God’s business

The Revelations, by Alex Preston, Faber, RRP£12.99, 325 pages

Alex Preston’s debut novel, This Bleeding City, was published to high acclaim in 2010. It was the first really successful credit crunch novel and, as the former global head of trading at the Carlyle Group’s leveraged finance division, he knew whereof he wrote.

One of the oddest things about the rich young-middle-aged who pursue such callings as being global head of trading or who are hedge fund managers or lawyers in big City firms is the religious craze within their midst. At one of the few City churches to survive the fire of 1666, as well as at its sister church in fashionable Kensington, there exists a form of Christianity quite unlike mainstream Church of England.

The Alpha Course, promoted in these churches, presents a version of Christianity aimed at capturing the hearts of bankers and lawyers. I have never attended the course – wild horses, I must admit, would not drag me to one of their meetings. But there is enough anecdotal evidence to know what it may be like: an obsession with St Paul, clear teaching, presenting itself as “Biblical”; distrust of homosexuals, an insistence upon sex being restricted to the married; and some rum-sounding spiritual manifestations, such as speaking in tongues. The aim of the course is to convert people to a full-blown Christian faith as understood by the evangelical party. Presumably, its appeal to successful City lawyers and bankers is in its clear-cut lines. Whereas a truthful account of Christianity would be that it was full of ambiguities, pitfalls and doubts, it seems here is a version that is like a well-written brief for a counsel, or a persuasive business plan.

It is into this rich field that Alex Preston has chosen to venture for his new novel. Obviously, it is fiction, so he has changed certain aspects of the real Alpha Course – perhaps for legal reasons. For example, “The Course” in this book takes place at a fictional St Botolph’s that is much “higher” than the real evangelical churches at present operating in London. St Botolph’s calls its minister – David Nightingale – a “priest”, a term from which real evangelicals fight shy. There are loads of candles on the altar – not something I think you’d see in the real Alpha centres – indeed, would they use the word altar?

That said, the creepy mindset of David Nightingale, who sets out to dominate a group of young and middle-aged people like an American cult leader, makes for a very gripping story. The central characters in the novel, a bunch of friends from university days, met David when he came to preach in their college chapel. They are Marcus, now a City lawyer; Mouse, a Scotsman who is shyer and from a lower social class than the rest; Abby, who is slightly overweight, married to Marcus and determined to become pregnant; and the bewitching Lee, who is writing a thesis on female medieval mystics. This group of nearly 30-something figures are the leaders of The Course, and do their best to convert would-be seekers after truth, generally young professionals, bankers and the like.

Everyone – including, it must be said, the author – is nuts about Lee. I lost count of the number of times we are presented with descriptions of her, with or without clothes, and of the number of times that the men in the book – Mouse, Marcus and the priest – either fondle her or imagine doing so. The crisis of the drama occurs when Lee, who is a fairly wacky girl, falls downstairs at the end of a retreat run by The Course and is killed (this isn’t a spoiler as such, as the book is far from a whodunnit). Mouse, who is the one (apart from the author) who is deepest in love with her, and the only one not to have enjoyed her favours, rows her dead body out into the middle of a lake and dumps it in the water. The priest decides that for the good of The Course, it would be better for this disgraceful act to be covered up, and not admitted either to the police or to Lee’s father.

How do I describe this strange novel? Compulsively readable, certainly. I kept turning the pages, and I was electrified by the oddity of all the characters. At times – especially when they are all together on the retreat – I thought of Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell, about a collection of religious weirdos, and wondered whether Preston would do for the evangelicals of 2012 what Murdoch had done for the tormented high church homosexuals.

Murdoch’s novel owes much of its power to the fact that the characters are all in some sense frustrated. There’s much spiritual and mental angst in Preston’s story, but there is not one character who holds back from sexual indulgence, in spite of their commitment to The Course. Even the sad Mouse attends massage parlours, while Marcus goes to drug- and drink-fuelled parties, indulges in oral sex and plenty of masturbation, especially when the beguiling Lee is about.

I’m prepared to believe that those who run, and those who attend, the real Alpha Course inhabit a pretty weird psychological hinterland. Nevertheless, I felt uneasy about the amount of sex in the book. Are the evangelicals really all at it like rabbits? No wonder their movement is seen by baffled moderate Anglicans as the “fastest-growing” section of their church.

AN Wilson is author of ‘Dante in Love’ (Atlantic)

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