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The Singularities

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It is evident that John Banville reveres words. His writing is overabundant with words: obscure words, inscrutable words, repetitive words, alliterative words. His prose is protracted and precise and plethoric. Why would something be bright when it could be effulgent? Why would someone watch their step, when they could move with guarded tread? It is impossible to read this novel and not be aware of the words, and the fact of their having been chosen, and the effect that the writing style has on the reading experience.

There is a simple story being told. But the story is secondary to the style. This is not a plot driven book. It is also not a character driven book. The Singularities is a language driven book. So I suppose it doesn’t matter that as much or more time is spent describing places and furniture and clothing as advancing the plot. And I suppose it means that I can DNF at 53% and still have gotten value out of this novel. I may come back to finish Parts 2 and 3 another time, but probably not. I still leave with an appreciation of John Banville’s talent as a writer.
I recommend this novel for readers who love to be lulled by the rhythms of language.
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This was a very well written book, although the writing style was not my favorite. I think it will be very popular among John Banville fans though.
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Keep a dictionary close by. This was the first of John Banville's works that I have read. A mysterious ex- con with a borrowed car drives to a home he had previously known to discover its name had changed and the current inhabitants know nothing of him. Still he stays much to the chagrin the the family. It consists of the son, daughter-in-law and wife of Adam Godley, a man who discovered the Brahmin Theory of Singularities. Something we are told changed the face of mathematics and scientific theories and ultimately the world. A Biographer is engaged to chronicle the great man's life, a pedantic admirer of Godley and upon his arrival he is instantly mesmerized by Helen the movie star daughter-in-law. The interplay between the characters and the truth about the great man consumes the rest of the story. Banville is a master at descriptions of everything and everyone. Fascinating. However I found myself looking up definitions constantly and at the end I still do not know what the Theory of Singularities is. Obviously Banville's goal was not to elucidate on that but chose to emphasize the impact of it on the characters. Character Studies
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John Banville is an acquired taste, one I have never actually acquired, but I decided to give him another go with this his latest novel, and although I found it confusing – downright impenetrable at times – I did (sort of) enjoy the use of language, the wit, the playfulness and philosophical musings. Most of the time, anyway. It’s a difficult novel to summarise, as the plot is pretty much non-existent and the characters hard to relate to, and as so many other reviewers have already had their say, I’ll just state that multi-layered doesn’t begin to touch the sides, pretentious pretty much sums it up, and overall this is one for the literary geek rather than the common reader.
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I discovered John Banville on Netgalley and loved each book i read. Excellent storytelling and style of writing, fascinating stories.
I loved this book and it's highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher for this arc, all opinions are mine
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Published by Knopf on October 25, 2022

John Banville (at least when he writes under his own name) is among the greatest of the Irish prose stylists. He’s also a thinker who brings an element of playfulness to deep thought. Banville’s thoughts in The Singularities turn to the nature of reality, a question that joins philosophy and science. The novel seems to suggest that reality is what we make it. If that’s true, we should make it carefully.

Two narrative voices in The Singularities alternate and sometimes merge. One voice belongs to Professor Jaybee, who has been engaged to write a biography of the mathematician Adam Godley, creator of the Brahma Theory, a “dazzling re-statement of the fundamental nature of reality.” One component of the theory holds that any attempt to understand the universe contributes to its destruction. People literally deconstruct the universe by trying to comprehend its reality. That discovery gave birth to a ban on scientific inquiry, a shuttering of the science and math departments in universities. The theory also seems to have affected reality in an undefined way. New York is again New Amsterdam. The plague may have returned to Venice. A Manhattan and an Old Fashioned are now the same drink.

The other narrative voice tells the story in the third person. That narrator describes itself as a minor god or godlet, a child of Zeus. An omniscient entity is well positioned to follow a murderer once known as Freddie who took the name Felix Mordaunt after his release from prison. Yet the two narrators are not so different; when characters speak to the godlet, they seem to be looking at Jaybee. The only character who can see the godlet is a dog.

In postmodern fiction, anything goes — the more confusing, the better. One might assume that the godlet is John Banville, but who knows? Given the initials that combine in Jaybee’s name, a reader might also conclude that Jaybee is Banville. Perhaps the point is that every character in a novel is really the author, for characters do not exist until the author creates them. Or perhaps the nature of reality is that, at some level, we are all the same person traveling the same course we have traveled throughout the infinity of time, even if we believe ourselves to be individuals with free will and uncertain futures. “For nothing exists by itself, in isolation; there is only the continuum, in which everything presses into, bites into and extends from, everything else.”

