Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Peculiar Prose and Plots of Anne Rice

To date, I’ve read only five Anne Rice novels, so if any of her loyal fans want to school me about what a moron I am, come right in and leave a comment. But please wipe your feet first. I just vacuumed. However, fans of her SMBD stuff are not welcome, regardless whether you’re willing to leave your cuffs and ball gag at the door. In fact, get off my lawn right now.

I consider Anne Rice a good writer, a sensual writer. She has a tender way of shaping a scene, a character, a place, or a mood. Subtle eroticism permeates her work. She has her moments of originality and flair. But when it comes to revision, she’s one of the worst. Applying the scalpel for the benefit of the whole can mean the difference between a beautiful work and one sporting unsightly cysts. It’s also the difference between an amateur and a pro. In such cases Rice’s individuality is her greatest weakness. She falls in love with her own gilded prose and refuses to remove the dross. Hint: the perspective of a friend or two (or an editor for that matter) is an effective flux, ideally before submitting the work to a publisher.

I sympathize with Rice. I too fell in love with her brilliant style many years ago. It was only after reading a few of her books that I realized she lacked the ability to isolate the excess and end the love affair. I eventually recognized my infatuation for what it was and broke it off.

My brother once told me he doesn’t like a lot of description. “I just wanna know what time it is; I don’t wanna know how a clock works.” I can respect that. But if the writer offers a turn of phrase or two, the dizzying effects can cause me to swoon. In fact I love writers who delve into the minutia. My favorite dead author, Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel Transparent Things, devotes at least 1500 words to the composition of a pencil – its feel against the fingertips, its weight, the shadow it casts when held, the deep lines the lead makes on paper. Nabokov is a genius with words.

The problem is Rice doesn’t delve into the minutia of a pencil. She stops the story to tell you everything John is wearing as he races down the boulevard – the color of his hair, the way it jostles against his neck and shoulders, the bounce of the curls, the tone of his skin, the girth of his thighs, the hue of his pupils, the cut of his clothes, the material, feel, size, look – until you, the reader, are left with nothing to imagine for yourself.

Rice resisted the editor’s red pen from the beginning, and after her success with her third novel, she had acquired enough clout to refuse it outright. In fact, on her web site, Rice says she stopped accepting comments from her editor altogether. She regards this approach as “pure.” Her editor reluctantly consented, forfeiting any influence over the finished product. Consequently, Rice’s novels have been bulging drafts ever since, obese things in need of liposuction.

Her plots are a different matter. Her debut novel, considered by many critics her best work, Interview with the Vampire did what no other vampire story had done – traced the life (or death) of a vampire with a conscience. It’s a fantastic story. Published in 1976, it’s told by way of an interview with a reporter, someone referred to only as ‘the boy.’ Here, Louis, the protagonist, recounts how, nearly 200 years prior, circa 1790, he’s attacked by a vampire called Lestat and is set on the path to immortal damnation. Louis grows to not only regret this transformation but to loathe Lestat for being the conduit. To retain the last vestige of his humanity, Louis refuses to kill people to survive, opting to feed off the blood of animals instead. Lestat mocks Louis for having a conscience until finally, after constant harassment, Louis capitulates, submitting to a career of murder.

Meanwhile, Louis is disturbed by how Lestat, cold, calculating, and dispassionate, makes a sport of killing. Sensing the gulf between them, Lestat decides to make amends. He ventures out one night along the streets of a much younger New Orleans plagued by disease and finds an orphan girl of five weeping next to the corpse of her mother. As a gesture of goodwill or reconciliation Lestat presents the girl to Louis as a meal to feed on. Of course Louis is horrified and shortly thereafter decides to leave Lestat. Lestat, sensing this, turns the girl into a vampire and tells Louis that she, now named Claudia, can be their adopted daughter. This has the intended effect as Louis dotes on the child, treating her as his own, and remains with Lestat, the three forming a deadly trio on the unsuspecting populace. As horror fans know, children in scary stories are particularly unsettling. The boy in Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery or the twins in the hallway of The Shining, anyone? “Come and play with us, Danny. Forever and ever…and ever.”

This child’s thirst for blood is insatiable. She seems as free of the concerns of guilt and regret as Lestat. But after many years of indiscriminate killing, she learns that her child body is permanent, that she'll never grow, flower, or mature. She conspires with Louis to kill Lestat, a taboo among vampires we’re told, and difficult, since only a beheading will do. And that’s only about midway through the novel.

Note: The movie version sucks. The film itself mocks Louis’ inner struggle, hence eliminating the one thing that makes this particular vampire story unique and thereby reducing it to just another forgettable blood-sucking tale. Plus, the five year old Claudia character in the book is played by Kirsten Dunst when 11. Not as creepy.

