.”) When Mordaunt thinks about Godley’s Brahma theory, it all seems like “a lavish hypothetical light-show put on in a playfully imagined realm.”

That’s how I felt when I put this book down. On the sentence level, I was completely dazzled, and I left Banville’s show dazzled. But I wasn’t satisfied. The Singularities left me feeling instead like Jaybey: in over my head.

Which brings me back to James Joyce, and what he did for literature. He showed us that nothing has to lead anywhere. You don’t need plot. Instead, a novel can be a magnificent feast of language in service to the extraordinary nature of ordinary people. And if John Banville can’t take a page from that book, I’d like to know who can.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.

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