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 entertainment.