John Niven first came to my attention when I bought a copy of Kill Your Friends, a psychotic look at the music business in London in the 1990s, and which sparked one of the most indiscreet conversations with a stranger that I have ever had. You can read what I thought about it here indelible-ink-kill-your-friends, (the novel that is) but imagine if Irvine Welsh had written American Psycho and set it in London and you’re close to understanding Kill Your Friends. His second novel The Amateur tried to do for golf what he did for music in his debut, but was a disappointment. However he is back with a vengeance, and once again on controversial form, with his third novel The Second Coming.
The premise is genius in its simplicity. God has not taken a holiday since the Haedean aeon. Time moves differently in heaven. For every day there 57 years pass on earth. At the height of the Renaissance he is persuaded that, as we humans seem to be at the height of our creative and intellectual powers, it’s time for another break. He takes a couple of weeks off to fish, relax and drink some beers, returning in 2011 and things have not be going so well here on earth. God had left his son in charge, but Jesus has taken his eye off the ball somewhat, preferring to hang out with Jimi Hendrix and learn some new riffs. After much wailing and brain storming with the apostles, (including a wonderfully foulmouthed St Andrew) he decides that there is only one way to combat earth’s debauchery, decadence and destruction. Send the boy back.
Jesus Christ, or JC as he is known, of course becomes famous, appearing on a US talent show, and uses that fame to try and change people’s lives. The parallels with his original visit to earth, at least as according to Matthew, are marked and deliberate. What surprised me was the integrity that Niven allowed Jesus. I was expecting that he would be terribly corrupted by 21st century America, but despite the best attempts of many of those he comes into contact with, Niven keeps him in character. It is actually a more positive and uplifting novel than I ever thought John Niven capable of, although still a withering commentary on human failings. The Second Coming sees the welcome return of one of Niven’s greatest creations. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but he arrives just in time to keep things interesting, becoming JC’s greatest challenge and arch nemesis.
If you’ve ever wondered how anyone claiming to be Jesus would be treated today then this book is as good a depiction of how events may unfold as I can imagine. Although, like Niven’s previous novels, The Second Coming is blackly comic (the scenes when JC and his dad visit Hell are particularly visceral) there are a lot of serious issues under consideration. Niven has written a fast paced, entertaining, and endearing novel which does so much more than simply comment on religion. TV, fame, celebrity, consumerism, capitalism and modern day America all come under his gaze, and lo, he finds it is not good. But this is not a ‘moral’ novel, or at least if it is then it keeps those morals well hidden. Here is Niven talking about his debut Kill Your Friends:
The Second Coming is similar in subject and attitude to Richard Herring’s stand up show Christ on a Bike (see Herring’s Rules: An Interview With Richard Herring…). Like Herring, Niven takes the view that there is nothing inherently wrong with a lot of what is written in the New Testament, if you can ignore the glaring contradictions of the gospels. The problem is with the interpretation not necessarily the text. Niven reduces Christian theology to the simplest of tenets ‘Be Nice’, apparently the only commandment given to Moses before he decided to embellish it somewhat. What both men do is to puncture the stupidity of much of organised religion, and the very idea that a god of any substance would prefer one group of people over another. In both men’s work Jesus is genuinely the hero, if a flawed one. The Second Coming surprised me and made me realise that far from being the one hit wonder that I feared Niven may have become, he is turning into one of the most interesting, and naturally entertaining, writers around.
IIf you want to hear John Niven being spectacularly indiscreet about his time in the music business then you should download episode 45 of The Word’s weekly podcast, which you can do for free at i-tunes or you can click on the link below. The conversation about ‘bad-cocaine albums’ is interesting. Scottish music fans in particular may be surprised at one of the claims.
Competition Time! I have a signed copy of The Second Coming to give away. To stand a chance of winning email me the answer to this question:
Q: John Niven was responsible for the success of Mike Flowers Pops. Which Oasis song did they famously cover?
Closing date is the 30th May. Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org and the best of luck.