Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
by Anne Rice
Interview with ... Jesus?
A review by Laura Miller
Some people are surprised to learn that for the foreseeable future, Anne Rice
will be writing about Jesus, specifically the life of the founder of the Christian
faith, told in the first person, in a series of novels beginning with Christ
the Lord: Out of Egypt, published this month. But it wasn't all that hard
to see this coming: Rice's vampire fiction has always centered on characters of
extraordinary powers and destinies wrestling with oversize ontological questions,
and she returned to the Roman Catholic Church in 1998.
What's really surprising about Christ the Lord is that it's pretty good,
even if you aren't keen on Rice's tediously good-looking, well-dressed and filthy
rich vampires, and even if you're not a believer. Rice's vampire novels -- initially
a pleasingly ambitious, agreeably lush and atmospheric sector of popular entertainment,
the perfect rainy-day diversion for the brooding adolescent who still lurks
in most of us -- had grown baggy and bombastic. Their author became so keen
on proving her gravitas that her formidable skills as a storyteller gave way
before endless passages of metaphysical chest-beating.
The paradox of the literary form we call the novel, however, is that it discovers
the sublime by zeroing in on the material realities of often ordinary human
lives. Profundity can't be reached, novelistically, through the front door.
Of course popular fiction isn't known for its subtlety, which is why Rice's
strenuous efforts to demonstrate her seriousness were precisely what relegated
her to the mass-market paperback racks. There she found many, many readers who
like their Big Questions served straight up, with a dash of homoeroticism.
The restrictions Rice imposed on herself in the first volume of Christ the
Lord have resulted in what is surely the most literary of her books, and
all because she is forced to abandon her customary efforts to be "literary."
Out of Egypt is the story of a 7-year-old Hebrew boy living in first-century
Palestine and unaware of his momentous destiny, and it is told in his appealingly
simple voice. Gone are such Ricean devices as passages of florid description,
conspicuous high-end consumption, endless assurances of the main characters'
beauty, and that odd, pseudo-archaic Germanic syntax that would later become
a trademark of Yoda. (Pretentious it was.)
Having selected the "greatest story ever told," Rice can refrain
from insisting on its greatness. Instead, she focuses her considerable energy
on historical research. (The novel's more typically grandiose author's note
details her sources and her quarrels with various modern strains of biblical
scholarship.) The Jesus, or Yeshua, who narrates Out of Egypt is part
of an extended Hebrew family, traveling, living and worshiping amid a perpetual
mob of aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins, who strive to shield him from
the haze of rumors surrounding his birth.
Rice's Jesus is deeply and thoroughly Jewish, a student of the famous scholar
Philo in Alexandria before his family returns to Nazareth. Without belaboring
her research, Rice shows us what these people ate ("a thick pottage of
lentils and soft cooked beans and pepper and spices"), the kind of houses
they lived in (dirt floors, whitewashed walls, roofs of mud and branches), how
they slept (on mats in groups, women and children in one room, men in another,
and everyone in the courtyards on hot nights), what their work was like (Joseph,
the leader of the clan, being, of course, a carpenter).
The family is buffeted by civil conflicts between the heirs of Herod -- a Jewish
tyrant installed by the Roman Empire -- and Jewish rebels, a war that will be
brutally resolved by the Romans. They debate the spiritual philosophies of the
ascetic, desert-dwelling Essenes (to which Jesus' cousin John the Baptist is
sent) and the meticulous Pharisees. They discuss the finer points of the reconstruction
of the mikvah, or ritual bath, in the crumbling family home in Nazareth. (Fed
by rainwater from a cistern, the mikvah must contain a tiny outlet so that the
water is always technically running and therefore "living.") It is
the humble intimacy and domesticity of these scenes that gives Christ the
Lord: Out of Egypt the pulse of life.
Granted, readers more accustomed to and enamored of the broadly drawn lifestyles
of the rich and undead in Rice's previous works may find all this a bit slow.
However, the meticulous attention in Out of Egypt to the way faith and
communal bonds permeate every aspect of Jesus' family life makes for a far more
persuasive picture of spirituality than the operatic agonies of Lestat and his
immortal friends. Even the nearly unbearable expectation Jesus feels as, amid
a crowd of pilgrims, he approaches Jerusalem's great temple for the first time
is a more palpable depiction of the effects of group psychology than the overblown
rock concerts in Rice's earlier books.
There is, of course, the question of Jesus' not-so-secret identity, the revelation
of which becomes the mystery that drives the novel's plot. The book's opening
scenes refer to events from apocryphal scripture -- in which Jesus inadvertently
kills and then resurrects a playmate and animates a set of clay pigeons -- but
Rice manages to postpone Jesus' discovery of his exact nature until the novel's
end. As a result, Out of Egypt can be read as a riff on one of the oldest
stories in human history, predating even Christianity itself: the scion of royal
blood raised as a commoner. It's Harry Potter and The Sword in the Stone
and Oedipus Rex all over again. Throughout this installment of the series,
at least, preaching about the significance of Jesus' situation can be deferred.
It's entirely possible that the later books in the series will grow too pious
for the non-Christian to enjoy. (The low-key approach shown here is not, after
all, a Ricean signature.) Not that this will matter much to the series' success
in our God-haunted nation. In fact, if Rice can overcome her reputation as a
purveyor of gothic perversity she's likely to find a whole new contingent of
fervent fans among the abundant ranks of America's devout. Of course, they will
expect her to publicly repent of what they will regard as the wicked, wicked
ways of her past -- something the imperious Rice will surely never do. That
should make for a fascinating impasse, a spectacle of the kind Rice herself
would never invent (too complicated and ironic), but in its own way, a superior