“… (Hasn’t it bothered you, this part of the story, my being there, I mean? What was I doing there? ‘Presume not the ways of God to scan,’ you’re been told in umpteen variations, ‘the proper study of Mankind is Man.’ Maybe so, but, what, excuse me, was the Devil doing in Eden?)”
In Glen Duncan’s bitter, darkly comic novel I, Lucifer, a gifted son struggles to win the attention of his emotionally absent father. The gifted son is Lucifer, also known as Satan, the Fallen, or the Devil, and the oblivious Dad is a cruel and selfish God. The subtitle of the book is “The Other Side of the Story,” and that is what Lucifer purports to tell us in this strange, funny and disturbing literary fantasy.
Lucifer is offered a deal by God to inhabit the body of a mortal for one month. If he can go that long without causing the mortal to commit a mortal sin, he will be forgiven and allowed to return to heaven. Lucifer, the great tempter himself, is tempted, even though he has plans for the body, that of a suicidal writer named Declan Gunn (see what he did there? How clever!). Of course, Lucifer’s big plans do not involve keeping the deal. Soon he is wheeling and dealing with the London movie crowd, planning a movie about the story of Lucifer and the fall, from Lucifer’s point of view.
When an author uses an anagram of his own name as a character, it’s hard not to think the book may be partially autobiographical. Buried under the radiant, firework-display-quality prose of Lucifer’s first-person narrative is a tiny, touching story about Declan Gunn, his small slide from grace, and Penelope, the woman who loved him. Duncan uses this story to write with acidic wit about the hypocrisy and vanity of celebrity, and an insecure young man’s attempt to act like An Important Writer.
This book, though, is Lucifer’s, and what a charming, scary character he is. Part of the creepy charm of the Adversary is that he likes us, he really likes us… and not in a “fava beans and a nice bottle of Chianti” kind of way. I’ll let him tell you:
“Should I say that you were right up my street? You were right up my street, in the front door, and sitting in the comfy chair with your shoes off smoking a huge spliff while I made us both a cup of PG.”
Lucifer elucidates just how self-centered, oblivious, neglectful and cruel God is. Towards the end of the book, Lucifer admits a shocking thing. He does not love evil. Doing evil causes him pain. He does it to prove that he is free.
He doesn’t really just want to be free, though. Lucifer wants God’s attention, God’s approval. Lucifer wants God’s love. God, though, already has a son he loves – a son that is a part of himself. There’s no fatted calf, no welcome-home feast in the cards for Lucifer.
This, along with Declan and Penelope, is the gripping part of the story. Unfortunately, that’s only about a third of the book. In the beginning, when Lucifer first finds himself in a mortal body, he is stunned by the physicality of it all. He is brought to his knees, literally, in a garden, but also by ice cream, by rain, by sunsets. Duncan writes sensuous description better than almost anybody, and the seduction of Lucifer by the power of the human senses is wonderful.
There’s the rest of the book, though, with the notion of a movie, and Lucifer’s not-so-secret plan; scene after scene of him telling us the aftermath of too much cocaine, too much champagne, too much beer, too many signature cocktails (the Lucifer Rising is quite popular), too many cigarettes, too much sex. Secondary characters, like Trent and Harriet, are almost sinfully boring. The pacing begins to flag about halfway through, and Lucifer begins to sound like that really drunk guy who has cornered you at a party. Duncan seems to have the same kind of problem with I, Lucifer that he had, to a lesser degree, in The Last Werewolf. To make his ending work Duncan has to switch points of view, jettisoning the narrative voice that is the most compelling thing about the book.
I, Lucifer is intentionally funny, much funnier than The Last Werewolf, but I didn’t like it as much. I was experiencing Lucifer-fatigue by the end. If you have strong spiritual beliefs and don’t like people poking fun at them, do not read this book. If your nineteen year old nephew’s Facebook rants about how life is unfair, the system is rigged, there’s no justice, etc, make you want to hide his posts, expect to have that exact reaction while reading this book. At the same time, be prepared to admire the writing, the almost off-handed observations about the human experience. Be prepared to be outraged, disgusted, and sometimes deeply envious, as Duncan carries you along on a sulphurous, tumultuous, glowing river of words.