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from saturday's books section

John BanvilleNick Cunard / Rex Features

Hermes, messenger of the Greek gods, is the first voice heard in John Banville's intriguing new novel, and he puts the "omni" - from the Latin for "all" - back into the concept of the omniscient narrator. He is also sardonic and mischievous, not so sure about the humans he manipulates, especially "their lies and subterfuges." But Hermes is well behaved compared to his boss, Zeus, who sleeps with a beautiful mortal, disguised as her husband.

The mortal's name is Helen, and like everyone else in The Infinities, she is at once decidedly of the flesh - on the toilet after her dreamy celestial sexual encounter, she is aware of her own "splashing and ploppings" - and, as her name suggests, touched with the divine.

Helen's husband is none other than Adam Jr., son of Adam Godley, a retired theoretical mathematician who awaits death from deep inside a coma. Godley Sr.'s wife is Ursula, invoking the constellation, and their disturbed waif daughter, "like a sack half filled with sticks," is Petra, meaning "rock" in Greek. A Dr. Fortune and a Benny Grace also make appearances, the latter in a role befitting Pan.

The action, such as it is, in this faux-stage comedy of intrusive deities and unhappy, foolish mortals, observes classical unities of time and place. Events unfold over the course of a midsummer day in a ramshackle Irish country manor called Arden House. That name evokes the woods of Shakespeare's As You Like It, among other places, including the setting for the original Adam's misadventures with Eve.

The title is similarly resonant. Before he fell ill, Adam Godley was preoccupied with a core quantum field theory problem: how certain calculations never yield single answers, but rather unfold into infinity. In The Infinities, the professor has solved the quandary, resulting in both cars that operate on brine and evidence of parallel universes not so unlike ancient conceptions of Gods ruling the planet, and pulling the strings on us puppets, from the clouds.

How does a reasoned insight into the workings of the universe, be it mathematical or theological, accurate or fanciful, assist those puppets going about their messy little lives below? The answer - familiar to anyone familiar with John Banville, including his 2005 Man Booker Prize-winning The Sea - is blunt: It doesn't.

Mental and spiritual disorder, bodily disintegration, all ending in the oblivion of death, is our collective fate, and for this great Irish novelist, the creative offspring of his countryman Samuel Beckett, these are the ultimate infinities.

"The inability of mortals to imagine things as they truly are is what allows them to live," Hermes says, "since one momentary, unresisted glimpse of the world's totality of suffering would annihilate them on the spot, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gas."

Equally infinite, however, is the sensual and sensory beauty of the physical world, itself an animate force, almost a character, in any Banville novel. In The Infinities, the details are typically gorgeous: mist from a river advances up a hillside to press "its flanks shyly against the bottle-glass windows" of a pub, and spring winds that "flow through the streets like weightless water."

In this novel, too, like its predecessor, Banville, while still almost too clear-eyed for his own contentment - the acuity of his prose, its precise renderings of phenomenon, is often closer to an exposed wound than a pretty picture - is clearly taking greater delight than sorrow in perpetual human dishevelment.

As a result, The Infinities, while not as tonally perfect as The Sea, is a joyful reading experience. The book belabours its conceits and doesn't quite unify its voices. But Banville, who had been showing quiet signs of creative weariness, if not of a creeping misanthropy, a decade or so ago, appears to have fallen somewhat back in love with the very messiness, even the randomness, he has long observed and once seemed so distressed by.

It may simply be, as Hermes puts it, that philosophically speaking, "all things hang together" so long as "one has the perspective from which to view them." Or else the form of the novel itself may be the source of the rekindled affection.

The true omniscient narrator of The Infinities, after all, isn't a Greek god: It is the author, able to birth and kill, make happy or miserable his mortal creatures with the stroke of a pen or the clack of a keyboard. Likewise infinite, for sure, is the totality of human suffering that Hermes grimly outlined. But scarcely less boundless is how art can create something which isn't futile and won't, in a sense, die. Fifteen novels into his extraordinary career, John Banville may be once more in love with the art he makes so brilliantly.

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's new book, Mordecai: The Life and Times, a biography of Mordecai Richler, will be published in October.

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