Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, March 2, 2008
CHRIST THE LORD
The Road to Cana
By Anne Rice
Knopf. 242 pp. $25.95
As a Christian, I appreciate the reverence and piety that Anne Rice brings to her second novel about the life of Jesus, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. But as a reader, I kept wishing some gay vampires would swoop in to liven things up. There's no questioning Rice's sincerity in this epic project, begun in 2005 with Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Indeed, sincerity marks every page, every interview and especially her devout Web site, which immediately inspires your computer to sing "Ave Maria." (Seriously.)
Having made a fortune off erotica and horror since she started publishing novels in 1976, the Mistress of the Macabre announced a few years ago that her work had led her to Jesus Christ, another character whose life story revolves around blood. And why shouldn't her flock of readers follow her from darkness into light? Her publisher's faith is well founded: Out of Egypt was a bestseller in hardback and paperback; the advent of The Road to Cana is being celebrated with a first printing of 500,000 copies. Talk about feeding the multitude.
While her initial volume concentrated on a 7-year-old Jesus trying to figure out who he is, this new installment picks up the story when he's 30, living with his large, extended family in the dusty, backward village of Nazareth. He has no doubts now about who he is: "I am Christ the Lord," he tells us on the opening page, but this is several months before he's baptized by John and begins his public ministry. He's still just a humble carpenter, keeps to himself, tries to brush off those rumors about miracles and wisemen attending his birth. "My way had always been to look down," he says. "The subject of whisper and insult through much of my life, I seldom confronted a man with my gaze, but rather turned away and sought my work as a matter of course. It was a quiet demeanor."
It was a weird way of speaking, too. And this is a severe limitation: Rice's Jesus can bear the sins of the world, but he can't convincingly carry the burden of narrating his own story. His voice vacillates between modern Christian orthodoxy and New Age gooeyness: "Something inside me let go," he tells us while meditating in his special grove. "It had been a long while since I'd savored such a moment, since I'd let the tight prison of my skin dissolve. I felt as if I were moving upward and outward, as if the night were filled with myriad beings and the rhythm of their song drowned out the anxious beating of my heart. The shell of my body was gone. I was in the stars."
The novel opens during a crippling drought and widespread protests against the new governor, Pontius Pilate, who has reportedly defiled the Temple in Jerusalem with images of the Roman emperor. In this atmosphere of desperation and unrest, two Nazarene boys are accused of being gay and, before any investigation or trial can take place, stoned by a mob. This seems like a return to hallowed ground for Rice, who enlivened old stories about the undead with homoerotic energy. Her Nazareth is scared straight. Jesus's family is anxious about his sexual orientation. Why hasn't he married already? "Are you a man beneath those robes?" someone taunts him. "A man? You understand me?" In a little village like this, people talk, rumors can kill.
But it's just a tease: Rice isn't really interested in exploring questions about Jesus's sexuality. He is the Christ. (See the first page.) He knows it; we know it. And though most of the story focuses on whether Jesus will marry a pretty, brutally repressed girl named Avigail, -- spoiler alert!-- it's never in the cards. Oh, he pines for her a bit and even dreams of her, but there's nothing approaching the emotional conflict that Nikos Kazantzakis dared to consider in The Last Temptation of Christ more than 50 years ago.
The Gospels are notoriously laconic about Jesus's life before his ministry began. Indeed, the earliest and -- many historians assume -- most reliable one, the Book of Mark, doesn't even start until Jesus is an adult. Consequently, Rice has invented much of the day-to-day action of this novel, but what she describes fits neatly with biblical tradition and particularly with Roman Catholic theology. Some readers may find this orthodoxy comforting, but it dulls the novel, keeping it from delivering anything new, challenging or engaging. Rather than rediscovering the startlingly iconoclastic figure that speaks and acts in the Gospels, Rice peers at him through the frosted lens of her faith. In the closing pages of the book, Jesus tells his disciples, "I will go on, from surprise to surprise," but in fact, this highlights the most fundamental problem of the novel: It's virtually surprise-free.
It would be nice to say that Rice runs into the same problem Milton confronted in Paradise Lost: The devil is so much more mesmerizing than the Son of God that it's hard to keep him from stealing the show. But Rice's devil isn't too interesting either. The Prince of Darkness appears late in the novel, after Jesus's 40-day fast in the wilderness. You'd think the author who put teeth back in vampire fiction could give us a devil with a little spunk, but he's not much scarier than a salesman at Saks:
" 'You take a good look at these soft clothes!' he shouted, mouth quivering like that of a child. 'You'll never see yourself dressed in this manner again.' He groaned. He doubled in pain as he groaned. He shook his fist at me."
And your little dog, Toto, too!
As promised, the novel concludes in Cana, with that famous wedding that runs out of wine. The servants are rushing about. Jesus sees panic in his mother's eyes. "Something was very wrong," he realizes. "It was a disaster of unlikely and dreadful proportions."
Jesus, ain't that the truth. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to email@example.com.