Sunday, March 13, 2011
This is the only time you'll read a book review that detours to talk about a deranged clown... (The Rum Punch Review of "The Infinities," Part 2)
Read part one here.
How, I wonder, does a book like The Infinities get published, and get marketed? I remember reading reviews of the book, and thinking "that sounds like something I would probably enjoy" and eventually I bought the book (on my Kindle, which is how I buy all books now) and started reading it, pretty eagerly, too, because it sounded good, like I said.
Almost immediately, I knew I was in trouble. Well, not almost immediately, as the beginning actually starts off in a tantalizing kind of way, with the main character -- Adam, not to be confused with the other main character, Adam, or, rather, to be confused quite a bit with the other main character, Adam, because Banville doesn't often bother distinguishing which Adam he's talking about or which point of view he's using -- and I'll come back to that annoyance/bad writing in a bit -- the main character, Adam, or one of the characters, at least, since there's really no main character, at all, is wandering around in the early morning in an old house, and there's a train stopped outside, a train that's almost ghostly in the way it's described and the effect it has on Adam-the-Younger, a train that for some reason stops by this house in the middle of nowhere and then moves on, stopping for no reason. Nobody gets off, nobody gets on, the train does not refuel or anything like that. It just stops, and then goes, while Adam watches it and thinks.
That's kind of a neat beginning, in that it's otherworldly and well-written and sets the stage for a novel that will take me to unusual places and have unusual things happen and which will open up new windows of thought for me.
Too bad The Infinities doesn't do any of those things. In fact, the opening setpiece accurately sets the stage for what really will follow: the rest of the book, too, will be filled with inexplicable stops and starts, hinting at something interesting and unique, while never actually doing anything before moving on, leaving us stuck here, with these people, doing nothing, while elsewhere there is a world to be visited.
And it's not bad enough that here, with these people -- Adam, his wife, his sister, her boyfriend, their mother, and some hired hands, plus the dying Elder Adam, plus Zeus and Hermes -- is boring, stultifyingly boring. That's not bad enough, but Banville has to go make it worse by (a) hinting at all the exciting things that are going on elsewhere, and (b) constantly shifting points of view from character to character, sometimes without telling you he's doing so or even giving a clue.
I don't know which bothered me worse: the fact that everything seems to happen offstage, or the fact that I never knew who was telling the story.
Either way, the book sucked, but I'll continue to rant for a while about it.
The plot of The Infinities, if it can be said to have a plot at all and I'm not the one saying it does, is that Elder Adam is dying in his house, and the family has gathered around him. The whole story takes place, it seems, in a single day -- the day after Adam and his wife Helen have returned home, the day on which Roddy (the sister's boyfriend and gadabout) and Benny Grace arrive at the house.
Viewing these people, who mostly sit around and do nothing, are two gods: Zeus and Hermes, who have descended to watch whatever it is they want to watch, for no apparent reason. No reason is ever given why the gods have chosen to watch this Adam die (or, as it turns out, not die. I'm not sorry if I spoiled it for you by simply saying that; Elder Adam doesn't die, so don't bother reading this book because now you know the ending.) The gods are just there, being infinite in their existence and apparently infinite in their boredom, too -- an infinity of infinities that served only to demonstrate to me just how infinite my boredom could be, as well.
The people who are in the house quite literally do nothing unless briefly possessed by the gods. Helen and Adam have sex in the morning -- but it's Zeus disguised as Adam. The hired hands get engaged, but only after Hermes briefly possesses one of them to set it up. Other than that, everyone mostly stands around doing nothing, or, worse yet, we get after-the-fact descriptions of everyone standing around doing nothing. There's a seemingly-lengthy bit about Adam The Younger fixing a radio, and Banville frequently mentions the fact that Adam The Younger's clothes don't quite fit.
I was this close to giving up on the book, about halfway through, when Benny Grace came on the scene.
Benny Grace was to The Infinities what the clown in the rocker was to the movie Amusement, and if you have neither read the book nor seen that movie, but are determined to do one or the other, I'd say go with "Amusement" because it'll cost you less in both money and time.
Amusement is a 2008 horror movie:
That Sweetie and I actually watched last night, because Sweetie was told to watch it by Netflix - -using, again, that "people who watched that also watched this" feature that doesn't bother to tell you that the latter one sucked. According to Sweetie, we got told to watch Amusement because of our interest in such latter-day classics as "Sorority Row," so she rented it and we watched it last night, and the entire thing was a waste of time except for one 10-minute sequence in which the main character -- Katheryn Winnick:
Who I thought looked first like Scarlett Johannsen, then like Jennifer Aniston, before deciding that she looked like a cross between the two, as if scientists had genetically melded Jennifer Aniston and Scarlett Johannsen into one super-being, which isn't a bad idea for scientists to be working on...
