Sunday, March 20, 2011

Left with simply the feeling of time wasted: (The Rum Punch Review of "The Infinities," by Banville, Part 3)


Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.


I began part 2 by wondering how Banville got The Infinities published, and I think I might have found the answer: he got it published by using at least one of my tips for creating a best seller. In that post -- which any aspiring author should read -- I mentioned that one of the surefire ways to create a bestseller was to "recast an old classic:"


What humans mean, when we say we want variety and new things, is this: we want the same old things, but with slightly different sauce. We want Lady Gaga, who is just Madonna done all over again. We want John Grisham to keep writing the same exact book, over and over. We want Tom Cruise to keep playing Tom Cruise in movies, regardless of what the plot of the movie is. That's why Top Gun, Risky Business, Jerry Maguire, Rain Man, and the Mission: Impossible movies were hits while Valkyrie and The Last Samurai weren't: Nobody wants to see Tom Cruise The Nazi, as varied and new as that is. And that's why Taco Bell survives: every single thing that Taco Bell sells is identical to every single other thing that Taco Bell sells; it's just rearranged to look different.

Banville, as it turns out, did just that: he adapted someone else's work, more or less. In an interview with Amazon, --which I won't call "Amazon.com" because calling a company "dot-com" is stupid: the dot-com is its address. Calling a company Amazon.com or Pets.com or anything is like calling Microsoft "Microsoft One Microsoft Way." Just call the company by its name and leave the address out of conversation -- Banville said:



Question: Where did you get the idea to use Greek gods as characters in a novel? And then how did you settle on the ones we meet in The Infinities? John Banville: I have always been an admirer of the great German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, particularly the play I consider his masterpiece, Amphitryon, which I adapted for the Irish stage. In this wonderful tragi-comedy Jupiter falls for Alcmene, wife of the Theban general Amphitryon, and comes to earth with his son and sidekick Mercury, to spend a heavenly night with the lady; the next morning Amphitryon returns unexpectedly from the wars, precipitating an intricate comedy of errors. Originally I intended to base The Infinities quite closely on Amphitryon, but fiction has its own laws and its own demands, and the finished novel is an autonymous creature, though the Kleist is still there in skeletal form.


So he simply adapted the story: "The Infinities" might as well be that Hamlet-only-with-dogs book, or Jane Eyre Plus Skeletons, or whatever other meager gruel is being passed off as new work these days.

That might explain part of why I disliked it so much; I'm not one to dote on ancient Greeks or required reading from high school or anything that's considered a classic when they're not really a classic anything. (As you know.) I find that things that were relevant to one era very rarely are relevant to another era, and so while the themes may be universal, the pacing, humor, and styles are not, and they leave people disliking them. You want to read a classic story of star-crossed lovers? Don't read Romeo & Juliet; do read any number of star-crossed lovers stories written in the past 30 years, including Twilight, which I can't believe I just recommended, but if that many people have loved it, it must have something going for it.

Which brings me back, in a way, to one of what are turning out to be the two themes of this review: whether people liking one thing and then liking another thing can be a good guide to whether I will like it -- in other words, "John liked A, and then liked B" may be true, but is it transitive to me if I liked A?" -- and why would anyone bother reading "The Infinities?"

Because, as I've said over and over, nothing happens! I finally realized nothing was going to happen when I hit 88% completed on the book, and nothing had yet happened, and I realized, then, that I had simply been sitting and waiting for something to happen, that what had been pulling me forward through the book was the expectation that at some point, something or other would actually take place to justify all this standing around.

But nothing ever did. There are major events in the book that go completely unexplained, for example: Petra-- that's the sister's name that I forgot last time and only remembered now because I read it in that Amazon-not-dot-com interview -- cuts herself ceremonially using a kimono and why she has the kimono or what its significance is never gets discussed. Benny Grace introduces Old Adam, in a flashback, to a mysterious older woman who appears to have some power over Benny Grace but it's never explained. Old Adam has a flashback to when he was in Venice and slept with a prostitute after his first wife died. And so on, and so on: these scenes are never developed or explained or even tied into the story...

... which is likely because there is no story. There's not a single thread of narrative element here, no plot, no rising climax, nothing for a reader to hook into. The whole story is buildup to something that never happens, though Banville tries hard to disguise that by making something happen at the very end, sort of, and by wrapping the whole thing up in literary conceits.

