He built a house and next to it a church

As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths: Dodo Ink

‘I don’t believe much of what goes for basic Christianity. It might be that everything I believe would be rejected as heresy. Actually, there is no “might.”’

When Proctor McCullough decides to desert his comfortable London life to build a church on a clifftop, nobody knows what to make of it: McCullough is not religious. Is it a midlife crisis? Has he gone mad? Is he suffering a spiritual breakdown in a secular age, where identity is shaped by wealth and status.

Or has he really been chosen by God for a new revelation. McCullough finds himself torn between love for his family and a group of local drifters who are helping him to build his church. When one of these drifters commits a shocking act to test his beliefs, McCullough finds himself pushed to the very limits of understanding and forgiveness.

As a God Might Be is an epic novel, and Proctor McCullough is a complex and deeply human character struggling to cope with the grand issues of modern life.

Let me say straight away that—while I have a few small quibbles—I think this novel is a triumph. Griffiths had me from Contents, for I was enraptured by a book brave enough (or brazen, or mad enough) to divide itself into New Testament and then Old Testament (note the inversion) and then divide its subject matter further into books as though it were, self consciously, a theological text with beguiling titles such as ‘Tetragrammaton’, the Hebrew name for God transliterated in four letters, YHWH or JHVW, articulated as Yahweh or Jehovah. For me, the book felt like an adventure because of the attention to detail here, not to mention its inclusion of the bold acclamation of Abraham—‘Here I am’—which prefaces the book and its first chapter beginning with Pascal,

‘You must wager.

It is not optional,

You are embarked’

Proctor, in embarking, upends his life, with its pains and worries, his loves, his children and his work, itself about conflict, the worst that can happen and a study of what it is that drives us or compacts us when we are in crisis. The central theme—embarking, let us call it—recalls William Golding’s 1964 book The Spire, a novel that traced the journey of Jocelin, a dean who believes God has directed him to erect a spire above Salisbury Cathedral. That book, like As a God Might Be, is both a meditation on faith and a study of those who question the sanity of believers or, in the case of Proctor, of those who believe they have been chosen for a task. I loved that book, too, but here, with Griffiths is something a little different;

First, you’re assuming I’m a Christian. But what does that actually mean?’ Proctor asks of his clifftop building cohort. ‘What kind of battle is someone in for if they want to announce an authentic interest in the existence of God?’

Proctor is imperfect, selfish, sententious, clever and boorish. He is weak when he should challenge—do I have a drink with or lay flat the man who slept with my partner?—but I think that this is rather the point and a fascinating tension in the novel: that he is and remains all those things, yet you cannot take your eyes off him and off the process. And I’m minded, too, of the biblical precedent that I’ve not seen referred to as yet in other writings on Griffiths’s book. I thought of it immediately and it was another reason I was drawn into the text. By biblical precedent I mean, look at the prophets and look at some of the peculiar things they were commanded to do. Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute; Ezekiel was asked to dig a wall, shave off his hair and beard and weigh the trimmings in a scale, and once made his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth so he was unable to speak; Moses most definitely did not want to be a prophet and Jonah, called and called, decided to run away. I think these callings and their responses are fascinating whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you believe the bible is bunkum and Christianity—or all religion—the source of nothing but conflict and separation, or think Proctor (quoting Terry), is ‘fucking nuts!’or that God is all delusion, as Richard Dawkins (whose screaming fascinates me) would have it. The psychological process is compelling.

            He built a house and next to it a church.

Take this example, a dinner party at Proctor’s house, with his partner Holly and their mostly egregious friends, whom you cannot actually believe they entertain (a flaw in the plot, for me: a quibble. Their friend Simon is different and, ultimately, in crisis over the vapidity of his friends’ morals as he sees them: I wanted to see this developed, perhaps as a counterpoint to what is occurring with Proctor). Proctor makes a speech and it is excruciating, the embarrassment is visceral as he explains to his friends what has happened, with his notes on the table.

