Dan Rhodes apparently had trouble finding a publisher for this short novel, and it’s possible to envisage a certain amount of sorrowful head-shaking in legal departments at its theme. In the dead of winter, accompanied by his long-suffering ‘male secretary’ Smee, a ‘thrice-married evolutionary biologist’ named Richard Dawkins gets stranded in rural England while en route to address the All Bottoms Women’s Institute on the topic of the non-existence of God. This elderly, irascible scientist is taken in by the local vicar and his wife, and forced to contend with various local problems, from religious disputes — ‘Your silly books are just collections of fairy stories; you might as well revolve your lives around the teachings of the Three Billy Goats Gruff’ — to the switching-on of the village’s Christmas lights, an event which he chooses to preface with ‘a five-minute distillation of his views on the subject of infanticide’.
Rhodes’s book is satire of the broadest stripe: it is, in fact, the closest thing to a strip from Viz magazine that I’ve seen in novel form. The tone swerves hilariously between puerile double-entendre (there’s a running sequence of gags about ‘seeing Upper Bottom’) and lacerating comedy about the atheist movement and its acolytes. The professor indicates with pride that if you are looking for an expert to teach you all about how the gaps in the fossil record in no way challenge the theory of evolution, you could do worse than call on an alternative comedian and, upon seeing a car with ONE LIFE — LIVE IT written on the side, he observes that he’d like to borrow the slogan as a title for his next book, ‘though I dare say Grayling would come out with a volume of his own six months later, called Live Your One Life or some such.’
It’s very funny, but it isn’t bulletproof. The comic motors are the logic and detachment upon which the real Dawkins prides himself: Rhodes’s professor is incapable of seeing category distinctions between expressions of religious thought, so he meets the hazy belief in God of simple country folk with the same fury — ‘You might as well say there is a goblin with a purple face!’ — that he reserves for religious extremism. Because this invariance is the point, the comedy requires a setting upon which fundamentalism, radicalism and zealotry never intrude; and that, of course, is not always the backdrop against which Rhodes’s real-life target operates.
Instead, this is mickey-taking as British as pantomime, pitting its derisive professor against a bunch of amiable, Postman-Pattish Christians (vicars, soldiers, members of the WI, a little girl with a sick cat) in a way that makes huge comic capital from the English social horror of intemperance and extreme opinion.
Non-Brits are likely to find it more confusing, as may anyone who hasn’t followed the real Professor Dawkins’s second career as provocateur, self-appointed enemy of ‘illogic, obscurantism, pretension’ and online troll. And despite a cunning flick of the cape that seems to put the author out of reach of legal action, there is at least one thrice-married evolutionary biologist whom it will certainly not amuse. I, however, laughed myself sick.