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John Banville’s ‘The Sea’: A Review

The Sea: A Novel.
By John Banville.
Knopf, $23, 195 pages.

(This review first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on 4 December 2005.)

Reviewed by Robert Lalasz

David Mamet once said that, if you’re eating out and somebody tells you your waitress is a millionaire, you’ll never look at that waitress the same way again. That natural law of perception also applies to John Banville’s “The Sea,” which unexpectedly won the Man Booker Prize in October for the best novel published in Britain this year.

The Booker — and some adoring reviews from U.K. critics, not to mention Banville’s reputation as fearsomely uncompromising — have led American readers to expect extraordinary force and insight from “The Sea.” But upon finishing this defiantly unfulfilling novel, I felt on the wrong end of a pulled rug. Sure, unmet expectations are the very stuff of the book, a fictionalized memoir of a chronically disappointed aesthete. But while there are hints of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” and John Lanchester’s “The Debt to Pleasure,” “The Sea” is really just a writing exercise, a novelist testing how far he can stretch his readers on the rack of an unlikable narrator.

We submit to this treatment because of what first seems an intriguing Chinese puzzle box of a plot, rendered in painterly, hyperprecise language. Banville’s anti-hero, Max Morden, is reeling from the recent death of his wife, Anna, and has retired to the Irish beach town where the most vivid events of his life occurred some 50 years earlier. Indeed, Max has taken a room in the very vacation rental — now a boardinghouse — where his first love and her family had stayed that fine-grained August.

He’s never gotten over his romance with that family, the Graces, a bawdy and glamorous crew who put Max’s unhappy townie parents to shame. The Graces adopt him as a mascot after they see him spying on them, but the barely pubescent Max has already become sexually infatuated, first with Mrs. Grace, then with her 11-year-old daughter Chloe, an imperious Miss Run Amok who humiliates Max when she isn’t putting his hand into her lap. Not much happens, but thick foreshadowing and the moody sea assure us something will.

“The Sea” alternates recollections from this period with scenes from his wife’s unnamed but terminal illness. Anna is an adult Chloe: a bit of a viper, and more than a match for the patronizing hauteur of the adult Max. “Poor Max,” she condescends to him during her year of dying. “You are not even allowed to hate me a little, any more. Don’t look so worried. I hated you, too, a little. We were human beings, after all.”

In hospice, Anna takes Diane Arbus-like photos of the other patients, then makes Max take the negatives to one of her lovers for developing. “She is lodged in me like a knife,” says Max understandably, “and yet I am beginning to forget her.” A reader naturally will look for consonances between the two stories, but that hunt is seldom rewarded. Instead, Max’s thoughts meander, nudged forward by an occasional fact and the thin drip of passing time.

What we do get an overdose of is Max: a snobby voyeur who cribbed his value system from society parties and highbrow art magazines. Having married into money, his only apparent work for years has been to perpetually draft a derivative monograph on the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, the French Impressionist loved by people who hate French Impressionism.

Other people, landscapes and the world in general are forever falling short for Max, the sort of character who prefers art historical allusion to emotional engagement. At a critical and pathos-laden point in the book, for instance, he suddenly chooses to fixate on a weeping girl’s nose, “its tear-shaped, pharaonic nostrils … the skin stretched tight and translucent over the bone … deflected…a fraction to the left, so that when one looks at her straight-on there is the illusion of seeing her at once full-face and in profile, as in one of those fiddly Picasso portraits.”

That voice is perfect Max, at once observant and chokingly self-conscious, with an aggressively obscure vocabulary (“anthropic” perfume, “horrent” hair) and a bent toward the melodramatic. “I felt quivery and vapourish,” Max says after meeting someone, “like a diva tottering offstage at the end of a disastrous night of broken high notes, missed prompts, collapsing scenery.” There are also hints of cruelty, both real and fantasized. We have the sense that he could have been a monster, except for the bother.

One disbelieves for a while that Banville could have devoted a book to this supersophisticated but eternal child. When that faith evaporates, though, “The Sea” becomes barely tolerable — perhaps even for Banville. He suddenly sweeps away Max’s youth in a freak tide, and the book closes down with the snap of streetlights shutting off at dawn. Just a few questions linger unanswered, chief among them why we should have stayed with this character for so long.

One U.K. critic has billed “The Sea” one of Banville’s warmest and most human books, which is akin to preferring ice water to zero degrees Kelvin. The lasting sensation is not of accommodation, but of manipulation — reminiscent of a long con in a Mamet play, but with ourselves as marks.

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