Michel Faber is a tough act to follow, especially when you’re Michel Faber. The chameleonic author has built an impressive back catalogue that flips between postmodern memoirs of a Victorian prostitute, ghostly love stories or a sci-fi thriller about a woman addicted to picking up hitchhikers. So where exactly do you go next? Full of surprises, and always with a literary ace or two up his sleeve, in The Fire Gospel Faber has produced not quite the most controversial book of all time, but a book telling the story of the most controversial book of all time.
Theo Griepenkerl is a junk food-eating jazz lover, and an expert on ancient languages. When he stumbles across 2000-year-old scrolls giving an eyewitness account of Christ’s crucifixion, he sees a fast-track to glory, plus instant cash. The translator has also just been dumped, so the timing is perfect. Without dwelling too long on the impact this fifth gospel may have on Christendom, not to mention book sales, Griepenkerl goes ahead and publishes. Unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s gospels – often criticised as badly translated, exaggerated, or by men who never met Jesus – Griepenkerl tells the gospel according to Malchus, a servant in Jesus’ inner circle.
During Griepenkerl’s US book tour with the so-called ‘Fire Gospel’, there’s an episode where he looks up Amazon customer reviews of himself. It’s full of Faber’s industry-savvy observations, and insights into the financial and PR side of the literary world. Some readers praise Griepenkerl (shortened to Grippin – it’s easier to type into Google) for the book’s honesty; many write it off as a fake; others spit hate in his cyber direction, blaming him for shattering their Christian faith. Faber, born in Holland, now living in the Highlands, wrote The Fire Gospel for Canongate’s Myths series, in which Alexander McCall Smith, Margaret Atwood and Ali Smith have all updated classic myths for modern audiences.
Besides showing the rollercoaster ride blockbusting authors quickly find themselves on, Faber wants to remind us of the divisive, inflammatory power of the written word. Being an award-winning author himself, with his 2002 novel The Crimson Petal and the White currently being turned into a Hollywood film, it’s a chance to draw from personal experience – not something he’s in the habit of doing. A treasured Faber trait is his ability to crawl into the skin of wildly different characters, turning small walk-on parts into fully developed, 3D cast members. In the past he’s been scarily convincing as a 19-year-old whore, surgically enhanced alien, manic depressive wife and Celtic supporter. As characters go, Grippin was no doubt a much smaller leap to make.
Like Grippin, trying to convey the book’s ‘leisurely complexity’ on a US talk show, Faber is flexing his literary and academic muscles here, but covering everything in easy to digest, page-turning and often very funny prose. Reworking the Prometheus myth, he covers religion, global politics, celebrity bookworms and author groupies. Not quite the coming of the second Messiah, it’s definitely proof that one of our most entertaining and original authors has risen again.
The Fire Gospel is published by Canongate.