Michel Faber's slimmer works are unified by a corrosive misanthropy that runs rampant here, writes Hephzibah Anderson.
The Fire Gospel
Over the past few years, contemporary fiction has been pulling the ancients' gods down to earth with a thunk. Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly forced Apollo and his pals to slum it in modern day London, while Jeanette Winterson depicted Heracles as a boastful lout in Weight. The latter novel was part of Canongate's Myths series, the latest instalment of which finds Michel Faber wrestling with the demigod Prometheus. Along the way, he also re-imagines Jesus as a shockingly human figure whose last words were not "It is finished" but an altogether less heroic "Please, somebody, please finish me."
In classical tales, Prometheus stole fire back from Zeus and returned it to earth. As punishment, the granddaddy of the gods chained Prometheus to a rock so that an eagle could feast on his liver. Each night it grew back, condemning him to more of the same torture. Faber recasts Prometheus as Theo Griepenkerl, a podgy Canadian academic sent to Iraq to secure the loan of precious artefacts in return for restitution money. The museum has already been looted and as a curator shows Theo around, a passing politician's limousine is blown up, killing the curator. The blast also damages a heavily pregnant bas-relief goddess. Nine scrolls of papyrus spill from her cracked body.
Dodging chaos and carnage, Theo makes it back to Canada, smuggling the scrolls with him. "A higher agency wanted him to have them," he tells himself, reasoning that the wrecked museum didn't even know it owned them. Around 2,000 years old, they turn out to be the memoirs of Malchus, a first-century Christian convert who helped arrest Jesus, experienced an epiphany at the crucifixion and thereafter devoted himself to spreading the gospel.
As a devout atheist, Theo is unmoved by the scrolls' content, but dollar signs flash before his eyes. These scrolls will make him rich. He promptly sets about translating the Aramaic into English and hooking himself up with a publisher. His book, titled The Fifth Gospel, proves incendiary. It rockets up the bestseller lists and he soon finds himself whisked off on a North American author tour. Theo is intensely dislikeable. Needy, greedy and utterly self-obsessed, his character flaws are only accentuated by life as a published author. Unfortunately, most of the people he encounters are equally unappealing. Not that the novel is without humour. Faber riffs especially wittily on Theo's obsession with his Amazon sales ranking and conjures up convincing reader reviews in all their misspelt nuttiness.
People heckle Theo's readings and stage public bonfires of his book. He is immolated with a "glower of hate" from a wheelchair-bound woman who tries to pull a gun on him. And then, at a bookstore event in New York, he is abducted. Theo's assailants are Nuri, "a handsome Arab, with a glossy black kiss-curl and cupid lips," and a man known only as "the white guy". Both are clichés - Nuri is a sweetheart deep down if you can only overlook that pesky anti-Semitism, while his accomplice looks like "a circus clown after five courses of chemotherapy." Together they are "Two men, two faiths, one mission," that mission being to put an end to The Fifth Gospel, if not Theo himself.
Faber is best known for his novel The Crimson Petal and the White, a hefty slab of candied Victoriana, but his slimmer works are unified by a corrosive misanthropy that runs rampant here. In the farce that ensues, the classical parallels get lost. Ultimately, the novel is a bleak satire on the publishing industry and a world in which the intellectual advancement that Prometheus stood for has been cheapened to who-cares-what, so long as it captures a share of the Da Vinci Code's market.