This has been on my wishlist for over a year, I think. I was never really certain what it was, only that it looked interesting and why not. It’s one of those books where the blurb and the reviews do it absolutely no justice, so it’s probably good I didn’t have much clue what it was going to be. Would only have given me false expectations. But I finally got around to buying it when I got a job lot of books with my birthday Amazon vouchers, so here we are. Not entirely certain it was worth the wait… not that I mean I think it wasn’t. I genuinely am uncertain.
The idea of the book is a confessional, exposé and running commentary from a Lucifer who has taken a body on earth for a month on a dubious deal from Heaven. Sounds… well, not that exciting really. The idea of it from the other perspective has been done before. But it’s done in a very free and stream-of-consciousness way that, by an enormous amount of skill on Duncan’s part, I think, manages to convey the most realistic possible characterisation one could have of the devil. At first, one is charmed by the Lucifer who writes himself onto the pages. One sympathises with him, finds him amusing and desperately charming and in love with the charms of the world. He is debauched and morally dubious from the start, but that doesn’t stop him from being a loveable rogue. Nothing particularly skilful about this. But the point is that Duncan makes you like his Lucifer, makes you side with him and want him to succeed, to enjoy him without guilt… and then he moves on. There’s one episode – written in the same charming and winning style as the rest of the book – which is so sickening and awful, and yet Lucifer treats it like everything else he writes about, and peppers it with observations that juxtapose horribly with the viceral awfulness of it, that one cannot help but realise that he is a character beyond liking. He is actually evil, as the devil must be. Not roguish or dark, but truly evil. He treats physical torture – extreme, cruel and vividly described – as if discussing anything trivial. He talks about it as his own and analyses it with candour. It is at this point that one sees what Duncan has done. He has modelled his characterisation of the devil to some extent on the nature of sin (or at least sin as Duncan describes it earlier in the book). It is at first tempting and without much guilt – maybe it’s not as bad as everyone says? And you get sucked further and further in, forgiving the little trespasses of morality, until that point where you see it is no longer a minor issue at all, but a real, awful, terrible transgression. At which point, there you are with this character that you simultaneously love and loathe. On the one hand, after that point, Lucifer continues to be just as charming as before. But on the other, you understand truly what he is and how little he cares, and so you cannot, as a rational and reasoning and moral human being, be at all sympathetic to a character like that. It’s… quite difficult.
This difficulty is actually increased as the book progresses, with more and more revelations and admissions from Lucifer. But one of the things Duncan establishes from pretty much the first page is that Lucifer lies. He repeats and repeats in the early pages of the book how what Lucifer is telling in this, even this supposedly honest exposé, always dubious. And so one cannot help but doubt whatever he tells us, good and bad. And so these further revelations, especially those that cast Lucifer in a positive light, can never be held up as definite evidence against his awful nature.
The other thing that Duncan does, I think, incredibly well, is to provide thoroughly believable motivations for the devil. I have no clue to what extent he is entrenching it within biblical canon. I am totally the wrong person to talk about that. But in all he says about why Lucifer does and has done what he does, it all makes so much sense. It’s not a case of siding with Lucifer, so much as an understanding of why this particular character of the devil has chosen to be as he is. Why choose evil, why Fall. It makes awful and perfect sense.
What there is of plot is more vaguely alluded to than fully described. This is a book about a character and his thoughts, not about what happens. The style of writing, with its digressions and inner monologue and discussions of the writing itself, lends itself incredibly well to character building, but rather poorly to plot. And that’s fine. The plot itself is only really there as a vehicle for the character’s self-description. And it does that beautifully, especially in so small a book.
My only criticism, and it is a tiny one at that, is that the body Lucifer inhabits, that of a writer, is named Declan Gunn. Anagrams of the author’s name are a little bit cheesy, and it grates on me (pun actually not intended there, honest) that Duncan self-inserts like this. But that’s such a tiny niggle that I can leave it aside. And I can see why he did it. There’s a sort of self-effacing quality to it, especially given the very disparaging descriptions of Gunn throughout the book, that is so… English and familiar. I understand it. But it’s still a bit naff.
That aside, the book is a tiny, exquisite exploration of the inner thoughts of a character, one with an incredibly complex back story to match the complex mind revealed to us through the course of the book. I rarely like books this small, but in this case, it is absolutely the right size for what it intends. What it honestly makes me think of most is the “lepidum novum libellum/ arida modo pumice expolitum” of Catullus*. So I guess I must like it then, now I come to think about it properly.
*I’m not being pretentious. Well, I am, but I genuinely think he reminds me very much of Catullus. It’s a small, perfectly formed work, packed with thought and reference… but also completely filthy and obsessed with sex. It is a legitimate deviation into pretension.