‘This is what I think. Or what I thought. Something…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…’

Proctor is sick and embarrassed, but he has the strength to press on, though he knows he could stop now and that ‘outside, the air was full of the promise of spring, of the simple bounty of physical life.’ He wants to be held by Holly or ‘squashed’ between his twin children; he knows what he has said is irrevocable, yet it means nothing and he is torn between these things: a purpose with meaning and just a string of clever words, for he is good at stringing together clever words; he gets paid for it in his job as an ‘atrociologist’. And then there is this: I confess I was in tears over here and am not ashamed of that.

‘Perhaps that’s all it would take to slip through the infinite transparency back into the world. All he needed was to focus on his family, turn sideways, draw his body up and slip around. But it was impossible. There was no narrow passageway, however determined he was and slender he became. You cannot disbelieve what you believe. There is no choice’, the lyrical beauty of which is punctured by and, ‘What a fool he was. What a stupid fucking fool.

Holly looked around the table and then at him. She paused. ‘I’m not sure you’re being entirely honest, are you, Mac?’

Human, imperfect and others understandably sceptical or derisory of what he is doing. And yet we recall the prefatory quote from Pascal that I mentioned:

‘You must wager.

It is not optional,

You are embarked’

I think the scope of As a God Might Be is remarkable; that it is clever and ambitious, subtle and brave; the fine writer and booktuber, Kate Armstrong, saw it as a Victorian novel in its preoccupations, then offering comparison with Middlemarch. Yet I see it as fresh and modern, too, and hope to discuss this further with others. There are other contextual factors that I’ve been pondering, also. William Golding wrote The Spire in fourteen days, its own miracle, about building a spire above a cathedral that is itself, with no foundations, a miracle. I am interested in the process of writing this book because Griffiths is quite frank, at text’s end, about how long it took and about the reserves of energy it took. There is such candour, such generosity, I think, in telling the reader this (I always read the acknowledgements pages) and I suspect anyone would have been enormously daunted by examining and confronting eschatology (itself the title of the fourth chapter) over an extended period. I believe, without reserve, that encountering the last things, what we think happens to us when we die, is a central tenet of our lives and of the governance of our behaviour, the girding, or not, of our mental health; axiomatic of what we believe in. We can run from those questions, but whatever we decide—grave worms or eternity; atoms moving in and out of form or the transcendence of the soul to be with God—this is not a question we can evade. We do, I think, need to see we are ‘embarked’. I also think what we think happens when we die, does have a daily pull on our lives. Our fears—our darkest fears—of the deepest loss and our own personal annihilation are surely related to what we regard as new life, frightening judgement or end stops and grave worms. Might this not inform our decisions and judgements? Whether our life is lived with meditative space in it, or at top speed because ‘this is not a rehearsal’ to quote a fridge magnet someone gave me (which I actually hate). I can tell you, both as a questingly religious person for whom the quality of doubt is finer than the quality of faith (I’m paraphrasing T.S. Eliot’s summation of Tennyson’s great poem of loss and grief, ‘In Memoriam’), and as someone who has had many bouts of mental ill health, that the deepest darkest end-fear — eschatology—was there, and rattling me in my loneliness. I see such poignancy in Proctor’s thoughts and actions.

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So this simple statement from the author moves me and makes me warm to the book further:

‘This book has taken years to write; one might argue most of my life, or at least the thirty five years since my state school teacher…gave me a copy of Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.’

I think that we need more books which test us in this way. I also—and I am no expert in publishing matters and how one decides what will be read, what will sell and so on—cannot see why a theological novel should be an obsolete thing, as seems to have been an argument raised around this book. Why? Is God not done these days, like ‘We don’t do God’ in the words of Alastair Campbell, once interrupting Tony Blair? There are a number of fairly recent books which explore faith, (though none, I would say, quite like this) and I think you’d have a hard time denying the immediacy of a book about theological matters to those of faith, different faiths, all around the world, but also to those who have decided they are atheists but want to see an exegesis of sorts on the subject. And why should it be assumed that those who aren’t sure, don’t know, have never thought or tried not to, would not be interested in a book that deals with (to quote Rowan Williams on the book), ‘encountering and speaking about God’? In writing this, I am mindful of an article by Griffiths himself in ‘The Irish Times’ earlier this year. In ‘God and the Author’, he wrote about how difficult the route to publication was, including the loss of his agent. But step forward the independent press, in this case Dodo Ink, not afraid to take on a risky book. I quote,

