As A God Might Be is an excellent 300 page novel. Unfortunately it’s 650 pages long.
What’s the obsession with long books? The assumption that because a novel has the heft to beat a kitten to death, it must have value? There’s beauty in restraint, in taking time to concentrate on the immediate, rather than lazily lolling out ill-informed cosmic bumble.
I blame men. Specifically I blame Jonathan Franzen for gaining disproportionate praise for unwieldy works with plots stringier than a Love Island bikini. What is it about the ability to grow stubble and write overlong sentences that gains critical acclaim? Aggressively masculine tomes are praised to high-heaven while considered and diminutive works by writers such as Eowyn Ivey don’t get the praise they probably deserve.
As a God might be is about a mid-life crisis. A sub-Rothian musing on phallocentric philosophy that adds up to little more than an argument for why women should probably be running the planet.
Proctor McCullough is bored of his almost perfect life, his loving partner, children, society’s desire to act as a fluffer for middle-aged white men. He’s upset the world isn’t quite enough about him. Sure all his friends consider him, inexplicably, a genius, but something’s missing. Perhaps he waiting for the perfect animatronic girlfriend he obviously feels he deserves?
In lieu of her he flees. He heads down to the coast and decides to build a church. Why a church? Well, it’s hard to avoid the feeling it’s because the author had some incoherent opinions on religion he felt the need to share with the wider world. That must be why we get hundreds of pages of tired musing on faith. I’m not saying we don’t reach a point, but where we get wouldn’t even worry a poorly vampire.
While imitating a less competent Grand Designs contestant, he meets some young, impressionable, locals. There’s three boys and, of course, a beautiful young woman with, surprise, a gorgeous mother. At home Proctor’s partner misses him. God knows why.
The five of them build Proctor’s vision, in-between flirtations and breaks for turgid pondering. But as time passes the psychological damage defining one character, Terry, begins to dominate the chemistry of the group. He becomes increasingly disaffected and violent, fracturing the quasi-family Proctor has built. Inevitably this come to a shocking, destructive, conclusion.
But what is the reader left with, as life stretches beyond the novel? You can’t help but suspect an empty church, eroding cliffs and the inevitable sea. Emptiness the predictable outcome of a life dedicated to introspection. Perhaps this is the subtle point of the novel. But that’s hard to believe given the love the author obviously has for his protagonist. The basic misogyny of the plot seems to counter this reading as well. Without giving away too much, at one point a man cheats – what a bastard, you would think – except his wife coincidentally is doing the same thing at the same time. No harm, no foul!
Does this all make As A God Might Be a bad novel? Ultimately I don’t think so, just an immensely frustrating one. Neil Griffiths can write beautifully and his character’s occasionally peak through the tapestry of masculine ego as if they mean something. Then as the novel closes, it seems to be getting to a level of redemption. Yet ultimately we take too long to get to this point and the journey has felt too self-indulgent. A God might be able to get away with a lot, authors should probably be more circumspect.
As A God Might Be is published by Dodo Ink and is available here.
Neil Griffiths is the author of two previous novels – Betrayal in Naples, winner of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel, and Saving Caravaggio, short-listed for the Costa Novel of the Year – both published by Penguin. He is also the founder of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. He lives in London.
Reviewed by Joseph Surtees
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