The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber

Cover of
Cover of The Fire Gospel

Sometimes my powers of observation seem riddiculously weak.  When I first grabbed it off the library display and started reading it I didn’t even make the connection between The Fire Gospel and the myth of Prometheus.  The word gospel was foremost in my mind and I guess I focused on the religious aspect rather than on the more abstract elements.  Yes, I know “fire” gospel.  What can I say?  I am not very quick sometimes.

That said, Michael Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White, brings a satirical take on Prometheus to this latest Cannongate Myth volume. And one that is entertaining, and quite funny at times, but that never quite gets off the ground.

But let’s set things up first.

Prometheus, via wikipedia:

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals for their use. Zeus then punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while an eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day.

Faber’s twist:

Theo Griepenkerl is a modest academic with an Olympian ego. When he visits a looted museum in Iraq, looking for treasures he can ship back to Canada, he finds nine papyrus scrolls that have lain hidden for two thousand years. Once translated from Aramaic, these prove to be a fifth Gospel, written by an eye-witness of Jesus Christ’s last days. But when Theo decides to share this sensational discovery with the world, he fails to imagine the impact the new Gospel will have on Christians, Arabs, homicidal maniacs and Amazon customers. Like Prometheus’s gift of fire, it has incendiary consequences.

Sounds like fertile ground for a fresh take, right.  But I think this is one of those books that doesn’t quite know what it is or what it is trying to do.  More after the jump.

On the one hand you have the expectation that the story connects to the myth.  In this sense, I guess the modern author is Prometheus.  In order to bring illumination to the world writers face being pecked to death by publishers, talk show hosts, angry questioners at readings, and of course the infamous Amazon reviewers.  This is aspect of the book that works the best.

Having clearly experienced this torture himself, Faber mocks and milks this part of our culture well.  The fake Amazon reviews are almost cliche but they are still funny because they reflect the ugly reality.  And while Theo is not always the most appealing character, even as he is a hilarious one, but under the ego and the need for money he really does just want to be recognized for his work.  He may be naive for not having realized what he has gotten himself into, but you can appreciate why he wants to get off the roller coaster ride from hell at some point.

But there is also an element of satire involved in subject matter chosen.  Clearly, Faber is implying that the Fifth Gospel that Theo has uncovered brings truth and illumination in contrast to the standard orthodoxy of Christianity.  The Jesus of Malchus – the author of this ancient text – is surely more human but also less than divine.

The problem is that when Faber attempts to shift from mocking the best seller media gauntlet to a plot twist centering on dangerous religious true believers the humor lags and the sharpness disipates.  The parts of the book that are quotes from Malchus really dragged to me. Sure some of the rather sophmoric and scatalogical humor was funny but overall it gave me a sense of dissonance.  Was this a satire on best sellers or religion?  Faber might answer both but it didn’t work for me.  This might be chalked up to my bias as I am a practicing Christian, but then again I love Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

As the ramifications of the book finally come to a climax the book struggles to wrap up the story.  The sharp witted and raucous story ends with what feels like a philosophical perspective but one that struck me as confusing rather than insightful.

Yet again, much of this is probably related to expectations and perspective.  Many of the reviews acknowledged some weeks points – particularly plot holes – but found the humor and entertainment worth the flaws.  The Observer review sums this up neatly:

The Fire Gospel can be read easily at a sitting. It’s effortless to consume, but with plenty of bite and so enjoyable that the improbabilities of the set-up are easily forgiven.

The Telegraph, however, sees more than just wit:

The nature of Malchus’s revelations means that it is only a matter of time before the question of religion and offence takes centre stage. But this is not a story of the writer defending free speech versus religious crazies. Instead, by portraying Theo as a man who lacks the faintest glimmer of understanding about the possible effects of the scrolls on Christian readers, seeing Malchus instead as a figure of purely historical interest, Faber asks us to consider the complexity of a world in which very different people come into continual contact with each other with little understanding of motives and convictions beyond their own.

Yet he does this with a light touch and never lectures. We are asked to consider our own thoughts and opinions on these matters, rather than told what we should believe. And all the while, the plot keeps ticking on – by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) funny, terrifying, suspenseful, thoughtful and always engaging.

The big exception to the largely positive reviews was The Independent:

You’ll have guessed by now that this is satire of the broadest sort. Faber’s signature preoccupation with extreme grottiness, established in The Crimson Petal and the White (think Jane Eyre rewritten by William Vollmann) remains intact: The Fire Gospel’s brief duration is fit to burst with seedy dwellings, open wounds and post-coital slumps. But alas, The Crimson Petal’s imaginative suppleness and care haven’t fared nearly so well.

Indeed, the present novel feels like hack work, dashed off. Its title notwithstanding, a parade of religious weirdos and some rote digs at the publishing industry do not an inspired text make. Nothing – except perhaps the Amazon pastiche, cheap shot though it is – feels closely observed or passionately invested.

I guess in the end I am closer to The Observer point of view.  If you can read it for lighthearted entertainment, despite the serious issues touched on, most readers will get a kick out of The Fire Gospel.  But I think the Telegraph is stretching it.  I find it hard to believe most readers will come away with much insight or wisdom to go with the laughter.

But that is not a fatal flaw.  Re-imagining myths through entertaining satire is enough for one book.  And even if the plot threads are a little disjointed, a book that can make you smile and laugh is nothing to look down upon.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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