|Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews|
Knopf (2003) 305 pages
Anne Rice wants you to know a couple of things from her press releases: first, that the character of the Vampire Lestat, one of her most popular creations, was "modeled after" her late husband, Stan Rice, who died of a brain tumor in December 2002 at the age of sixty. And second, that with Blood Canticle, her twenty-fifth novel (supposedly completed some two months before his death), she's brought the hugely successful Vampire Chronicles to its end—and presumably the Lives of the Mayfair Witches and their nemesis, the Taltos, too, for since 2002's Blackwood Farm, which some readers considered a return to form for Ms. Rice after a series of reportedly sub-par and sloppily-edited rote outings, the two sagas have been inexorably intertwined. She plans to move in some sort of new direction in 2004, and whether this means a new kind of writing or a respite from writing at all, situations both in the books and in her public "private" life make this a good time to call it a Night.
I'm not a big Anne Rice fanatic, nor do I hang on her every written word, though living in and around New Orleans all these years, one picks things up. I will say that like Iris Murdoch, who also put out a book a year and had the financial clout to publish without an editor, the writing overall has suffered and been cheapened; though at her best, Anne Rice is brilliant, specifically in her masterpieces: Interview, of course, and in her hands-down-masterpiece, the luscious (if overly long) Witching Hour (1990). Honorable mentions go to the underrated and almost forgotten historic novel Feast of All Saints (1979), Lasher (1994) and the aforementioned Blackwood Farm, and everyone who's read much Rice finds passages of beauty and grandeur in the lesser novels as well, as I do in the opening chapters of the otherwise forgettable Merrick (1998). Walk into any locals bar in Nola and start talking about it, and you'll find that almost every book has its champions and detractors, though in recent years the latter have been louder and perhaps more convincing.
The present volume is brief by Rice's standards, or more properly, "habits"—but she gets a good deal into 300 pages. The writing is less evocatively descriptive than even Blackwood Farm, which at first take seems to be the better book, but Rice shorn of her increasingly tiresome extrapolations will certainly do the trick for her Constant Readers, since she sums up key episodes and characterizations from the other novels in spare, broad, quick strokes. This may also be maddening for the reader who insists that a novel should stand on its own, but the paucity of excess detail is executed skillfully enough to make such a reader wish to go back to some of the earlier books, especially the ones in the "series"-plural I've mentioned.
Having said this, it is now my job to evaluate this new novel on its own merits, right? Easy, one might think, from a quasi-disinterested reader, my not being an Anne Rice fanatic, as I've said. But have I read her other books? Sure, a number of them. And while I don't "do" spoilers, I'll tell you that all or most of the major characters are here, packed into this small book that nevertheless gives the illusion of being longer than it actually is, a talent or a trick very few writers master, though the obverse can be common in "popular" fiction.
And in Blood Canticle, these characters say and do things every other page seemingly at odds with the intricate characterizations Rice has built up around them. And that preposition is the key here: Rice has usually constructed her characters with a broad and lush impressionism that makes them seem larger than they are. If you expect this to be a CHAPTER in a BOOK, then, as readers of say, Faulkner used to do, you'll be taken aback by what seems contradictory. However, if one allows Rice her own magic realism, such problems are minimized. Because what Anne Rice does in Canticle is underscore what these books and these characters have really been the whole time: they are supernatural only incidentally, one might say. The tensions and problems and "arguments" of this novel are completely, unequivocally, Human.
To realize this is to hold the key to the "mystery," which of course was presented as supernatural in order to underscore its essential realism. I've chosen to write about this book because more than many others I have read, and that's a lot, it deals with human frailties, vulnerabilities, fears, anxieties, tensions, resolutions, forgiveness and redemption more or less head-on. Lestat may confound you here, and you may not like him, or the girl/woman whom Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under should play if this comes to a movie (it won't)... you may not like any of them. Maybe you're not especially supposed to. Does Anne Rice care? She does not. Read the book and listen to her say that and other things in a meta-dialogue with the reader that sometimes gets downright silly, as if I'm one to talk. But this effect can also be quite charming, WHILE it underscores the novel's core concern. This concern is best expressed with words like "redemption" and "forgiveness" and phrases such as "know thyself." As opposed to "Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law," you see.
We have responsibilities to ourselves and others, and it's a pleasure to reflect on the subtleties of this truth while not being besieged with a litany of high-toned polemic, but with a fun and entertaining story about vampires and witches; then, it never occurs to us that we're reading what we're reading, that we ALL have the power within us to hurt somebody and not even know it, that death is a reality, and that those we love the most are not exempt. That WE are the characters that amuse and entertain and disgust us.
And what is the Answer, then? Hey, did you think Anne Rice knows that any more than you or me? Gosh, maybe you DID! Well, in terms of us, at the end of the Night, there IS no YOU and ME. But there's the characters, and the closures or open-endings for THEM, and read into this what you will. She has control over THEM, and hey—that's something. As for the rest of life, the blank screen is now all yours. Anne Rice has left the building.
Blessed be. Baby.