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‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

greg klee/ globe staff

'Call me Autolycus," invites the narrator of John Banville's quicksilver new novel, simultaneously invoking "Moby-Dick," "A Winter's Tale," Greek mythology, and perhaps even "Xena: Warrior Princess." Granted, you wouldn't expect an Irish, Man Booker Prize-winning author given to peppering his texts with literary allusions to be similarly versed in American pop culture, but Banville tends to be unpredictable. Best known for his highly wrought contemporary fiction, clothed in perfectly calibrated prose and driven by complex narratives in which people and events are rarely what they seem, he does not disdain less rarified genres and has written murder mysteries, screenplays, and historical novels.

"The Blue Guitar" belongs on the literary side of Banville's oeuvre and appears relatively straightforward at first. Our narrator — real name, Oliver Otway Orme — has a ready wit and an engaging way with words. "O O O," he wisecracks about his initials. "You could hang me over the door of a pawnshop." We're inclined to like Oliver even when he behaves badly, which he often does. We believe that he's telling the truth as he sees it, because his direct address to the reader, though sometimes lightly mocking ("it's September now, do try to keep up," he enjoins at one point), is generally confiding and intimate. Most of the novel's surprises come from the fact that Oliver is so absorbed in his personal metaphysical dilemma that he's clueless about pretty much everything else going on around him.

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Oliver is, indeed, a thief (as was the mythical Autolycus), but for pleasure rather than profit. "In time, most possessions lose their patina," he tells us. "[S]tolen, they spring back to life . . . the act, the art, of stealing transmutes the objects stolen." He links theft to his other art; Oliver is a prominent painter who has recently given up painting. Why? He painted with the belief that he could grasp the intangible essence of physical objects: "Painting, like stealing, was an endless effort at possession." He stopped, he says, when he realized it was impossible: "[O]ut there is the world and in here is a picture of it, and between the two yawns the man-killing crevasse."

In the wake of that crisis, Oliver took up with Polly, the wife of his friend Marcus. Their affair has been going on for nine months when Marcus realizes Polly has a lover and comes to Oliver for comfort and advice. Panicked by the certainty that his friend will soon figure out he is the guilty man, Oliver flees — not to the mansion he bought to proclaim his success when he moved back to his unnamed hometown (probably in Ireland), but to the house where he grew up adoring his beautiful, indulgent mother and contemptuous of his cautious, fearful father. Banville unpacks Oliver's past with his usual mastery, mimicking the pathways of memory by darting among discontinuous moments, but gradually weaving them together to delineate the fundamental patterns of one man's existence.

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The book's title and epigraph quote Wallace Stevens's famous poem, "The Man with the Blue Guitar," which ponders art's relationship with "things as they are," and Oliver spends a lot of time imparting his anguish about the disconnect he finds in that relationship. Thrumming underneath this rather abstract discourse, however, is the more primal story of Oliver's emotional disconnection. He feels perpetually a stranger among people who know him better than he knows himself. The deaths of his parents when he was a teenager and an arm's-length marriage, further chilled by the loss of a 3-year-old daughter, have reinforced his sense of isolation and alienation. The weird weather embodies his unsettled state; "tempests on the surface of the sun" echo the tempests in Oliver's head, and it always seems to be raining.

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While Oliver's encounters with a gaggle of scornful women are making it painfully clear just how little he understands about his own life, the vaguely ominous climate turns downright apocalyptic. Meteorite showers, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions become regular events; apprehensive petitioners crowd the churches. Yet it seems our fallible, rueful protagonist has found tentative renewal without recourse to the divine or the sublime, and the novel closes with a tender image drawn from Oliver's recaptured past. As always, Banville traces this journey of self-discovery in the distinctive language he commands so effortlessly: precise yet evocative, clear-eyed and down-to-earth, yet shimmering with the mutability and mystery of art.


Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast.