Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fiction: Prince Lestat by Anne Rice

No one does what Anne Rice does.

In 1976, she kickstarted what would become today’s vampire craze. Thank her for Sookie and Edward and Bella and all that. Anne Rice made blood sucking chic, fun, and tantalizing. She dusted off Dracula’s tropes, trashed his tux, tossed the mythology and the rules, and reinvented a genre, inspired by the death of her young daughter and her own thirst for telling a great story.

That first novel, Interview with the Vampire, was the story of the vampire Louis and his maker, the monstrous vampire Lestat, a French nobleman. Back in 18th century New Orleans, they fed at night and created (and later lost) a so-called daughter, Claudia. Along the way we met a few of their vampire brothers (and some sisters) as Rice began to build her world of darkness.

Interview was followed up, nine years later, by The Vampire Lestat. All by itself, that book started what Rice has built on since, relentlessly, creatively, and with a unique quality that no one seems to focus on. Lestat, you see, read Interview and hated it. Furious that Louis dared to reveal the world of the vampires to the reading public via that extended interview, Lestat set about to tell his own tale, his own way.

The linked novels The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned were Lestat’s response to what Louis started. And now, all these years later, Lestat has returned to pick up the tale again in Prince Lestat (Knopf).

The time is now. The vampire world is fractured. A mysterious voice is speaking telepathically to vampires the world over, and covens and their denizens are being burned. Whole vampire communities wiped out. What to do? Who can save the day? Guess.

Unlike Lestat’s earlier works, Prince Lestat is not simply a first-person account of what happens next. Instead, Rice has woven together sections Lestat narrates on his own with third-person accounts of other vampires’ experiences. Some half dozen others appear here in a story that picks up Rice’s finest, oldest threads.

Lestat started all this ruckus, became the so-called Brat Prince and ruled as a rock star, and now that their world is threatened, he has to fix it. Here’s the thing, though: The vampires here have read all the other books -- Louis’s book and Lestat’s books -- not just the first three but probably all the others, too, which are not mentioned in this one. My point is that Rice didn’t just reinvent the vampire; she also created a new world that exists both within and apart from ours, a world in which her own books figure prominently as narrative devices, as motivating factors, as touchstones. Not only does she find ways -- brilliant ways -- to tease new narrative potential from old stories, she does so while also acknowledging that those stories are already part of the other characters’ psyches. I don’t know of any other novelist doing that. Rather than plucky self-promotion, this is of a higher order. What we read as novels, they read as their leader’s autobiographies. Our fiction is their non-fiction.

And then there’s Rice’s way with words. Some may complain that she overdoes it, but I won’t be among them. She has not lost any of her flair for description, allowing us to experience the world the way her vampires do, with the sensory volume turned up to 11. Her vampires dip into the culture we ourselves are living in right now. They marvel at iPhones, they explore using the Internet, and one of them even has an Internet radio show that he uses to communicate with vampires all around the world. But for all this, they hear and see and taste with an accuracy and a beauty that we can only dream of. They experience their world -- our world -- in ways we don’t. They see more and hear more. They’re in touch with it all. They make being a vampire look fun, sexy, and irresistible.

Rice wants us to feel through Lestat, to learn what it feels like to drink, to soar, to see color and feel heat as he does. He and the others thirst, love, and lose just as we do, and their bodies flood not just with blood, but also exhilaration, heartbreak, and triumph. All of it is rendered in such a way that brings every moment a certain gravitas. You get the sense that something massive is taking shape. I don’t think it’s there yet, but it’s coming. Because while science fiction is a commentary on our society, Anne Rice’s vampires are a commentary on us. ◊

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