Anne Rice,
Memnoch the Devil
(Knopf, 1995)

Why on earth should Anne Rice (or any author) be expected to limit herself to writing one type of novel, in one style, on one note? Critics say Memnoch the Devil "is boring," "isn't a vampire novel," "isn't Lestat," "is out of character," "is offensive" and many other well-intentioned chidings ... all of which sound rather put out, and many of which miss the point entirely.

First, let's dispense with the notions that this isn't a vampire novel, that it isn't Lestat and that his behavior is out of character. One: This is a vampire novel, as it has a fair share of vampires haunting the pages. Two: If you study the overall arc of Lestat's character, from Interview through Memnoch, the overall effect is a softening of Lestat's hard, conscienceless demeanor. (The Tale of the Body Thief really brings this to the fore, in fact; read it again and see if I'm wrong.) Memnoch's characterization of Lestat is perfectly in keeping with what's gone before. As to the idea that the characters do not act in keeping with their usual presentations in Rice's previous vampire novels, well, ask yourself this: If you met, in the span of a few hours, both God and Satan, had your mind blown by both Heaven and Hell AND had your entire belief system turned upside-rightside-inside-out, how rationally would YOU act? My guess is not very, and that was part of the point Rice was trying to make: we're far too comfortable in our various faiths, and that kind of complacency is very dangerous. We need to question more, Rice is saying. We need to ask hard questions -- even if we don't like the answers.

Which brings us nicely to addressing what a lot of people say about this novel: That it's offensive, that it portrays God as a bumbling incompetent and Lucifer as the wronged party -- and, worse, that he's attractive to boot. Well, let me just say this about that: This is a work of FICTION, folks. A novel. A big fat lie, told to amuse and amaze you in your unoccupied moments, nothing more.

If you're offended by the notion of a fictional vampire sinking his teeth into the fictional neck of a fictional Christ on the cross (note: Lestat makes no appearances in the Bible), then maybe your faith isn't as strong as you think. At the very least you need to get out more often.

Memnoch is handsome, attractive and persuasive. So what? Isn't that what makes evil such a siren call -- that so much of the time it is attractive, tempting, seductive? Would Eve ever have been tempted if the serpent hadn't used honeyed words and gentle persuasion? Finally, God is not presented as a bumbler here so much as he is cold and indifferent to his own creation -- and haven't many of us suffered from that suspicion in our darkest moments? "Where were you when I made the world?" God asks Job when Job questions him -- in other words, I have a plan and you don't know the half of it, pal. The thought that God knows what he's doing, but doesn't trust us enough to let us know, too, has driven plenty of people to question, even doubt, their own faith. (And I'll fill you in on a little secret, too. It's all right to question and doubt.)

OK, what's next? Is Memnoch boring? Well, maybe -- if you have the attention span of a gnat. If you go into this novel expecting typical Lestat-type adventures, you will be disappointed. If, however, you pry that cover open without any expectations other than reading a well-told, intelligently thought-out tale, you may just be in for a treat.

Yes, it is a tale that's been told before, notably by Milton in Paradise Lost, but Rice comes up with a few wrinkles even Milton never thought of. This is not your average chapter of The Vampire Chronicles ... which brings me back around to my original point. If Rice had written a more typical Lestat adventure, people would complain. "We've read this before! How about something new? It's the same thing over and over again!" It's easy -- far too easy -- to tell the same story over and over again, as witness the novels of Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins and (God save and preserve us) Barbara Cartland. Rice could make a comfortable living doing that -- but instead she comes at us (or at the very least tries to) with a different perspective nearly every time, with a different story to tell. This is how writers become better at the craft: they try new things, explore new ideas, stake out new territory in their lives and minds.

This, by the way, is also how people expand their horizons, by leaving behind the old and familiar for the new and uncharted. I'm proud to say my horizons were expanded by Anne Rice's bold, daring departure from her usual fare, and I hope for more of the same in the future.

book review by
Jay Whelan

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