John Banville | Critical Review by Douglas Glover

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of John Banville.
This section contains 986 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Douglas Glover

SOURCE: "Irish Eyes Unsmiling," in Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1995, p. 3.

In the following review, Glover asserts that Banville's Athena has a much more conventional plot than his earlier novels.

John Banville is an Irish author singularly unafraid of the stigma of hyperbole and baroque excess. His novels are littered with incestuous, decaying families, waifish women inviting the whip or the hammer, and drunken, ineffectual male orphans (real or figurative) who move through a fog of decadence, drift and dread worthy of the great Gothic masters.

Known best in America for his historical novels Kepler and Dr. Copernicus, Banville has lately been mining a vein of contemporary Irish grotesquerie centered on a serial character called Freddie Montgomery. In The Book of Evidence, Freddie, drinking too much and down on his luck, tried to steal a painting from a squire's country house and ended by murdering the maid with a hammer. In Ghosts, free after serving 10 years in prison (a life sentence in Ireland), Freddie turned up on a sparsely populated island where he had been hired as secretary to an aging professor whose specialty was a little known Parisian painter named Vaublin.

If there can be said to be a conventional plot in Ghosts, it turned on Freddie's abortive love affair with a young woman dropped ashore by a drunken ferryboat captain. This woman and her shipmates bore a striking resemblance to figures in a Vaublin painting called "The Golden World"—part of the collection Freddie pillaged in The Book of Evidence and probably a fake.

In Banville's new novel, Athena, Freddie's back, this time in Dublin under the assumed name Morrow, hired by a man called Morden (who works on a street called Rue) to authenticate a cache of 17th Century paintings on classical themes. In contrast to Ghosts, Athena is knee-deep in conventional plot elements. There is a cockamamie art fraud plot—something out of "The Rockford Files"—with a cop called Hackett and a sinister transvestite gangster called Da. There is a plot of sexual obsession and sadomasochistic love between Freddie/Morrow and a girl called A. And there is an astringently tender subplot involving Morrow's elderly Aunt Corky (not a blood aunt; the connection is vague), who moves into his dingy flat to die. In the background lurks a mysterious serial killer who drains his victims' blood.

For much of the novel, the cracked love story between Morrow and A., a young woman with preternaturally white skin and bruised lips, takes center stage. From the outset, the bumbling, chronically depressed Morrow (not since The Ginger Man have we met a character so engagingly and self-destructively melancholy) is besotted and yet knows that she will leave. His breathless, goggle-eyed account (reminiscent of Humbert Humbert's in Lolita) of their wanton trajectory, from innocent abandon, to voyeurism, to a menage a trois in a seedy brothel, to spanking and whipping and complicit infidelity, is a droll parody of Victorian pornography—melodramatic, perfervid and decidedly unsexy as the situations become more bizarre and mechanical.

Though Freddie/Morrow has taken pains to conceal his identity, everyone else in the novel seems to know exactly who Morrow is—from the criminals who hire him to authenticate their paintings, to the investigating detective, to A. herself, who shocks Morrow one day by asking him to strike her the way he struck that unfortunate maid in The Book of Evidence. Even Aunt Corky hints that she may not be his aunt but his mother. At every turn, an atmosphere of mystery, unreality and downright fraud dogs his steps, so that, though Morrow is telling the story, he seems more and more like a character in someone else's book, a cog in someone else's plot.

And interspersed throughout Athena there are catalog descriptions of the paintings entrusted to Morrow, paintings on classical themes of violence, rape and transformation that bear, on the face of it, a strong resemblance to the events of the book (just as in Ghosts the characters seem to have walked out of the Vaublin painting).

So Athena becomes a kind of echo chamber of comic despair in which everything seems fated or written by another hand, where gods toy with humans and turn them into beasts, where a miasma of solipsism hangs in a world of dream, and mysterious lost children, doubles and putative parents hover just out of focus. When A. disappears near the end of the novel, she leaves a note: "Must go. Sorry. Write to me." But there is no signature and no address, and Morrow is left with only the presence of her loss, a pneumatic void into which he writes his words.

All this is peculiar stuff—heady, hilarious, hyperbolic and strange. Banville's literary ancestors are writers like Poe, Beckett and Nabokov. His novels are little wars between a repressive, fusty, petty bourgeois sensibility (Irish, Victorian and Modern, with a capital M) and the dark, bubbling, drunken, violent, godlike forces of sex and madness that lurk beneath the surface of life and language.

On the strength of his novels, Banville is not so much a postmodern writer as a pre-modernist, and his critique of modernity rests on a romantic, Arcadian vision of our pre-Renaissance past. Part-way through Athena, Morrow explains how the invention of perspective in painting destroyed the blissful, circular forgetfulness of the past, "spawning upon the world the chimeras of progress and the perfectibility of man and all the rest of it. Illusion followed rapidly by delusion: that, in nutshell, is the history of our culture. Oh, a bad day's work!"

From this vision, everything else follows: Morrow's confusion, the novel's atmosphere of fog and drift result from the application of narrowly rigid concepts of self and reality to a world that is ever and always mysteriously other. Stripped clean of contemporary talk show anodynes and psychobabble bromides, the world of Athena is finally hyperreal—one in which loneliness, loss and despair throb at the very center of being, and poetry, once again, is possible.

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This section contains 986 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Douglas Glover
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