Speaking of confusion, the novel warps the literary illusion of reality by bringing together characters and settings from Banville’s earlier work. Freddie murdered a maid in The Book of Evidence. He visits a resort that was featured in The Sea. The Godleys, Ivy Blount, and Duffy the cowman appeared in The Infinities. I’m sure there are other examples (I haven’t read everything Banville has written); those were the easiest for me to spot.

The confusion of reality and illusion is evident when Jaybee believes he sees Godley’s dead daughter Petra, or her ghost, and when Godley in his old age travels to Venice and wonders whether a woman named Cissy actually exists, whether Cissy is a projection of Petra, whether he is actually in Venice or inhabiting a dream. When Godley wakes from dreams, the real world he encounters seems like another dream. Perhaps the reality we all believe we experience is nothing but a dream. Perhaps being awake is just “another kind of sleep.” On the other hand, another character tells Jaybee that the letter in which Godley expressed those thoughts is just another of his lies. Reality, illusion, fiction, truth, lie — all inseparable and indistinguishable. Or not.

The Singularities is more a challenging work of philosophy than a traditional novel. Before letting it go, Banville begins to construct a plot with Felix’s release from prison and his travel to the house where he lived while growing up, in a place that is now unrecognizable to him because time has passed and reality has changed. Jaybee’s agreement to investigate and write about Godley’s life seems to furnish the second plot element. He meets characters who knew Godley, including his widow, whose dementia has altered her reality.

Jaybee apparently finishes a chapter of the biography; Banville sticks it into the middle of The Singularities. After that, any attempt at plotting is all but abandoned, as the story follows tangents related to Godley, all but forgetting Felix’s role in the novel.

So what’s left? Astonishing prose is the reward for sticking with the novel. One of the narrators of The Singularities describes an evening in New Amsterdam: “We had booze, broads, a barroom fight and a night in the cells, and in the morning a crapulous and shamefaced court appearance, followed by summary deportation and a thunderous warning never to show our faces in town again. No, of course we didn’t; honestly, you’d believe anything.” It is worth suffering the confusion of reading The Singularities just to encounter such passages. Some readers might find it worth reading twice to gain a more nuanced understanding of the points Banville is making, although it might be necessary to read or reread everything Banville has written to appreciate the novel in full. Lacking that kind of ambition, once was enough for me, coupled with my dim memories of the other Banville novels I’ve read. I wouldn’t rate The Singularities as my favorite of those (The Book of Evidence probably earns that honor), but I enjoyed nearly every page.

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I can definitely see why people like Banville, but ultimately this *specific* book was not for me. I think I need to head back into his previous work and read some more and then maybe revisit this novel, because ultimately this is an extraordinarily difficult and challenging novel to read. Well-written, but difficult, and something you have to stick through to get the full effect of the payoff.
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unfortunately the writing style made it really hard for me to get into this story and truly enjoy it
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I found this novel to be filled with pompous archaic language with a plot that was difficult to follow and weak, uninteresting characters. Obviously, this book was not meant for me.

Thanks to NetGalley and Alfred A Knopf Publishing for the ARC to read and review.
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oh boy, this was a drag. i’m afraid i’m not the target audience, though i can sympathize as to why someone would be into writing such as john banville’s.
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This one sort of missed the mark for me. It was hard to engage with, especially not having read many of the author’s other works. I chose it based on the cover which I found dynamic and eye catching, but the substance inside left me confused and a Banville newbie.
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Thanks for the ARC - Not for me I'm afraid. A bit of a slog, pretentious language and unnecessarily long.
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This is my first Banville - and it was a terrible idea to start here (I chose to because the novel is brand new and might get Booker-nominated). The whole text relies on the conceit that the author resurrects and brings back characters from different other novels and lets them interact. Additionally, there's a style over substance approach, a playful venture into alternate lives with alternate storylines within the story, which is already a riff on former stories - in "The Singularities", nothing is singular. So the question arises: How worthwhile is this if you're not a Banville stan who gets the intertextual meta-jokes?

What happens is apparently this: Mathematician Freddie Montgomery from The Book of Evidence is released from jail where he served time for murder. He now calls himself Felix Mordaunt and returns to his childhood home, where he encounters the Godley family from The Infinities - the late Adam Godley researched the (fictional!) Brahma theory which proves the existence of infinite universes and produced an interference effect in the world. Mordaunt/Montgomery becomes the driver and servant of Godley's son and daughter-in-law. Then, there's a biographer named Jaybey (J.B. - John Banville, get it?) who shows up aiming to write the life story of old Godley, who was his academic nemesis...

