09 March 2008

Saving Lestat

There are a few things that can cause an uproar in the literary community—the death of an author, the discovery of a fake "memoir," and the controversy surrounding an author’s work. All three have happened (sometimes in multiples) over the past few weeks, and each deserves its own discussion. A more detailed conversation regarding the “fake memoirs,” the industry that allowed their publication, and the audiences buying them will be posted later. What I’m most interested in at the moment is the comment Anne Rice made to Time magazine regarding her return to the much beloved Vampire Chronicles after having turned her back on them in 2002.

People are entitled to their personal systems of belief, of course. I’m not criticizing Rice’s decision to reenter the Catholic faith with gusto. That’s her business. What concerns me most is her public declaration to the industry and her fans of the abandonment of her work, as though it was somehow “wrong” or “tainted.” After her return to the church, she claimed that her future work would be only be in the service of god. In an interview with Christianity Today, Rice reflected on her decision to abandon her previous journey with the Vampire Chronicles: "I would never go back, not even if they say, 'You will be financially ruined; you've got to write another vampire book.' I would say no. I have no choice. I would be a fool for all eternity to turn my back on God like that."

Her vehemence is admirable. It also leaves the fans that she had accumulated over the decades who were (and still are) enthralled by the spiritual and moral conflicts of her characters, confused and lost. Rice claims that her experience writing the Chronicles was a record of her own pain (She wrote Interview with a Vampire after the death of her 5 year old daughter Michelle), questions about spirituality and the nature of man, and her journey back to God. Make no mistake; the Vampire Chronicles are not gratuitous blood letting novels. From Interview with the Vampire on, Rice chronicles the spiritual conflict of her characters. By the time the series reaches Memnoch the Devil, faith and spirituality are at the forefront of the plot. Memnoch, a fallen angel, takes Lestat on a whirlwind tour of heaven and hell, and reveals to him the inner workings of theology and cosmology in an attempt to convince him to join his struggle. This novel in particular drew heavy criticism from much of the Christian community for being heretical (i.e. God is imperfect), and in some scenes, blatantly blasphemous (i.e. Jesus offers Lestat his blood). The rest of the chronicles struggle with the idea of redemption and spirituality without the flagrant, direct interweaving of Christian themes.

So what’s the problem with Lestat and company? Wouldn’t it make more sense to continue the series once she found God again, and mirror that experience to a degree in her novels just as she had done when she was “lost?” Well, apparently, that same thought occurred to Rice. In a recent interview with Time magazine, rice announced that there may be one more Vampire book in the works. She stated that "When I published my first book about the Lord I said I would never write about those characters again," Rice acknowledged. "But I have one more book that I would really like to write. It will be a story that I need to tell." (“Lestat Lives,” Time)

This is the news fans have been waiting for since the unsatisfying ending of the last Vampire Chronicles novel, Blood Canticle. There was never a textual indication that Blood Canticle would be the last book involving Rice’s vampires and Mayfair Witches, and the announcement of no other Vampire book left readers blindsided and frustrated. Endings, particularly in a series, make all the difference in the world. To leave the entire story unfinished, with plot lines open and unresolved, does a disservice to the loyal readers and fans. Ultimately, no one can force an author to write anything, and how they choose to end a story is left to them. But few authors embraced their fan base as enthusiastically as Rice did, making her writings feel like more of a dialogue than a one way conversation. Understandably, there was a prevalent sense of betrayal from fans, and quite a bit of anger.

On February 25, in a message on her website, AnneRice.com, Rice makes clear that the book wouldn’t be in the works until she completed her current four book Christ the Lord series. That would place the release date for the last Lestat novel, at the earliest, in 2011. I can wait. But something else Rice said in her message to her readers raised concerns:

“There is no possibility for me to return to writing about the vampires as heroes of a dark realm in which they are the only authority on their actions. There will be no more rip roaring adventures for the godless Lestat. That is dead and gone. I found the light in Christ for which my old characters were always searching. The question is: can I bring my Christian faith back to one of those old characters in a meaningful and deeply religious way.

If this new novel is written – and it may never be --- it will be about the question of Lestat's salvation and it would, as I said, have to reflect in depth my Christian view of the world and my Christian values.”

Okay. Redemption and/or salvation for the Brat Prince. We get it. In fact, most of us welcome it! My concern is that she will “return” to those characters and destroy the decades of work she installed creating those highly flawed anti-heroes. When Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire, she didn’t just give readers a modern gothic guilty pleasure—she changed the landscape of “monster” lit. Historically, monsters—particularly vampires—have been used as a didactic social tool. They typically embodied everything a refined, civilized, proper man or woman was supposed to avoid. They were promiscuous, forward, lusty, sneaky, and malicious. They attacked and destroyed men by preying on the women in their lives, and their strategic choice of innocent victims made them detestable. Readers aren’t supposed to empathize with Stoker’s Dracula, Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, or Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. These vampires were “evil incarnate,” seeking to destroy social conventions and flout decadence with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Dracula infected women with the independent changes Victorian men were terrified of and witnessing in women of the day. By connecting these behaviors with an evil monster such as Dracula, it reinforced (in the mind of some critics) the more proper, traditional behaviors None of these vampire stories are told from the perspective of the vampire, but from the point of view of some one trying to destroy the vampire. Anne Rice turned these tropes on their head and made the monster the “hero” of the novel.

Lestat, Louis, Armand, Pandora, and Vittoiro give us personal accounts of their misunderstood experiences. You sympathize with the monster and turn your criticisms to society and spirituality rather than the very embodiment of evil that the vampire’s presence formerly indicated. The “anti-heroes” faced their own struggles—oftentimes mirroring the same struggles of the readers. In Anne Rice’s chronicles, the “other” became the focal point; the flawed, imperfect, sinning monster suddenly had a voice, and that voice was captivating. Her portrayal of vampires forced the focus of textual criticism to issues of society and faith at large rather than issues of proper gender roles. She documented conflicts of morality, mortality, sexuality, humanity, and spirituality. Those conflicts, which remain largely unresolved, tapped a genuine social concern, just as her predecessors did.

For Rice to return to a redemptive, salvation story for Lestat makes sense in terms of the plot lines of her Chronicles. It would tie up loose ends and finalize a number of unresolved issues. The danger is in her approach to the story. To dismiss the gauntlets her characters were put through, and to force them into a Christian salvation just for the sake of keeping her promise to God would be a grave career faux pas. Lestat’s redemption is something that must be handled with great delicacy. I have faith in Rice’s affection for the world and characters she created, and I hope beyond hope that she doesn’t turn the last novel into an excuse to proselytize for the sake of her renewed faith. If it makes sense in terms of character development and plot progression, I doubt her readers will complain.

Rice’s mistake was discussing the novel in terms of her faith. Had she written it, released it, and allowed her fans and readers the opportunity to parse the underlying themes together for themselves Lestat’s salvation wouldn’t have been questioned. Because she felt the need to explain and justify her decision to possibly return to those characters, the novel will be viewed skeptically by most of her readers. I look forward to seeing how this project develops over the years, and if anyone can navigate these choppy waters, it’s Anne Rice.

Write well,
~Dawn Papuga

1 Comment:

Eric Williams said...

Interesting review and fairly written. I was impressed by your willingness to critique Rice's choices as a writer rather than as a Catholic.