[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.
Taking a lead from Laura over at Reading in Bed, I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for some blissfully short books. For this challenge I limited myself to books with fewer than 150 pages and came up with four fiction books and two ‘nonfiction novellas’.
The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
This one-sitting read is a monologue by an embittered librarian who arrives one morning to discover a patron has been locked into the basement overnight—a captive audience. Responsible for Geography, she hopes for a promotion to History, her favorite subject. Alas, no one seems to appreciate this library as a bastion of learning anymore; they only come for DVDs and a place to keep warm. That is, except for Martin, a young PhD researcher who’s caught her eye. But he doesn’t even seem to notice she exists. In one uninterrupted paragraph, this celebrates all that books do for us but suggests that they still can’t fix a broken heart.
My verdict: There are lots of great one-liners about the value of books (“You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books”), but overall it’s a somewhat aimless little experiment and not particularly well translated.
The All of It by Jeannette Haien
When this won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1987, the author was in her sixties. It’s since been championed by Ann Patchett, who contributed a Foreword to this 2011 edition. Father Declan de Loughry, fishing for salmon, reflects on the recent death of parishioner Kevin Dennehy. Before he died, Kevin admitted that he and Enda were never properly married. Yet Enda begs the priest to approve a death notice calling Kevin her “beloved husband,” promising she’ll then explain “the all of it” – the very good reason they never married. As she tells her full story, which occupies the bulk of the novella, Father Declan tries to strike a balance between the moral high ground and human compassion.
My verdict: Enda’s initial confession on page 27 is explosive, but the rest of this quiet book doesn’t ever live up to it. I was reminded of Mary Costello’s Academy Street, a more successful short book about an Irish life.
Favorite passage: “One thing I’ve learned, Father—that in this life it’s best to keep the then and the now and the what’s-to-be as close together in your thoughts as you can. It’s when you let gaps creep in, when you separate out the intervals and dwell on them, that you can’t bear the sorrow.”
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann
This starts off as the simple story of J. Mendelssohn, an octogenarian who wakes up on a snowy morning in his New York City apartment, contemplating his past – Lithuanian/Polish ancestry, work as a judge and marriage to Eileen, whom he met as a boy in Dublin – and planning to meet his son at a restaurant for lunch. But all of a sudden it turns into a murder mystery on page 24: “Later the homicide detectives will be surprised…” In 13 sections headed by epigraphs from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann flits through Mendelssohn’s thoughts and flips between the events preceding and immediately following the murder. A late interrogation scene is particularly strong – “unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved.”
My verdict: This is the first I’ve read from McCann, and it’s terrific. He stuffs so much plot and characterization into not many pages. Mendelssohn’s thought life is rich with allusions and wordplay. I was particularly intrigued to read about the autobiographical overlap in the Author’s Note. I haven’t yet read the short stories included in the volume, but for the novella on its own it’s .
As We Are Now by May Sarton
On the surface this is similar to a novel I reviewed earlier in the month, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old. But where spunky Hendrik determines to outwit his care home’s sullen staff, Sarton’s narrator, seventy-six-year-old Caroline Spencer, has given in. A retired high school math teacher, she’s landed in a New England old folks’ home because during her recovery from a heart attack she failed to get along with her brother’s younger wife. She finds kindred spirits in Standish Flint, a tough old farmer, and Reverend Thornhill, but her growing confusion and the home’s pretty appalling conditions drive her to despair.
My verdict: This is enjoyable for the unreliable narrator and the twist ending, but overall it struck me as rather melodramatic. However, I appreciated a lot of Caro’s sentiments.
Favorite passages: “Am I senile, I wonder? The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it.” & “And what is left of you? A lapis lazuli pin, a faded rose petal, once pink, slipped into the pages of this copybook.”
And two short works of nonfiction:
Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary by Rebecca Brown
Brown is a novelist from Seattle. This is an account of her mother’s death from what sounds like stomach cancer. The disease progressed quickly and her mother died at home, under hospice care, in New Mexico in 1997. As the title suggests, the brief thematic chapters are arranged around vocabulary words like “anemia” and “metastasis.” My favorite chapters were about washing: her mother’s habit of reading while taking long baths, and the ways Brown and her sister tried to care for their mother’s disintegrating body, including a plan to prepare the corpse themselves. Clinical descriptions of vomiting alternate with magical thinking to accompany her mother’s hallucinations: “You’re packed, Mom, but all of us aren’t going, just you. But you’ve got everything you need.”
My verdict: Brown covers a lot of emotional ground in a very few pages, but I prefer my medical/bereavement memoirs to have more of a narrative and more detail than “when she died it was not peacefully or easy, it was hard.”
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
This 1996 memoir was sparked by reading a quote from a Chinese Buddhist in a New York Times article: he suggested that reading is dangerous as it imposes others’ ideas on you and doesn’t allow you to use your own mind freely. Schwartz, of course, begs to differ. As a novelist, reading has been her lifeline. She looks back at her childhood reading and her pretentious college student opinions on Franz Kafka and Henry James, and explains that she lets serendipity guide her reading choices nowadays, rather than a strict TBR list: “reading at random – letting desire lead – feels like the most faithful kind.”
My verdict: It’s a bibliomemoir; I should have loved it. Instead I thought it unstructured and thin. There are some great lines dotted through, but I wasn’t very interested in the examples she focuses on. Five pages about a children’s book by Eleanor Farjeon? Yawn!
Favorite passages: “Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.” & “How are we to spend our lives, anyway? That is the real question. We read to seek the answer, and the search itself – the task of a lifetime – becomes the answer.”