‘Route to publication was difficult. I lost my agent: he didn’t think readers were interested in characters who were interested in such things. Rejection letters began to arrive. One publisher, who very generously described the novel as potentially award-winning, claimed as “an atheist, materialist and humanist” she couldn’t support it. But it wasn’t just atheism. The oldest Christian publisher in the world (The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) called in the novel and then rejected it as “theologically unsound”. This came as no surprise. When my friend suggested I seek support in the US, my response was that while they might read it, their next step was more likely to burn it.’

And I was fascinated by this; the assumption and the dissention here. Frankly, if all of it held true, then Dostoevsky’s books, which Griffiths cites as a major influence (and which I would cite as some of the finest books written), would have no chance. And it seems to me that an important discussion of impulse, experience and encounter, should not be dismissed as ‘theologically unsound’. That is not only a diminution of another’s experience but also missing the point—hence, as Griffiths has said,

‘As a novel As a God Might Be allows me to set aside the question of the existence or not of God, but still ask what his nature might be – a question science isn’t interested in, and, I’m afraid, no longer a question religion can rightfully claim to answer. It’s time for the novel to enter the debate.’

Those of faith should not be offended by a brilliant and honest exploration, either. I am Anglo-Catholic; my husband is a Benedictine oblate (that is, a lay-person attached to a monastery) and thus I hang around monks and talk to them; we have lunch together sometimes. Their faith is brilliant, but difficult: they are not rescued from the pains and depressions of life by cant prayer or cosiness with a God who has chosen them. No, they work at, repeatedly, daily, and their thoughts and discussions are expansive. There: life inside a monastery. I’m taking them Griffiths’s book. Can’t wait for that. And actually, there is something more at stake here because can’t novels encourage us to enter belief systems outside our own, and empathise with people of different cultures, worldviews and backgrounds? I know from discussing the book, that other readers don’t see it as primarily a religious novel because Proctor’s central dilemmas can be relatable for anyone. His doubt, and the existential crisis of his life, is manifested in a religious experience. In the hands of Camus in The Outsider or The Rebel, or for Sartre in Nausea, how might this look? We’re back to eschatology again and we will all, though perhaps some will push it away for longer or more effectively than others, go through something similar in our time—that is, with or without God.

‘You’re building a church; I want to sit in my chair. You want to spread the love; I feel like killing someone.’

‘Fine lines, Terry.’

‘Lines nonetheless, my friend.’

‘I want to help you.’

‘Of course you do. Maybe God sent meto test you.’

‘I don’t believe that…in that.’

It fascinates me, this book. Proctor is managing his life well; he is comfortable enough; he loves his partner and his twins. It is, on the surface, a tidy middle class existence, and into this comes a revelation for Proctor which, while he has read and thought and explored philosophy theology and faith—otherwise how could he expound at such great detail on the subject?—is entirely inconvenient. It is brilliant, but it is painful. He explores the notion that God has chosen him to build a church, finds common land and gets to it. In this, he is both reckless, selfish and extraordinarily brave. And here’s where Griffiths excels. He has written a book which is a sweeping exploration of faith and of the nature of God; he has created a text which displays a good deal of learning and managed to hold this in tension with brilliant and convincing characterisation and balance the sublime with the banal elements of life. I loathe all of their friends; they are reptilian (though one, Simon, as I said, I feel I want to know more) and self interested, ingenerous middle class dinner party folk. It is against the wine and the cheeseboard that Mac first explains what it is he must do and it’s brilliantly realised.

