- 25 Oct 22
Not With A Whimper But With A Bang
“Yes, he had come to the end of his sentence, but had he anything more to say?” On the one hand the opening line of Banville’s latest refers to Freddie Montgomery, he who narrated The Book Of Evidence, released from prison (again) and travelling under the moniker of Mordaunt. On the other, it could be Banville himself speaking, who revealed in recent interviews that this may well be his last “arty” novel, although he’ll keep going with his rather excellent side line in crime thrillers as there are still mouths to feed.
If that’s the case, and the novel’s final line is indeed marked as “a last stab” with “an infinitely full stop”, then it’s all the more reason to savour this literary head scratcher. It’s not entirely necessary, although it certainly wouldn’t do you any harm, to have a close familiarity with Banville’s previous work to get something out of it – yes, Montgomery has turned up a few times in the past and I’m sure there are other references which far more capable reviewers than I can fill you in on – but you do have to pay attention, as The Singularities is far more quark than Quirke.
Montgomery/Mordaunt re-enters an altered world, “moving amongst these long-term inmates who persists in dreaming themselves free”, where the very fabric of reality has been rent apart by the Brahma theory of Adam Godley, Sr. From what I can grasp of it, the inhabitants of Banville’s universe have literally become too smart for their own good. The Godley Interference Effect, a result of this Brama Theory, “showed that every increase in our knowledge of the nature of reality acts directly upon that reality, and that each glowing new discovery we make brings bout an equal and opposite darkening, the punching of a hole in the wall of the great sphere that is time and space and all besides.”
In order to avert this end, where eggheads puncture the shell, university departments are shut down, with more incorrigible academics rumoured to have been placed into comas, and any further Godleyan geometry is banned. There are no more planes on this plane so when characters go to and from New Amsterdam, recently renamed because of a Dutch victory, they take the train. The Hadron Collider has been shut down and filled in so those quarks I mentioned earlier are also out of a job.
There is a plot around all this. Mordaunt goes back to the house where he was raised, it was once Coolgrange, it’s now Arden House, which happens to be home to Adam Godley, Jr and his wife, Helen. Godley the younger hires William Jaybey as his late father’s biographer, and his investigations further uncover, despite some missing papers, what a bad sort this Oppenheimery destroyer of worlds was.
That’s all well and good but let us return to the author, who is (again) “little god” here, running the show and even alluding to his own reality when he mentions, in a footnote, how “Godley was the subject of a hoax which led him to believe, briefly, that he had been awarded the Sobrero Prize”, just as Banville himself was tricked over the Nobel. Godley “would go on to win famously and controversially, some years later” but will Banville ever be summoned to Stockholm or has, as he suspects, the hoax exploded his chances like a sample of Ascanio Sobrero’s discovery?
Can we apply Godley’s theory to what Banville is doing? If this is his last “serious” work then perhaps he is deliberately employing the interference effect in order to bring the final curtain down, punching holes in the fabric of the universe he has created across several works. It'd be a shame to see him call time, for here is an author whose powers can forever dampen a daffodil’s beauty by poetical pairing its colour with that of “an absinthe-drinker’s bile” or perfectly define a compromising situation by comparing it to “a gentleman and his valet brought face-to-face by ill-chance in the front parlour of a back-street brothel.”
How will it all wind up, he asks. "An ape out on the savannah fashioning a flint into an axe-head? Not even that. Not even anything. A set of singularities, infinitesimal points of infinite mass getting ready to burst, and us not dreamt of yet.” In other words, the “last stab… a full, an infinitely full, stop.” The end.