05/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What John Banville's The Infinities Teaches Us About Living and Dying

For centuries, pious people have wondered where the gods go when they visit earth. In his newest book, The Infinities, Irish novelist John Banville has found the answer: to the Godleys' creaky old country house that gurgles with memories and ancient piping. There, two families, one mortal--the Godleys--and one immortal--the Olympians--gather at the deathbed of the father of the house, theoretical mathematician Adam Godley.

Why, you might ask, would these divine beings want to visit this place? The commute is wothwhile because the house holds answers, even for the gods. What does The Infinities teach us (aside from how to sleep with Zeus without your husband knowing)? Based on Heinrich von Kleist's play, Amphitryon, Banville's novel reveals that the secret to living (and dying) is to become aware of other dimensions and how to exist in them, to learn to inhabit the impossible.

Suspended among thoughts of the living, dying, and deathless, with Hermes as our guide, the novel takes us on a tour of different realities, from Olympus down to earth. In this deathbed Mrs. Dalloway, we spy on the cosmic, comic, infinite, and infinitesimal in each characters' mind.

In fact, Banville is so fond of exploring alternate existences that he assumed one of his own as a writer. After winning the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, he took on the pen name Benjamin Black to write a series of crime novels. Thus, The Infinities functions simultaneously as a novel and as the journey of a writer coming out of hiding.

Even Banville's prose seems to exist in another sphere. It's peppered with word images paired in unexpected combinations, such as country light, "the hue of headaches" (51). Similarly, the book's colors, and particularly its blues, come in haunting, hyphenated pairs. Its pages are filled with "plum-blue" twilights (69) and "dream-blue" distances (44).

Faced with Banville's encyclopedia of the ineffable, we become scientists of existence. After grappling with the existential for 273 pages, the verdict seems to be that we are all indecipherable languages, uncracked codes of mind and heart--and that's okay. Ultimately, the presence of the gods in The Infinities draws our attention, not to the heavens, but to the characters' spaces within, and the inner infinite in us all.