As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths

[Note: A shortened, edited version of this review appeared in the June 15th, 2018 issue of the Church Times.]

 

Proctor McCullough isn’t a churchgoer. He’s not even particularly religious. Yet somehow he senses that God is calling him to build a chapel, with a little house beside it, on a cliff in the southwest of England. It’s a source of bewilderment for his partner, Holly, and their London friends. Is Mac mentally ill, or having a particularly acute midlife crisis? He’s handed off from a minister to a therapist to a neurologist, but no one knows what to make of him. This forty-four-year-old father of two, an otherwise entirely rational-seeming advisor to the government on disaster situations, won’t be deterred from his mission.

It’s important to get a sense of the way this character speaks:

I want a structure that will move people to contemplate something other than all the obvious stuff … to be confronted with a sense of something and only be able to define it as Other.

God is the transcendent Other for whom creation, what we know as life, is a gratuitous act of love, a dispossession of a portion of His infinite creativity given over to our thriving. It is a gift from His infinite excess. That we can know Him at all is because of the possibility of this excess within us, which we experience as love, art, great feats of the mind. Our bounty is Him.

Down at the project site, Mac acquires four young workers/disciples: Rebecca, Nathaniel, Terry and Rich. Rebecca is a sarcastic, voluptuous teenager who will be off to Cambridge in a few months. She perhaps represents vanity, temptation and judgment, while the other three are more difficult to slot into symbolic roles. Terry is a dreadlocked lager lout who takes care of a mother with early dementia; contrary to appearances, he’s also a thinker, and takes to carrying around a Bible along with a collection of other theological works. Nat and Rich are more sketch-like figures, just ciphers really, which became problematic for me later on.

With Mac we shuttle between the building site and his home in London for weeks at a time. The idea of incorporating Pascal’s mystical hexagon into the church design captivates him, and the costs – initially set at £100,000 – balloon. Meanwhile, his relationship with Holly is strained almost to the breaking point as they each turn to alternative confidants, and there’s a renegotiation process as they decide whether their actions have torn them apart for good.

Like Sarah Moss, Neil Griffiths realistically blends serious concepts with everyday domestic tasks: sure, there may be a God-ordained chapel to build, but Mac also has to do the shopping and get his six-year-old twins fed and in bed at a decent hour. If Mac is meant to be a Messiah figure here, he’s a deeply flawed one; he can even be insufferable, especially when delivering his monologues on religion. If you’re like me, you’ll occasionally get incensed with him – particularly when, at the midpoint, he concocts a Clintonian justification for his behavior.

All the same, the themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas. Mac’s violent encounters with God and with the nature of evil are compelling, and although some of the events of the last third push the boundaries of credibility, it’s worth sticking with it to see where Griffiths takes the plot. There’s no getting past the fact that this is a dense theological treatise, but overlaid on it is a very human story of incidental families and how love sustains us through the unbearable.

If I had to point to the novel’s forebears, I’d mention Hamlet, A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden, Michael Arditti’s Easter, and even Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. If you’ve read any Dostoevsky (I haven’t, yet) or Iris Murdoch, you’ll likely spot philosophical echoes. The title itself is from Wallace Stevens. It’s all unabashedly highbrow, and a greater than average familiarity with the Christian tradition is probably key. For the wary, I’d suggest not trying too hard to read metaphorical significance into character names or chapter and section titles – I’m sure those meanings are in there, but better to let the story carry you along rather than waste time trying to work it all out.

While reading this novel I was bitterly regretting the demise of Third Way magazine; it would have been a perfect place for me to engage with Griffiths’ envelope-pushing theology. I was also wishing I was still involved with Greenbelt Festival’s literature programming, as this would make a perfect Big Read. (Though however would we get people to read 600 pages?! In my experience of book clubs, it’s hard enough to get them to read 200.)

I’m grateful to Dodo Ink (“an independent UK publisher publishing daring and difficult fiction”) for stepping into the breach and taking a chance on a book that will divide Christians and the nonreligious alike, and to publicist Nicci Praça for the surprise copy that turned up on my doorstep. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.

My rating:


As a God Might Be was published in the UK by Dodo Ink on October 26th. This is Neil Griffiths’ third novel, after Betrayal in Naples (2004) and Saving Caravaggio (2006). He says that this most recent book took him seven years to write.

18 responses

  1. Neil is one of my favourite Booktubers! I knew he had a book coming out and I’m still not sure if it’ll be for me. I do like Dostoyevsky though…

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    1. Awesome! I didn’t know his name or his previous work before this book arrived. I want to recommend this novel but at the same time be realistic about the fact that it’s going to have a narrow audience. There’s a lot of engagement with Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. (I haven’t read any Dostoevsky, but I vaguely know the story lines.) If you are a fan of his, I’d say give it a go. This interview with him is kinda funny. Makes him sound rather cantankerous! https://bookblast.com/blog/interview-neil-griffiths-author-week/

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    2. I’ve never delved into BookTube, mostly because I have an old, dodgy laptop that can’t cope with playing videos!

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  2. I should give a copy of this to some of the people in the theology department of the church college where I used to work. I would love to see what they made of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t even mention some of Mac’s more controversial opinions. There would certainly be a lot to talk about.

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  3. Interesting. I might give this a go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you do, let me know what you think. I feel like it will be quite the Marmite book. I had some moments that really maddened me, or tested my suspension of disbelief, which is why I couldn’t give it 5 stars, but it is certainly 5 stars on ambition.

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  4. Gosh, the review made me think of Murdoch’s “The Message to the Planet” and also some of Wendy Perriam’s less-rude stuff. What an interesting book.

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    1. Yes, Michael Arditti mentioned Iris Murdoch in his puff, and that made sense to me — big novels of ideas. I’ve not heard of Wendy Perriam. When you say rude?…there is quite an eye-popping sex-ish scene in here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. OK he might be very like her, then. She did 1990s novels about nuns breaking free and finding their sexuality with sculptors and the like, all very empowering but when I went back to check I should keep them, a bit RUDE and maybe slightly dated. I still have them to BookCross, though, happy to post you one!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Email me your address because I deleted it after my last comp you won!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This doesn’t sound like a match for my reading taste, but I can appreciate your enthusiasm for a story that you can fall into and which makes you want to think of people with whom you can read and discuss it at length. That’s a good thing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds really interesting. But it also sounds like a book I would like to try but probably won’t ever get to. But you never know… 🙂

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    1. It’s a small London publisher, so I think it would take a lot of determination to get hold of a copy. I could imagine it as an indie movie or TV miniseries — maybe that’s the way to experience it one day!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths: The themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas about encounters with God and the nature of evil. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings. […]

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  8. […] she read my review of As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths, Liz Dexter suggested Wendy Perriam’s books as readalikes and very kindly sent […]

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