... I digress. Scarlett Aniston, in Amusement, is one of three girls who are, it turns out, being targeted by The Guy Who Played Todd In Wedding Crashers, because when they were kids Todd made a diorama of a tortured squirrel that they didn't like, so now he's going to kill them, and he's going to do it using (I'm not kidding) a hotel that he's run for years, a giant labyrinth that apparently doubles as an FBI office so far as social workers are concerned, a deserted farmhouse, and a truck driver with a penchant for surprise.
That would all take far too long to explain, so maybe you should watch the movie, and while you watch it, look for answers to these two questions that I still have and which I'll no doubt have to wait for the director's cut to get answers to:
1. Since the girls were aware of the "Peres Pension" hotel where one girl was lured to her death, that means that it was a longstanding commercial operation, so did the killer actually run a hotel for years to set up the attacks, because that seems like a lot of work, and
2. Why did the social worker believe she was really in an FBI office when the only entrances to that office were down a ladder into a tunnel in a deserted farmhouse, or through a maze in a hotel that was made up of deathtraps?
So the point of bringing up Amusement is that there's one scene that is actually very effective: It involves Jennifer Johannsen babysitting and having to sleep in a roomful of creepy clown dolls, one of which is lifesize and which is obviously the killer in an outfit, but Aniston Scarlett doesn't quite realize that, and opts to sleep in the room anyway, with the TV "accidentally" turning on and things like that happening, until she wakes up to answer a phone call from the parents of the kids, and says that she doesn't like the giant clown doll they have in the room, at which point the caller says "We don't have anything like that" and Scarlett Jennifer turns to look and the clown is gone.
The lead up to the clown disappearing is actually quite tense and well-done, even though you know all along what's going to happen, and I liked that part of Amusement even though I didn't like any other parts of it and later forbid Sweetie to rent movies ever again, and I intend to enforce that rule.
And Benny Grace's introduction to The Infinities is like that. When Benny Grace shows up, Banville distractingly and irritatingly switches the point of view and narration to the dog, for no reason, hinting that dogs are smart in this world, but I put up with it because Benny Grace's arrival is all foreboding and hints of thrills and danger: the dog doesn't trust him and wants to chase him away but Benny Grace knows the dog and is able to lull him into letting him in the house, where the sister/daughter meets him -- I don't remember her name and don't care -- and she's on edge by his being there and suddenly everyone is on edge, even old, dying Adam, and even Hermes, all clamoring about Benny Grace is here.
Benny's physical appearance would be comical if we weren't told he's so alarming: he's fat and described as having hoof-like feet, and it's not clear if that's literal, and he's sweaty and grins at the wrong time and always taking off his shoes, and he upsets everyone, even Adam, if Adam is Adam, because it's at the introduction of Benny Grace that Banville lets us see in side Elder Adam's mind, remembering things, only it's not clear if it's actually Adam or Hermes, as the points of view switch off almost at random, making me wonder for most of the book whether Hermes was Adam and vice versa, or whether Hermes was reading Adam's mind, or what was going on...
... but for a while, I didn't care, because the introduction of Benny Grace, like the clown in Amusement, had injected some well-needed tension and excitement into what had otherwise been a laughably tedious enterprise.
But that soon wore off: in Amusement, I was watching tensely and said to Sweetie "That clown better get up and attack soon or I'm going to have a stroke from tension," and I meant it.
In The Infinities, I was, literarily speaking, on the edge of my seat waiting to see what was going to happen now that Benny Grace was here -- halfway through the book, sure, but that wasn't too late to rescue this extended Victorian setpiece, and Benny Grace's introduction provided that tension: something's going to happen, I kept thinking,
and kept thinking,
and kept thinking,
until I noticed that I was 88% of the way through the book and nothing had happened after all, even though Benny Grace was there, and even though everyone was on edge, and even though Adam was remembering things that he and Benny Grace had done (remembering, that is, the aftermath of those things -- remembering coming back from adventures without ever detailing what the adventures were.)
Imagine if you got on a roller coaster and it started up that first hill and then just kept going up and up and up and up and up, tension rising along with you...
... and then the ride stops and you get off.
That's The Infinities. And I'm not done bashing it yet. I'm just out of time for today. There'll be more in part three.