Review: The Singularities, by John Banville



John Banville’s “The Singularities” begins with a homecoming, a traveler’s return after a long absence. A man, allegedly named Felix Mordaunt, who has just been released from prison, wanders onto the property where he allegedly spent his boyhood.

It’s difficult to avoid the word allegedly in writing about this novel: There is a great deal of unreliable reportage and speculation. Even information that comes directly from the narrator — or rather one of the several narrators whose identities are themselves often uncertain — is frequently unreliable. This man’s name is not really Felix Mordaunt, and there is some doubt about whether this really is his ancestral home. It isn’t only the world that has changed while he was locked away, though it surely has; history itself seems to have somehow been altered.

The property he wanders (back?) onto is an English country estate, featuring one of those expansive houses where hidden libraries lurk behind secret sliding panels and upstairs rooms contain ancient relatives passing their final days in a twilit haze of dream and reminiscence. The house was formerly owned by Adam Godley, a brilliant mathematician and also (allegedly?) a difficult, if not despicable, human being. Now it has passed to his heirs: his son, also named Adam, and the younger Adam’s wife, Helen.

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world,” Marx famously wrote. “The point, however, is to change it.” But Godley’s interpretations, it seems, actually had the power to change the world — so potent a power, indeed, that further theorizing along these lines has been forbidden. Thousands of academics have been cut loose from their jobs, entire university departments closed. (“Rumor had it,” we are told, “that the brainier ones among them were to be forced into deep comas to quell their catastrophic musings.”)

It turns out that the anti-intellectuals were right all along: Thinking is dangerous. In the universe of “The Singularities,” every inquiry into the true nature of the universe only magnifies its already considerable disorder and instability.

So, the elder Adam has left to humanity an untidy and decaying world, just as he has left to his family a shambling, untidy, decaying house. Helen and the younger Adam seem unhappy there, yet incapable of leaving. They cannot have children. They seem unable to imagine any other possible direction, except for that of entropy — which, if Adam’s father’s theories are correct, is likely the only genuine direction anyway. Helen, a former actress of considerable beauty, drinks too much and knows that she does. Adam is less rebellious, more sedate, a dutiful companion to his beautiful wife; he seems to think himself less than fully worthy of being his wife’s husband — or, for that matter, his father’s son. (Others think this too.) His attempt to give his life some shape involves enticing a somewhat dubious academic, William Jaybey, to write a biography of his dad. Out of fear, perhaps, of being forced to spend too much time alone with Helen, Adam invites Jaybey to come live in the house.

John Banville: “What is it about the Irish that makes them so gifted as writers?”

Jaybey’s arrival takes place not long after Mordaunt’s, and others follow in Mordaunt’s wake. Indeed, psychically, at least — or metaphorically? — Mordaunt is dragging a fair bit behind him: memories, regrets, ex-lovers, ghosts, and of course, the crime for which he was locked away. He and Jaybey, it turns out, are connected, and both are connected to the senior Adam Godley. Actually, everyone in this world seems to be connected with everyone else, though they aren’t always aware of it. Perhaps that is the real message at the center of Godley’s theories: Everything is connected, for better or worse.

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Banville, who won the Booker Prize in 2005 for “The Sea,” is up to some fine mischief here, drawing characters out of several of his previous books and throwing them together into a chaotic universe where nothing, including what we know of them from those prior novels, is necessarily fixed or secure. Felix Mordaunt’s true name, when it is revealed, will be familiar to Banville’s longtime readers, most of whom will no doubt already have guessed his real identity. Sometimes it feels like Banville is toying with his characters, or torturing them, as Luis Bunuel or the Coen brothers sometimes do with theirs. For their part, Banville’s characters seem highly self-aware, intuiting the existence of a higher power that is toying with them and wondering what he is up to. But unlike Banville’s readers — who are no doubt wondering too — they have no way of knowing how luscious and finely wrought are the exquisite sentences in which their sad lives and inscrutable fates are described and revealed. Such is the beauty of Banville’s prose that every page of “The Singularities” is a perplexing and enigmatic delight.

Troy Jollimore’s new collection of poetry is “Earthly Delights.”

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