The Vampire Lestat is a sequel to Interview. Though not as solid a story, it’s still a pretty good read, written in first person by the vampire who made Louis a cursed immortal. Unfortunately, Lestat's attempts for sympathy aren’t the least bit as poignant as Louis' appeals for redemption or illumination back in Interview. While this might’ve been Rice's intent, to show Lestat with crocodile tears on his cheeks, feigning sincerity, I doubt it. Still, that would’ve been clever. Interview stands alone by virtue of its implication: Louis gains immortality only to be driven to the brink of madness by the cost of that immortality – feasting on human blood. He’s the consummate reluctant beast who wallows in despair because of his hideous appetite; whereas Lestat learns to revel in his plight with only the occasional pricking of the conscience. 

The Queen of the Damned. Book three of the Vampire Chronicles is decent, but in no way comparable to her first. This is where the superfluous prose really shows. Rice’s husband, Stan Rice, was a poet, not a good one I might add, and Anne inserts one of his poems at the beginning of every chapter of this book. They’re irrelevant to the book and each alludes to nothing in the chapter it precedes. Again, after reading Interview, I went on a hunt for the entire series, thinking I’d found a modern novelist superior to the mainstream. However, I finally decided that both she and I merely got lucky. 

The Tale of the Body Thief is an utter waste of time. Frankly, I simply can’t sympathize with a monster that either refuses to address the implication of its crimes or fails to persuade our hearts in its favor. In John Gardner’s novel Grendel, the story, as in these vampire chronicles, is told from the villain’s perspective. But Grendel is rendered in such a compelling way that you pity the monster and learn to see things from its viewpoint, an accomplishment only a master of the written word can achieve. Same thing with Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert Humbert (even this protagonist’s name has obscene overtones) uses beguiling seduction in an effort to win over the reader’s sympathy. At the very least the reader is forced to withhold judgment for the sake of the story as the protagonist’s reprehensible abuse of a child of twelve culminates into the monster’s arrest and imprisonment. Body Thief fails to establish this necessary sympathy.   

Servant of the Bones. Though meant to be a serious novel, I literally laughed out loud when I suspect the author wasn’t joking. We follow the life (or death, I guess) of Azriel, a spirit more fascinated with fashion and social graces than with thoughtful problem solving. As a result, his efforts to right wrongs are always one step behind the events, even when he is a witness to events leading to the wrongs themselves. Would I be pretentious to say he was more concerned with eminence than with what was imminent? Probably.

The lead villain, Gregory Belkin, gives a spiel to Azriel near the climax of the tale that, I assume, is meant to help the reader understand the pretzel logic Belkin subscribes to. But Belkin’s delusions are absolutely comical. The suspension of disbelief one must maintain with a novel of this caliber is a given, but Rice makes the mistake of trying to do two incongruous things at once – provide the rationale of a madman in a plausible vein and overcome melodrama despite the grandiose. Plus, Rice’s effort to portray Azriel as an intelligent ghost or spirit or angel or demon or whatever the hell he is lacks credibility in lieu of his preoccupations. He’s vain, easily distracted, lacks self-awareness, and is wholly mesmerized by materialism. This last weakness is particularly odd considering he’s anything but physical throughout at least half of the novel. One would expect a bit of insight into the afterlife or ruminations about immortality instead.

With the exception of Bones, which was a mistake, my only real gripe with Rice is her inability to recognize that when it comes to descriptive narrative, less is more. This is a significant obstacle to overcome as a reader, especially when I can’t help but spot the flab. I blame the books I’ve read about editing, the advice that’s been drilled into my psyche about the value of being brief and, if possible, insightful, and the mantra that “a little goes a long way.” I know die-hard fans will object, but I think Rice could be one of our better writers if she just knew how to be an editor and approached her work with a more objective eye. This could be a writer’s greatest weakness regarding their work – spotting the excess and learning to let go.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Mark,

    This is a good and (I think) accurate description of Anne Rice's prose. I'm almost through Interview With The Vampire, and while interesting, it has taken me a long time to finish. I think AR has a beautiful way of painting a picture, but enough, already. I find myself skimming now, anxious to finish the book. I agree with your brother: I want to know the time, don't care about how the damned clock works. Have you read Gone With The Wind? Margaret Mitchell is able to paint a beautiful picture with enough detail, but not too much. I hated finishing that book because I loved reading it so much. Thanks for this. As an aspiring writer, every opinion matters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't read Gone with the Wind, but I plan to. I set new reading goals every year, designed to gauge my progress and expose myself to new writers and works. I recently found a list on wikipedia called The Big Read. It lists 200 books, only 32 of which I've read. So there's another list to undertake. It's interesting what you say about my brother's perspective, and yours. I think I'm the opposite. If the writer is Nabokov or Davies or Salinger or some other great wordsmith, I don't mind it when s/he goes off on a tangent unrelated to the plot, for example. But with Anne Rice, who I don't consider as stylized or as skillful with language as those other writers, I tend to balk. Saying you hated finishing reading that book reminds me of something C.S. Lewis - and I assume he was referring to only quality - said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” You're an aspiring writer, too? Great. Keep writing! And thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  2. That being said, I must add that I think she is a beautiful writer, and I will read more of her books. But maybe just a little less, to make the points she really wants to enhance stand out . . .

    ReplyDelete