I’m not familiar with Glen Duncan’s other books, but this one has caught my eye several times over the years – the concept tickled my sense of humour – and it seemed to be the perfect book for a languid, hot summer afternoon when I didn’t have the energy to tackle anything too demanding. Mind you, it won’t be for everyone: if you’re easily offended, I would steer clear (even though, in fact, the book is necessarily grounded in a very traditional vision of Catholicism).
For those willing to dip a toe in, it reads like a particularly hedonistic mashup of Dogma and Good Omens, laced with blasphemy, vulgarity and all manner of debauchery. But, to be fair, what else would you expect from the Devil’s autobiography? It was a fun way to pass a few hours, although for reasons I’ll explain I don’t feel any pressing desire to buy a copy to keep.
Ever since their Fall from Heaven, Lucifer and his fellow rebel angels have been carefully getting on with the task of instigating evil and distracting the thoughts of humanity from God. The 21st century has turned out to be an unexpected success: thanks to the ubiquitous spread of technology, people no longer have the attention span or the time to pay much attention to religion, and Lucifer generally prides himself on a good job well done. But all is not well. When Gabriel seeks him out one day on God’s behalf, it is with an offer that threatens to undermine everything that Lucifer has been working for. The End of Days is nigh (courtesy of a meteor which, Duncan hints elliptically, is on a rather inconvenient course) and God is planning on wrapping everything up. Lucifer is offered a chance to redeem himself and come ‘home’.
The deal requires him to show his penitence by taking over a human body (recently vacated via suicide) and live the span of a full life on earth without committing any particularly dreadful sins; and then he will be absorbed back into the bosom of the faithful. He is offered a trial run of one month, which he accepts: more out of curiosity than any intention to turn over a new leaf. Plunged into the body of Declan Gunn, Lucifer finds himself living in a sad little flat in Clerkenwell, inhabiting the identity of an unsuccessful writer with girlfriend issues and a healthy dose of self-pity. But at first, all that matters to Lucifer is the unanticipated vividness of being alive: the rampant symphony of the senses; the amazing colours and scents of the world around him; the thrilling, edge-of-your-seat sensation of actually living. Once he’s tackled the initial shock of it all, he focuses on his next problem: how to turn poor Declan Gunn’s life into something more amusing, with the help of copious amounts of alcohol, sex, drugs and (metaphorical) rock’n’roll. Moreover, since he’s in the body of an aspiring writer (whose name is, ever so coincidentally, an anagram of ‘Glen Duncan’), Lucifer decides to finally set the record straight about his role in history.
For me, the details of the plot were actually less engaging than the narrative voice itself. Unencumbered by the rules that govern the behaviour of the remaining archangels (who come across as rather staid), Lucifer can draw on rich stores of irony, sarcasm and occasionally surprising pop-culture references, making his story chatty, colloquial and very readable. His interactions with Gabriel, Michael and the well-meaning Raphael were particular highlights for me: I’ve always believed that the Devil gets the best lines. Duncan has evidently done his homework and it’s all clever; but, like its protagonist, the book is so aware of its own wit that it wallows in it to the point of excess. And its self-conscious cleverness doesn’t obscure the fact that Lucifer’s present-day shenanigans in London never really take off. He limits himself to fairly low-level mischief-making, and I can’t help wondering whether the Devil incarnate would really restrict himself to alcoholism, drug-abuse and frequenting prostitutes, when surely there are so many more interesting ways he could be undermining God’s hold on the world? (Indeed, the book includes references to some of his historical achievements, namely the Inquisition and the Holocaust – call me overly politically-correct, but I felt slightly uncomfortable about the latter being used in this kind of context.)
Ultimately, the book started strongly (and experienced renewed energy every time Duncan looked back at Lucifer’s involvement in Biblical events), but much of its spark faded away in the present-day setting. Lucifer’s attention-seeking, manifested through the familiar cycle of modern self-destruction, felt rather adolescent for an eternal being who, at least theoretically, is the second mightiest power in the universe. Fortunately there were enough glimpses of Lucifer’s chequered past, and the enduring appeal of his narrative voice, to carry me through to the end. This is a quirky and very contemporary take on religion, morality and issues of responsibility, given the unexpected flavour of a love-letter to the human condition, but it just lacks the punch and conviction that would turn it from an enjoyable diversion into something really memorable.
Naturally, on finishing this book I’ve just been left with a very strong urge to read Good Omens again…