[Plot spoilers ahead]

I’d actually like to push them all off the Dorset cliff. I’d like to push Proctor off sometimes. He can be intensely dislikeable and full of high sentence. He is a hypocrite; it’s as though, by bringing another woman to orgasm without actually having full sex with her, he lets himself off the hook. He does nothing to properly challenge Lucian the entirely unapologetic seducer of his partner, Holly, a man who comments, unashamedly, that he had warned him this might happen. Griffiths’s portrayal of flawed, broken, repulsive humanity is wonderful. The rustic drifters who help him build the church are a tremendous counterpoint to the dinner party and professional swamp and, ironically (that is, if you’re inclined to jump to such conclusions), their intellectual engagement with what Proctor is trying to do, is much heftier than that of his London friends. The portrayal of Nat I’ve seen mildy criticised as being one dimensional, but I disagree; this is the irony of the situation; he is forced into a dimension and constrained by a family which is oppressive and does not understand him. I found this profoundly moving—to see the man-boy in deep pain, yet with so much love and potential brimming. And to see what becomes of him. His appalling end. I loved the insouciant Rebecca, the complexity and closeness of the life she shares with her mother; it makes for uncomfortable reading, but it also rings true. None of it is tidy, all ragged. Rebecca is deeply clever, sexy and a temptation (though it is a dalliance with her mother which occurs for Proctor). And Terry. This is interesting indeed.

Griffiths mentions in his acknowledgements and elsewhere, the influence of Dostoevsky. He refers to Crime and Punishment, and I had it in mind when reading about Terry; Crime and Punishment is a thriller which is nonetheless infused with philosophical, religious and social commentary, and in which a young man plans the murder of someone whom no-one will miss and no-one will mourn; a book in which the notion of a just crime—and by a man of genius—which transgresses moral law is explored. Why does Terry do as he does? I thought, primarily, of The Brothers Karamazov which is, to summarise, a spiritual drama; a wrestling with faith, doubt, judgment, and reason; it is set against a modernizing Russia and its plot centres upon the subject of patricide, a crime which might well have been committed by Terry in the book. Terry is on a wilfully self destructive path and so tests faith and the world by committing a similarly wanton crime; it is Nat but could, he tells Proctor, have been him first and I do feel that the delicately limmed relationship between Proctor and Terry is part friendship, part father-son. Terry is rootless, alcoholic and suffering; wanton, because of it. He has not been well educated and yet he has an intellectual drive and spiritual perspicacity that had me in tears because he was also on the slide, hurtling, in fact, towards a cataclysm. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan talks to Smerdyakov about Fyodor Pavlovich’s death; Smerdyakov eventually confesses to Ivan that he, and not Dmitri, committed the old man’s murder. But he also says—and here I see a parallel with the things that the dying Terry says to Proctor, never letting off the hook the man who is there in his final hours—that Ivan is also implicated in the crime: the philosophical lessons Ivan taught Smerdyakov about the impossibility of evil in a world without a God, made Smerdyakov capable of committing murder. Terry commits a brutal act in the most brutal way to prove a point: because he could. Who is Terry testing? God, Mac, himself, the world? All four.

So do read the book. Read it for its risks and dilemmas; its beautiful descriptions of stone, sand and water; of building, physical sensation and spiritual thirst. Read it to wonder about the personal nature of God and ‘As a God Might Be’, in the words of Wallace Stevens; read it if you’re wondering or you’ve stopped. Notice how well Griffiths handles erotic detail, uncomfortable humour, a London street or how children interact with their siblings. There is more to explore than I have space to tell you about here.

Tolstoy thought that Dostoevsky was a man of little accomplishment or expansiveness of mind, though he said he ‘admired his heart’. But a copy of The Brothers Karamazov was found next to Tolstoy’s nightstand when he died. I’ve always liked this little detail. I am now re-reading it, and I’ve got Neil Griffiths’s book and, my new encounter, Wallace Stevens, on mine. Hopefully, not a portent, but there because it is joyous to explore, ‘…our painful, confusing and at times burdensome freedom to love.’

Click here to buy As A God Might Be by Neil Griffiths from Dodo Ink.

About the Publisher:

Dodo Ink publishes original fiction, with a focus on risk-taking, imaginative novels; particularly books which don’t fall into easy marketing categories and don’t compromise their intelligence or style to fit in with trends.

Review by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Saving Lucia, Bluemoose Books (2020).  Anna is working on her fifth novel.

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