This constellation spreads out in various echos and references that underline the God-like position of the author who creates infinite universes and variations: It's a novel about contingency in writing, about the beautiful "what if" that is allowed in the infinite world of fiction, not in the singular world we actually inhabit.

I applaud John Banville for building his own, constantly shifting metaverse, for writing a book that certainly has great literary merit, but is also pretty much incomprehensible (at least when it comes to the really interesting parts here: The shifting references) for Banville newbies. You certainly can't claim that he's selling out or compromising his artistic vision, even though I, personally, am scratching my head while the novel leaves me cold. It was simply the wrong place to start.

Here's a superb review by Kevin Power that highlights all the Easter eggs I never could have found and thus illustrates how clever the writing actually is:
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John Banville does it again! This fantastic work of literary fiction will be popular at our library for sure!
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The Singularities by John Banville is a recommended multilayered literary novel from a revered wordsmith. This one is for those who love literary writing by a true wordsmith.

A murderer recently released from prison, now calls himself Felix Mordaunt. He returns to returns to his childhood home, Arden House, where the descendants of Adam Godley, a legendary scientist, currently lives. Mordaunt becomes a part of the household working as a driver and servant. Soon another stranger joins the household with his own agenda. As the two compete for favor, they uncover each other's secrets. The narrative continues to move from one point of view to another. Characters from previous novels are revisited, alternative universes are explored, and the normal boundaries are gone.

Readers can expect beautiful, intelligent writing with clear literary references. Let me be clear, the writing, the careful crafting of sentences, is the draw, the allure of The Singularities for me. The atmospheric (and often scattered) story is one of redemption, nostalgia, life, death, and quantum theory. It is obvious that there is no clear plot in sight. The novel started out promising and then went downhill fast until it was simply the well crafted sentences and descriptions that held my attention. I'm sorry, but I need some plot.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday via NetGalley.
The review will be published on Barnes & Noble, Google Books, Edelweiss, and Amazon.
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I am not very familiar with John Banville’s books so this one, which supposedly references many of his previous novels, left me puzzled.  I don’t think I was the intended audience.  

Freddie Montgomery is released from prison.  He decides to adopt a different name, Felix Mordaunt, before he returns to visit the family estate where he grew up, but everything feels slightly askew.  The estate has a different name, for instance, and there seems no evidence of his family having lived there.  The Godleys are the family now in residence.  They have been joined by a Professor Jaybey who is writing the biography of Adam Godley, father of the current Mr. Godley, whose Brahma Theory threw the world into chaos.

The Brahma Theory is never clearly explained, but from what I could gather, it proved the existence of parallel universes, an infinite number of possible universes.  The theory was so revolutionary that there was a “sharp rise in suicides throughout the world in the years following the general acceptance of the Brahma theory and its consequences.”  Reference is made to the Hadron Collider being shut down and “fast, bright, gleaming communication devices” being replaced with “clumsy and defective artefacts [like telegrams].”  Perhaps the author reprised characters and placed them in an alternate universe to examine how they would react?

There is also the presence of a narrator who identifies himself as a “little god” who wears a “winged helm” and has “ankle wings.”  This brings to mind Hermes, the trickster god.  He seems to take pleasure in manipulating events, “For we couldn’t have let them leave well enough alone, now could we.”  He admits, “Unseen, I usher them forward, though they imagine they go under their own steam.”  So the characters are at the mercy of a “mischievous godlet”?  In fact, allusions to Greek mythology abound.  It seems that Helen of Troy in one universe is Helen Godley in another universe.

I had difficulty engaging with the book because I found the characters unlikeable and, worse, tiresome.  Their motivations are not explained.  Why would Helen, who suspects that Felix is a murderer, welcome him into her home?  Why would Jaybey give up a prestigious position in a university to write the biography of a man for whom he has only scorn?

The portrayal of women is problematic.  They are all two-dimensional and important only in terms of their relationships (usually sexual) with men.  A woman will often remind a man of a former lover.   If they are not faithless, they are mistreated by faithless men.   The old man/young woman trope is repeated.

