Books

A theological epic I couldn’t put down

Neil Griffiths: struggled to find a publisher because of the book’s religious content

As a God Might Be
by Neil Griffiths, Dodo Ink, 700pp, £12.99

Thirteen years ago, I received a proof copy of a debut novel entitled Betrayal in Naples by Neil Griffiths. Enclosed was a note saying his editor had moved on but had left instructions to get a copy to me before he went. Uh-oh, I thought, poor guy. Losing an editor before publication is never good. Sure enough, the book went largely ignored, and although it was followed by a second, Saving Caravaggio, shortlisted for the Costa novel of the year, Griffiths soon went silent.

I bumped into him occasionally after that. He ran some workshops at the university where I teach. He attended a public lecture I gave and another time he was at the end of the table at a dinner party. Once I bumped into him in the street. He struck me as a passionate fellow, given to strange enthusiasms and unusual perceptions. I remember him once explaining at length how the best way to understand Kanye West’s albums was to think of them not as music but as architecture.

I knew he was working on a novel, but didn’t imagine it would ever come out, still less be a 700-page one about theology and architecture that is the most exciting book I read all last year.

It’s taken Griffiths seven years to write As a God Might Be, and he says the reason why he initially struggled to find a publisher is because of the religious content. He claims he’s been told that he will go to hell for writing the book and that it wouldn’t find a publisher because of the debatable notion that Britain is a “secular” country.

One publisher, he says, recognised the quality of the book but couldn’t publish it because she was an atheist. A Christian publisher who had opened a publishing house specifically to publish Christian books found it “unsound”.

Some of this seems like Griffiths falling for his own rejection letters. It’s hard to imagine a publisher refusing to publish a novel because the author’s religious beliefs don’t fit with their own. More realistic is the comment from an agent Griffiths approached with the book: “I don’t want to represent ‘important’ books, I want to represent books that will sell.”

Fortunately, Griffiths has been saved by the new publisher Dodo Ink, which is providing an essential service in issuing potentially difficult literary novels by, at least so far, serious novelists who have written books that might be hard to sell or categorise. It’s a smart idea, and for all its challenges, As a God Might Be has the potential to be a breakout hit. It’s literary in the best way, using lucid language to explore difficult concepts.

Like Griffiths himself, the novel is undoubtedly wayward, telling the story of a strange man named Proctor McCullough who decides to leave a conventional middle-class London life to build a church on a clifftop. He’s not doing this because he’s found God, but because he hopes to find him. Drawn to “the mystery” of the Catholic tradition, he nevertheless finds organised religion too controlled. Quite what he’s seeking in its place is never clear, and it may be that the protagonist is simply mad – something that McCullough considers but never quite accepts.

He gathers a small group around him to build the church. At first he finds fellowship with these people, and even begins an affair with the mother of one of the volunteers.

His middle-class life has its own pressures: problems with his wife, friends and children – and it’s easy to see how McCullough’s official job (imagining how Londoners would behave in the event of terrible tragedies such as a dirty bomb or biological attack) might have sent him running from the city.

Griffiths is very good at depicting domestic life in a way that feels realistic and contemporary, precisely detailing what’s on the dinner table and television. But McCullough’s new world turns out to be even more frightening than his old one when one of the volunteers murders another. Suddenly the question is no longer how, or what, to worship, but how to forgive.

Griffiths’s original title for the novel was Family of Love, and much of the novel is concerned with McCullough’s struggle not just to love the people around him but also to convince those people to love others. At times, it’s hard not to see McCullough as a hopelessly misguided figure (trying to persuade the father of the murdered boy not just to forgive but also love his killer; ignoring his wife’s needs to seduce an American academic).

But the great strength of the novel is the way Griffiths uses this man’s flaws to raise important debates about belief and the best way to make the religious impulse the centre of one’s life.