Friday, 1 May 2015

The Second Coming by John Niven

If you don’t like people swearing in books, don’t read this because the guilty parties are not only the people but Jesus, the saints and even God. But it’s the sort of swearing that peppers everyday speech, the harmless (though still offensive to many) vernacular of relaxed bar-room banter. The fact that life in Heaven is enhanced by some of the best cannabis around may also make pious souls tremble but all this gives a fluidity, pace and legitimacy to the many exchanges and adds to the spice of a beautifully judged, very funny satire on several aspects of the present state of society (and human development for that matter).

Basically, during the Renaissance, God thought His creation was progressing quite nicely and that it was OK to take a break and go fishing. Some 400 years later (a ‘break’ is a relative term for temporality in Heaven), he comes back to reports of centuries of religious conflicts, slavery, economic and social disasters, global warming and irrefutable evidence that Earth has become a complete cock-up. His staff in the main office know he’s going to go apeshit and they’re not looking forward to the fallout.

His single original ‘commandment’ – ‘Be nice’ – has been fragmented, multiplied, divided and spawned countless religious sects (which are enumerated hilariously and at astonishing length), none of which shows any respect for or understanding of His will. He phones Muhammad, who’s also having trouble with the Taliban and others. ‘They read something,’ says the prophet, ‘they have their own ideas… Next thing you know, is all very bad’, to which God’s response is that He’s only been back half a day and he's already ‘heartily sick of textual interpretation’.

In the end, the only answer seems to be to send His son back down again to have a second shot at getting people to see how things could and should be. And, from that premise, the author develops many delicious conceits revolving around aspects of our current popular culture, artistic preferences and the enormous distance between faith and the way people abuse it.

Jesus, reluctantly, is relocated to modern day America where his laid-back, hipster message of ‘Be nice’ is clearly at odds with all the prescriptive teachings of the various churches and his attitude to money scandalises all but the few friends who gather round him. The targets of the ensuing satire are principally the celebrity culture, the falseness and unreality of the way we now seem to live and an approach to religiosity which is diametrically opposed to everything a loving divinity would wish for His flock.

But that summary sounds so dull, so pious, that it does the book a huge disservice because it’s hilarious. Its irreverence is reverent, its targets deserving of our scorn. Jesus and his friends are great characters, their road-trip style journey is adventurous, fascinating and full of surprises. ‘Disciples’ are gathered in a very modern way; Jesus’s notoriety grows thanks to his prowess on guitar and his beautiful voice; and his eventual death at the hands of his persecutors fits perfectly in the context of a society run by people whose values are those of TV talent shows and for whom the acquisition of fame and fortune is the supreme goal. In fact, Jesus's encouragement of people to follow his ‘Be nice’ ways ends with him being seen as a guy who ‘made it a point of honour to insult and defame just about everything America stood for’.

The author’s familiarity with religious factions but also with obscure pop groups is very impressive but he wields his knowledge with care and everything’s designed to complement the social mores he’s exploring. His attention to detail is extraordinary, to the extent that he can scatter smaller satirical throwaways en passant as he moves through the larger narrative ironies. It’s a wonderful deconstruction of who and what we’ve become.


And yet, as I need to keep on insisting, the overall impact of the novel is a feelgood one. Look at how he ends it (and since we know what happened to Jesus the first time round, this isn’t a spoiler). Jesus is back in Heaven and God, with drink and cigar in hand, is looking out over his ‘emerald orchard where the souls of toddlers and tiny babies play’. He reflects on how lucky they are and asks ‘Why do babies on earth cry?’, which reminds him of a line from John Updike who, he thinks, is a ‘Nice guy. Decent, honest golfer too. The kind of fellow who won't take a gimme if he thinks there's a chance he'd miss it’. The line is ‘as souls must cry when they awaken in tiny babies and find themselves far from Heaven’, which prompts in Him the reflection: ‘Literature. Now that was some good shit. He was glad they'd come up with that.’