The main attraction for me was the writing style.  Lengthy sentences are common:  “I feel like one of those effete, incurably melancholy, slightly hysterical young-old boobies to be encountered in the Russian drama of the nineteenth century, in exile on a vast estate a thousand versts from the nearest centre of supposed civilization, tinkering with a never-to-be-completed treatise on land reform, or the serf question, or the use and misuse of the subjunctive in the works of Lermontov, while all the time pining in secret for the dim-witted landowner’s young, feyly lovely, heartlessly provocative and utterly unattainable wife.”

Besides mythological references, literary allusions abound:  “his behaviour reminiscent of that of a character out of Plautus or of Aristophanes” and “Iagoesque mischief-making” and “as if Ophelia were to rise up from the glassy waters.”   One character refers to “a stew pot of metaphors” and Banville certainly excels at those and similes:  “I approached cautiously, crabwise, in the wincing manner, apprehensive yet agog, of a traveller on a lonely road late at night coming upon the still-smoking scene of a glorious smash-up involving multiple vehicles and countless casualties” and “Her memory was like a crate of Meissen figurines that a clumsy porter had dropped on to a marble floor” and “garments on a laundry line kicked up their heels in the wind, as full of themselves as corseted chorus-girls.”  

I loved the touches of humour:  “there are no great men; ask any woman” and “the much-dithyrambed daffodil, the blossoms of which, as everyone knows but is too embarrassed to admit, are not golden at all, as is pretended, but in plain fact an acid shade of greenish-yellow, the colour of an absinthe-drinker’s bile.”

And who cannot marvel at Banville’s vocabulary.  Words like brumous, haecceity, matutinal, nugatory, instauration, catamite, caducously, melodeonist, cloacal, phthisic, lemniscate, perihelium, aphelion,  mephitic, diorachic, auscultate, and quondam make an appearance.

For me, it was this style that kept me reading.  Perhaps if I were more familiar with Banville’s other novels and characters, I might have appreciated the novel’s other layers.  It is to fans of this author that I would recommend this novel.
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I found this novel to be dull, self-indulgent and pointless. The events previous to this book, which are referenced often, seem like they might have been much more interesting although may not have necessarily given this particular story any more clarity or insight.
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Very John Banville. Smart, wry. Something you definitely have to be in the mood for. I didn't love the second person at the start.
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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for an advanced copy of this novel about the possibilities of life, making amends and understanding how we live they way we do.

There are many theories on the whys of the universe. Why me, why them, why not someone else, a lot of whys that never really get answered. Some say things happen because of entropy, others chaos. Maybe fate, or maybe it is all just atoms being atoms. There are as many theories as there are possible realities. One such reality is at the heart of The Singularities, by Booker Prize- winning author John Banville, a story about a man trying to capture the life he had in a new reality he doesn't want to understand. 

Freddy Montgomery is released from prison after a long sentence for the murder of a maid and stealing a painting. An associate he once shared a cell with provides him with a new car and a new identification under the name of Felix Mordaunt, though the recently christened Felix is annoyed that his associate didn't stay to help on his first day out. Felix decides to return to the family estate, but finds that not only the name of the estate is different, but there are new owners the Godleys. We then meet Professor Jaybey who has been commissioned to write a biography of Adam Godley's father, also Adam who developed the Brahma Theory, a theory on how the universe works. Felix becomes a driver for Jaybey, as he lives on the estate, becoming entwined in the messy family life and the Professor as he starts to explore his subjects. 

An odd book that starts off full pedal to the floor. The writing style is detached, and yet descriptively lyrical. Science, poems, thoughts, dreams, old gods, maybe new ones, mix as the possibilities of the world expand according to the Brahma Theory. The characters are an odd lot,  the men are not likeable and the women seem very underdeveloped. The story floats along, sharing narrative with the characters and sometimes the estate it seems itself. This is a novel where the words do the heavy lifting, not the story, as the novel really reads better than any description could give it. 

A story not for everyone. This is literary fiction, with a high rate of attention and patience for reading. Familiarity with the previous works the Freddy/ Felix appeared in would be helpful, but also might confuse the reader as it seemed that Freddy's story was done, but that is just my theroy. A challenging work, but worth the effort, especially for fans of novels that make a reader work.
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Reader, he lost me.  I went into this with high hopes- it's Banville, after all.  But. regrettably, this tale of a murderer who returns to the estate where he lived as a child and winds himself into the family of scientific genius who lived there but who is in competition with a writer- it lost me.  This moves around in ways I can't describe.  Yes. the writing sparkles in spots but it's overblown in others.  And plot?  Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.  I'll be the odd one out.  For fans of literary fiction.
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