as a god might be samuel palmer bookblast

Review | As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths | Book of the Week

What was the grand plan? Build a clifftop church and then hurry away back to London when it was finished? Or was he to remain and become a spiritual guide of some kind? He didn’t know . . .” 

Midlife crisis, existentialist angst, spiritual awakening, burnout, soul loss . . . the list of labels is a long one, but whatever the inner crisis, transformation or degeneration are among the possible outcomes.

Proctor McCullough and his business partner Jim are consultants on catastrophe – “futurology at its most pessimistic“. They run an “independent agency that analysed behaviour during terrible events and helped businesses plan better resolution strategies . . . Their small client base included corporations, broadcasters, and now the government.” He and his partner Holly, a solicitor for asylum seekers, have been together for 13 years and have six year old twins, Pearl and Walter. They live in a semi-detached Victorian house in Wandsworth.

So far so normal – to an extent. Walter is autistic. Holly’s father is an atheist and a Marxist who suffers from MS so is wheelchair-bound. McCullough confesses to Holly that he’d “been approached by God,” and has visions – one in particular is of “a house and church like old boats, or aspects of boatmen’s shanties: walls of weathered timber, small windows, patches and daubs of bright paint, buildings that would rattle and shake in the wind yet gain from this a strength and rightfulness of place.”  A visit to a young Anglican minister rapidly sours; he sees a therapist in a mews house behind Harley Street; and a consultant neurologist, an Irish woman ten years younger than himself.

McCullough takes off, to build the church and the house of his vision on a clifftop. Helped initially by curious passers-by, after a week he is left with three boys and a girl under the age of twenty-five: Rich, “the son of a jobbing gardener”; Terry “an amiable drifter, had the smile of a sage and spoke with a quiet, amused Essex accent”; Nathaniel who lives in the local manor house; and gorgeous Rebecca with her smooth flat stomach, black singlet and laid-back attitude, whose American mother is writing a book about Wallace Stevens.

The locals are puzzled by this “unusual man in their midst” who works “with the laces of his boots untied, the tongues out”. A man appears at the top of the ridge with a briefcase bulging with paperwork to investigate the building of a church on land once owned by a radical religious sect. The local vicar also drops by – a rotund, pink-faced sixty-year-old who remarks “perhaps we have a new Diggers movement” as he watches the group building “a house of refuge” by the sea. McCullough is straightforward about having no experience and no idea of what he is doing.

An unorthodox relationship develops between him and his young helpers. They discuss the existence of God, or whether McCullough is “looking to concoct some new notion of a supreme being” invariably over a pint or two in the pub, or a puff of relaxing weed looking at the sea. He is “troubled by that fact that there would come a time when there would be no one left to read Anna Karenina,” and refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Walden, and Henry David Thoreau. Terry turns out to be an “alcoholic loner with a predisposition to see conspiracy everywhere” and begins avidly reading the Bible along with various other theological texts. McCollough says of this atheistic nihilist, “You remind me of a character out of Dostoevky.”

 “He had read that desolation was a journey into turmoil and hopelessness, a cutting off of oneself from others. Was this not what he was doing?” Is McCullough mad, a romantic idealist, or having a conversion experience? Is he facing the void –  that nothingness described by Wittgenstein and Sartre? His new, second life is radically different to his first rather more classic urban existence of family, work and dinner parties with friends. Whenever he returns home to Holly and the kids there is bemusement and sadness. He knows that he is abandoning them yet cannot help himself.

The values of the Church might be eternal, but technology meant the built world was being conceived anew.” He acknowledges that instead of having an affair or falling ill, selling part of his business to build a church as an expression of God, even though he is not sure he even believes in God, is not exactly orthodox. Holly pleads with him to stay, but he leaves, time and again – he is compelled and cannot help himself.  “She was used to him being available and open to her; he had never been a man to withdraw or hide.”  

Not all his friends are against the idea of leaving London after hitting the age of forty. Marvin and Simon come visiting and stay four days until the design for the new build is measured and ordered; the “finer points of Pascalian geometry” duly set out. Sultry Rebecca is a particular lure. McCullough is attracted to her, as well as her sexy academic mother with whom he shares tipsy, after-dinner, goodbye kisses at the door one night.

We now enter John Updike Couples territory. ‘I’ve sat here on my own every night since you’ve been gone. I can’t believe you, Mac,’ says Holly. Inevitably she seeks solace.

McCullough’s parallel lives come together after a brutal act is committed. Addiction and murder are a classic theme (In Cold Blood, The Iceman Cometh, Crime and Punishment . . .). By the end of the narrative he is redeemed by love.

As A God Might Be is a humdinger of a book which sucks you into the great swirling paradoxical world of what it is to be human. It is a long, complex and disturbing read – at times uplifting and at others exasperating, which is how life is.

The search for truth “in a relativist world, of language games, fake news, the probabilistic theories of quantum physics” is a fiendishly tricky one. Spirituality itself is a paradox, as it is discovered in isolation, yet fulfilled in community.  Some of my favourite scenes are the McCullough family meals, with little Pearl and her troubled brother, “a perfect audience.”  

We are defined by our flaws and it is only through our flaws that we meet life head-on. We can only know ourselves by what we find irresistible.” Therein lies the crack through which Go(o)d or (D)evil may enter.  Neil Griffiths’ magnificent, addictive magnum opus is one hell of an achievement, buy it and see for yourselves . . .

As A God Might Be by Neil Griffiths | Dodo Ink | 26 October  £12.99  605pp HB | ISBN: 978-0993575846  

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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