No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 01, 1996

Memnoch, the Devil -- Anne Rice

Anne Rice has said that Memnoch the Devil will be her last book about Lestat, the charismatic vampire / rock star / Agent of Destiny who has been the protagonist of her vampire novels to date. She has discussed the reasons for this in terms that are emotional, to say the least; and she has told the world that she’s in love with Lestat. This amour is very evident in her latest novel, where Lestat’s actions have, quite literally, religious overtones.

The book opens with Lestat pursuing his most fascinating prey to date. Roger is a criminal who’s almost as charismatic as Lestat. He uses the proceeds of his drug deals to purchase treasures of religious art. Lestat is equally fascinated by Roger’s daughter, the televangelist Dora. He will kill Roger and drain him dry; but when? It’s only a matter of time ...

Meanwhile Lestat is, in turn, being stalked - by an entity he does not recognise or understand, and which terrifies him. It will not surprise anyone who has noted the title of the book to learn that this pursuer is Memnoch, the Devil Himself. But what does he want with Lestat? Is it simply to drag him down to a blazing Christian Hell, or is there something more?

Memnoch the Devil is written in the same expansive style as the previous three books (the first, Interview with the Vampire, which was narrated by the pleasantly-reserved Louis, has a more formal manner), and occasionally this begins to grate. So much emotion! So many exclamation marks! Can one withstand Rice’s passion for her creation?

Actually, it’s remarkably easy. Rice’s lush prose style lends itself well to evocative and emotive description; but there are turns of phrase which catapult one abruptly into the realisation that her writing is not, perhaps, what it was: ‘he said politely in British,’ for example. Or, ‘awesome statistics such as 1704, or even 1692.’ Or ... But it’s easy to quote out of context. And there are more profound aspects of Memnoch, the Devil to criticise than mere turns of phrase.

There’s a verbosity to Rice’s prose which is more evident than before. Considering that one of the major motifs of the novel is Lestat’s confusion and self-doubt - is he going mad or not? - it’s possible to accept that his stream of consciousness might be more haphazard than in previous novels. In some ways it’s the most claustrophobic of her books to date; none of the other vampire pantheon appear until the very end of the book, and the action focusses more on Lestat’s inner turmoil than on the awful glamour of his existence as a vampire. Oh yes, he still gets to kill people; he still gets to drink blood. (Incidentally, this may be one of the first mainstream vampire novels to deal with menstruation. Tastefully, moreover. Pun intended).

But Lestat, who has always shown a tendency to whinge on like an angst-ridden adolescent about his place in God’s Creation, is reaching a crisis point in his existence. His love for Dora, the daughter of the man he refers to as ‘my Victim’ (the capitalisation sanctifies the noun: think of ‘my Saviour’ ...) forces him to confront his own faith, which up to now he has made a point of rejecting in as loud and dramatic a fashion as possible. The process of soul-searching - in one who’s said before that he has no soul - is exarcebated by the appearance on the stage of Memnoch, the Devil. One can’t help but feel that the theological debate which ensues is, at least in part, founded on the author’s own religious doubts.

Rice, through Memnoch, debates the standard theological puzzles: how can a good God allow suffering? What is the role of evolution in religious thought? What is the nature of angels? The discussion is, on the whole, rigorously argued, and there are occasional flashes of wit and of profundity. Lestat’s role in this discussion is often no more than that of the ignorant apostle, who asks all the obvious questions in order to establish the tenets of his faith; the difference between this and the standard catechism is that his questions are answered by one who is in a position to know the truth.

The main flaw of this novel is its structural imbalance. Memnoch’s story, and the theological arguments proceeding from it, constitute well over a third of the book, and Lestat’s present-day secular adventures sometime seem no more than a framing device for what is, in effect, a massive and melodramatic info-dump. Memnoch is perhaps the hero of this part of the novel, and he bears more than a passing resemblance to the self-assured Lestat of previous Chronicles. Memnoch is as ‘enthralled’ and ‘in love’ with humanity as Lestat has been with Roger and Dora. The parallels between the two are difficult to mistake.

Rice, like Milton, is of the Devil’s party; unlike Milton, she knows it. Lestat’s experiences echo those of Christ tempted by Satan, but Memnoch is not the archetypal villain that one would traditionally expect. Does Rice’s theology equate to hereticism? And should a novel be judged by its philosophical arguments when other criteria of quality, such as structure and characterisation, aren’t met?

The climax of the novel makes the ending of Queen of the Damned - which was reminiscent of a de Mille epic in sheer scale - seem an exercise in moderation and mild-mannered restraint. If Rice had intended to write another novel about Lestat, this would be a hard act to follow. Flawed and decadent, but still capable of fascinating; let that stand as a monument to Lestat, as well as to Memnoch, the Devil.