The first literary conceit, one I didn't get until I read that interview, is that one of the main characters has been cast in a play -- that play being the same Greek play that the book is a ripoff of. I'm assuming Banville thought we were all familiar with "great German dramatists" and that we'd get the insider-joke/house of mirrors feeling that he maybe was trying for, but, frankly, I didn't, because I'm not familiar with Kleist, and, if I had been familiar with Kleist, I likely would have earlier come to the conclusion that The Infinities was nothing more than a highbrow version of those Family Guy parodies, Robot Chicken for The New Yorker readers.

The second literary conceit is the building thunderstorm -- as the day wears on the heat becomes more and more oppressive and the air becomes more still and the whole day seems to take on the charge of expectancy, much like the book got a little bit of a buzz when Benny Grace shows up, buzz that kept growing and growing like a static charge.

Did you ever, when you were a kid, scuff your feet around to build up static electricity with the intention of giving someone a shock, only to have it not work? I did that once, in Boston Store, a place my mom liked to shop and which was a reliable source of static electricity. Shopping for back-to-school clothes with my mom and my brothers once, I scuffed around and around the boys' department for about 10 minutes, never lifting my feet and anticipating that I was going to probably light my brother Matt's hair on fire when I finally zapped him, and, when I felt that I couldn't bear it any longer -- that if I kept going I might spontaneously combust -- I scuffed over to him and stuck out my finger and waited for him to jump, start crying, complain, something.

He looked at me and said "What?"

That is the ending of The Infinities, in a nutshell: The thunderstorm builds and builds throughout the day, rising in power as the characters... do nothing... and then two characters sneak off to the woods for no reason, and the storm builds more, and they end up at the unexplained, no-reason-for-it-being-mentioned holy well, and then Zeus takes over the body of the man (Roddy, Petra's boyfriend) and kissed the other (Helen, young Adam's wife), and we actually are shown that, instead of telling it...

... and then it's back to everything happening offstage, as Helen shows up back at the house wet, and the thunderstorm is thunderstorming away, and Roddy is being driven (again, offstage) to the train, and the whole storm is made to feel like it's the high point of the book, which makes it anticlimactic, only moreso, when Old Adam doesn't die.

He doesn't live, exactly, either -- he's brought down from his deathbed, apparently no longer in a coma but not much different from when he was comatose. A doctor is summoned, the family puts on the radio, there's a bit of perspective from the dog, Old Adam is sitting on a couch still hooked up to his IVs and even if he isn't in a coma he's still old and obviously not going to last much longer...

... and SCENE.

That's it.

The book ends.

AND, I might add, not only does the not-yet-dying of an elderly character serve as what's supposed to be the climax of the book but the book fades midway through that scene -- with a final, inexplicable mention of Benny Grace for no reason -- but there was no $$#*#&% point in having Old Adam live.

It's not like anyone had unfinished business with him; no mention was made of the kids just wanting to speak to him one more time, or his wife needing to let go or anything like that. It's not clear, either, how Old Adam originally suffered his injury or illness -- that, too, happened offstage.

It's not clear why anything happened in this book, which is what makes me so upset that I wasted time, and ten bucks or so, reading it, and makes me wonder how it got published in the first place. Having thrown money at Banville, did the publisher just decide to go with it and hope for the best? Was there a need to balance out the bookstore's shelves?

I'm not saying that every book has to have a reason for existing... no, wait, that's exactly what I'm saying. That reason could be something highbrow, or lowbrow, but it should be. It could be simply here's an interesting story I have to tell, or the like.

I can't figure out why Banville wrote this book or why someone published it. I know why I read it -- because my Kindle told me that people who bought books that I'd bought went on to buy this book, so now I can't even trust my Kindle anymore, and if you can't trust the electronics in your life, who can you trust?

I think, overall, the best possible analogy for The Infinities might let me get away with a literary conceit of my own: The Infinities is like a stage play that's not very interesting, but has a lot of behind-the-scenes melodrama. It's Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, only in literary form: The storyline itself is ho-hum and doesn't have much to recommend it, but backstage the action is compelling. Nobody really wants to see Spider-Man The Musical, but everyone is eagerly reading about the infighting and the injuries and the overspending and the firing.

That's The Infinities: All the hints at otherwordly stuff, all the suggestions that the characters have done something interesting in the past, all the flashbacks to just after or just before something compelling happens, without bothering to actually show the compelling scenes, hints that there could be something exciting about to happen, and so nobody gets up out of his or her seat for fear of missing it -- until it's too late and the show's over and nobody's actually fallen from the sky, and we're left with simply the feeling of time wasted.

1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

Hey come on, Robot Chicken and Family Guy are a lot better than this sounds like!