"I was 7 years old. What do you know when you're 7 years old?"
So begins Anne Rice's novelization of the life of Jesus Christ. After those two banal sentences, the bestseller proceeds to combust, Hindenburg-like, into the worst "event" novel published in America since, well, at least The Da Vinci Code. This book's press blitz, over the last several weeks, has been intense and exceedingly kind: Ms. Rice has become a reborn Catholic and is now—without renouncing the gore and frilly erotica of her (very fiscally successful) Vampire Lestat novels—chronicling the life of Jesus Christ. As told in first person.
Christ the Lord follows Jesus and his extended family as they travel out of Egypt, to Jerusalem, over to Nazareth, and then back to Jerusalem. That's pretty much it; a majority of the book consists of traveling and meeting extended relatives, and the vast majority is a slow-motion crashing bore. Those who were at least waiting for the purple S&M gore of an Anne Rice crucifixion scene, which would be certain to make Mel Gibson's pornographic interpretation look like a Mentos commercial, will find no satisfaction here: As the book closes, Jesus has just turned 8. I smell sequel. Hell, I smell franchise. It's probably good business sense on Ms. Rice's part, as the Christian part of the nation becomes more vocal and more belligerently demanding of "good Christian entertainment," but it's a horrible day for books.
The most repetitious aspect of this humorless slog is Jesus' family who, for clarity's sake, we will refer (inaccurately) to as the Christs. The Christs are, in this book, a jocular bunch. They spend a lot of time referring to the hardships they are going to face, and then one of the Christs says something about how they will succeed, and then the paragraph ends, and then there is a new line, and some variation of the line "We all laughed." For example:
"Joseph Caiaphas is a tall man. A very tall man. And he stands up tall, and he had [sic] long hands that move like birds flying slowly. And he's married to the daughter of Annas, our cousin, who is cousin to the House of Boethus. Yes, he'll be High Priest."
We all laughed. Even Old Sarah laughed.
Well, of course. How could Old Sarah not laugh?
There are two, really one and a half, things that Ms. Rice does correctly in this book. The first is that she is very aware that Jesus, if he actually did exist, would have been the Jewiest Jew ever: He attends Passover, he excels at Hebrew and at studying the laws of the Torah. Anti-Semitic Christians are probably apoplectic over this, but even in the Bible, people called Jesus "Rabbi." This is the only real benefit of Ms. Rice's extensive research, of which she endlessly boasts: The detriments include a too-full description of how tapestries are woven and also the fact that balsam trees are very hard to grow and were very valuable back in the late B.C.s.
Supposedly, after Jesus was born, jealous King Herod had every child in Bethlehem who was under 2 years of age killed; the Christs escaped because an angel warned them. Even as a child attending Catholic Mass weekly, I wondered about this: Wouldn't the Son of God feel a little responsible for those 200 children slain in his name? The emotional climax of this book deals with Jesus learning about the massacre. He cries for roughly a half a page, and then decides to move on. Ms. Rice's Jesus creepily spends at least 10 times as long, through the course of the book, worrying whether his mother is a virgin or not. (Spoiler warning: She is.)
There is a greater problem—that Christian fiction, from the good (the Narnia series) to the bad (the Left Behind series), only has one storyline: redemption. We've all heard the story again and again, and we've all come to terms with it. The least Ms. Rice could have done would be to bring something new to the one-note song, perhaps a dark little goose, but instead we get this: "...the darkness cannot abide the light, but the light can't be quenched by the darkness. The darkness always tries to swallow the light. But the light will shine."
Jesus Christ, indeed.
Anne Rice signs—there is no reading—her new book at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333) on Mon Nov 28 at 6 pm, and, like your salvation, the event is free.