[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.
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.
Here are three enjoyable novels due out next month that I was lucky enough to read early. The first two are debuts, while the third is by an author I’ve had good luck with before. I’ve pulled 250-word extracts from my full reviews and hope you’ll be tempted by one or more of these.
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
(Coming on March 7th from Little, Brown and Company [USA] and March 9th from Sceptre [UK])
Call this a cross between Everything Is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) and The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber). In April 2018 Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka is launched to investigate cosmic dust storm “Chopra,” but realizes he can never escape his family history or the hazards of his own mind. Amid the drudgery of daily life onboard the JanHus1 space shuttle, he makes a friend: a giant, alien spider he names Hanuš. Jakub has the sense that Hanuš is sifting through his memories, drawing out the central tragedies that form his motivation for going to space, including the shame and persecution that resulted from his father being a Party loyalist and member of the Secret Police prior to the Velvet Revolution.
This debut novel is a terrific blend of the past and the futuristic, Earth and space. There is much to enjoy: Jakub’s sometimes baroque narrative voice (“What good am I, a thin purse of brittle bones and spoiling meat?”) – all the more impressive because Jaroslav Kalfař is in his late twenties and has only spoken English for about 13 years; the mixture of countryside rituals and the bustle of Prague; and the uncertainty about whether Jakub has a viable future, with or without his wife Lenka. The book goes downhill in Part Two and doesn’t quite pull everything together before its end. However, it’s still one of the best debuts I’ve encountered in recent years, and I’ll be eager to see what Kalfař will come up with next.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
(Coming on March 14th from Penguin [USA] and June 1st from Jonathan Cape [UK])
An odd but very funny anti-Bildungsroman. This is Selin Hanim’s account of her freshman year at Harvard (circa 1995) and the summer of European travel that follows. A daughter of Turkish immigrants, she wants to become a writer, but even as she minutely records every happening and thought she doubts the point of it. In Russian and linguistics classes, in interactions with her roommates and her Serbian friend Svetlana, and in her growing obsession with Ivan, a senior math major from Hungary, she includes a Knausgaardian amount of mundane detail yet always remains at an emotional distance from events. The tone is so very deadpan that you may never warm to Selin. However, it feels appropriate for what the novel is attempting: a commentary on the difficulty of having real, meaningful conversations when language breakdown is rife.
Once again Batuman has borrowed a Dostoevsky title (her 2010 memoir was called The Possessed). I suspect her debut novel is generally indebted to Eastern European literature in the randomness of the incidents and the way they are bluntly recounted rather than explained. This can be problematic for the story line: it feels like things keep happening that serve no purpose in the grander scheme. It’s as if Batuman is subverting the whole idea of a simple coming-of-age trajectory. At the same time, she convincingly captures what it’s like to be young and confused. This reminded me of my college and study abroad experience; that familiarity plus the off-the-wall humor kept me reading.
(On a plane) “I opened the foil lid and looked at the American meal. I couldn’t tell what it was. The man in the seat ahead of me started tossing and turning. His pillow fell into my dessert. The pink whipped foam formed meaningful-looking patterns on the white fabric. I saw a bird—that meant travel.”
“Spiderwebs attached themselves, like long trails of agglutinative suffixes, onto our arms and faces.”
My Darling Detective by Howard Norman
(Coming on March 28th from Houghton Mifflin)
When Jacob Rigolet’s mother Nora, former head of Halifax Free Library, throws ink on a photograph during an art auction in 1977, it sparks an unusual quest into his past. Jacob’s fiancee Martha Crauchet, the detective of the title, learns two startling facts from Nora’s police file: Jacob was born in the Halifax library; and Bernard Rigolet had been serving overseas for more than a year before his birth in 1945, so can’t be his father. Three years ago Nora’s obsession with World War II led to a breakdown she calls her “fall from grace”; she’s been confined to a rest home ever since. As Jacob gives up being an art buyer to attend library school, Martha gets involved in a cold case that involves his real father. The film noir atmosphere is enhanced by a hardboiled detective radio program he and Martha are hooked on: set in the year of Jacob’s birth, Detective Levy Detects keeps overlapping with real life.
This offbeat mystery reminded me of The World According to Garp. I could see it working as a low-budget indie movie or TV special. I loved how climactic things kept happening at the library, and enjoyed glimpses of bad borrower behavior: selling the library’s art books to a secondhand bookstore and a 105-year overdue loan found in someone’s attic. I have a suspicion this novel won’t linger long in my mind, but it was a fun weekend read. (Historical note: one character’s mother was killed in the Halifax Explosion.)