The story takes place in a single day. Adam Godley, a famous mathematician is dying, and his family and friends are gathered about his deathbed. We are mostly (always?) with our (mostly) omnipotent narrator, the god Hermes. Oh, yes, the Greek gods are real, and apparently bored, because they like to spend time fucking with mortals. (And also fucking them, but that’s not the main point here. Or is it?) Being omnipotent, Hermes can jump into other people’s minds and discover and relay what they are thinking. Convenient, no?
Everything is told in stream of conscious, sometimes that of Hermes, and sometimes that of others that he relates to us. As thoughts tend to jump about and ramble, so does the story. (For example: “The sky is quite blue today. It reminds me of the bridesmaid dress I wore in Janice’s wedding. I wonder how she is doing? I haven’t heard from her in ages. I wonder if she ever changed that awful haircut she always insisted on getting.”* And so on.)
We spend a lot of time with the dying Adam. It was hard to tell sometimes if we jumped to Adam as the narrator, or Hermes became Adam, or they were the same somehow. We get some of Adam’s history this way, but it is not a complete story. It was very confusing.
We never find out things we want to know! How did Adam and Ursula meet? How did Adam the younger meet Helen, and what does he do for a job? (Did we learn this and I just forgot? Maybe.) What’s the deal with Benny Grace? Is there a real Benny Grace out there, or was he always a manifestation of Pan? And what about Rodey Wagstaff? Who was Granny Godley? With the predictions Hermes made at the end come true, or were they idle daydreams?
To be fair, the descriptive language is lovely. If there had been more of a plot, I would have enjoyed it immensely. And some of the concepts that fly by are quite thought provoking. I was listening to the audiobook rather than reading the print copy, and perhaps that made a difference in my frustrations with the book. On the other hand, due to the nature of the book, perhaps that was best, with thoughts coming and going in a moment. In reading some Amazon and Goodreads reviews I’ve discovered that there are elements of the Heinrich von Kleist play Amphitryon lurking through the book, but I am unfamiliar with that work. It seems like John Banville is trying to achieve a Shakespearian style, but he’s not quite getting there.
Did I enjoy listening to this audiobook? Not particularly. Was it better than silence on my work commute? Certainly! Would I recommend it? Not really, unless you enjoy rambling stories that don’t go anywhere.
*Not actually a line from the book. I couldn’t remember any specific examples a week after returning the audiobook to the library.