THE SINGULARITIES, by John Banville
The Irish novelist John Banville writes prose of such luscious elegance that it’s all too easy to view his work as an aesthetic project, an exercise in pleasure giving. This impression was no doubt reinforced by his Booker Prize-winning novel “The Sea” (2005), which is uncharacteristic in its simplicity and openness. But what drives Banville — and his relentless hunt for the ideal adjective and simile and cadence — is a desire to touch something elusive and not quite nameable while providing a parallel or overlapping commentary on that doomed but never pointless effort.
Although he is often compared to Nabokov, with particular reference to his arch and swaggering narrators, and an emphasis on doubles, Banville’s most important debts are to literary-minded German thinkers (Nietzsche, Heidegger), philosophically inclined German writers (Kleist, Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal) and others in that line of descent, notably Beckett and Wallace Stevens, from whom Banville borrowed an epigraph as long ago as 1976, for “Doctor Copernicus,” and a title, “The Blue Guitar,” as recently as 2015.
“The Singularities,” Banville’s exhilarating new novel, offers itself quite overtly as a rumination on, or rummage around, ideas about representation. Like much of his best work, it aims to both scrutinize and confront one of the central challenges of the human endeavor: how to create an accurate portrait of things. It has two, very different, know-it-all narrators. One is a god or “godlet,” a never-identified son of Zeus, who has access to human thought and takes the reins for 10 of the 17 chapters. The other is the academic Jaybey (a homophone for his creator’s initials), who is writing a biography of the late mathematician Adam Godley and has been invited to examine his papers at the Godleys’ estate in County Wexford, Ireland.
In Banville’s version of history, Godley’s Brahma theory proved the existence of infinite universes and immediately produced an interference effect in the world. Like the blue guitar in Stevens’s poem, which changes “things as they are,” the discovery does not only reflect reality but has a direct impact on it. New York, for example, is called New Amsterdam again. Cold fusion is possible, so car engines and other machines run on salt water. What confuses matters, for the characters and occasionally the reader, is that the overhaul has not been total. The recently released convict Freddie Montgomery, who confessed to a murder in Banville’s 1989 novel “The Book of Evidence,” turns up at his childhood home, only to find that it is now (and perhaps always has been) the Godley residence. But Montgomery’s status as a villain in Irish society hasn’t changed, and he is forced to adopt a pseudonym, Felix Mordaunt.