By LEV GROSSMAN
Let us all take a moment to be shocked, shocked, that Anne Rice has written a novel about the life of Jesus, in the voice of Jesus–and then move on. Rice is, of course, the author of the supernatural thriller Interview with the Vampire and its many best-selling sequels, which intermingle sex and blood and death to great, gothic effect. But she’s hardly the first novelist to "go there," as the kids say. Leo Tolstoy, Robert Graves, Nikos Kazantzakis and Norman Mailer, to name a few, all took a run at Jesus, to say nothing of the eyebrow-raising suggestions found in The Da Vinci Code. One James BeauSeigneur has authored a lively series of novels about a reconstituted Jesus who was cloned from cells found in the Shroud of Turin and who does battle with Yahweh for the fate of all mankind. So all those with feathers to ruffle have probably already had them well ruffled by now.
Actually, a clone or two might have brightened up Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Knopf; 322 pages). On the first page, a bully comes after the 7-year-old Jesus. "I felt the power go out of me as I shouted: ‘You’ll never get where you’re going.’" The bully falls down dead. Later, Jesus resurrects the bully, having made his point.
But this incident doesn’t set the tone for the book, which is pretty stately and keeps displays of divine superpowers to a minimum. Young Jesus is largely unaware of his origins, and much of the book is taken up with his daily life and that of his extended family as they make their way from Alexandria, in Egypt, to Nazareth, where they settle down and go into business. Rice does a thorough job of re-creating the domestic realities of 1st century Judaea: the babble of languages–Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin–the labor of carpentry; the regular visits to the synagogue (he’s a very Jewish Jesus); and above all the turbulent politics of the time, some of it Jews rebelling against Roman rule, some of it Jews against Jews.
This is, in fact, an intensely literal, historical, reverent treatment of a year in the life of Jesus, son of God. It’s written in simple, sedate language that steers clear of both clanging anachronisms and those King Jamesian ye’s and unto’s and begats. A few liberties are taken; Rice plays with the idea that young Jesus might have befriended the philosopher Philo of Alexandria, and she has Jesus perform the odd healing or two and a bit of weather control, but that’s hardly much of a walk on the apocryphal side.
The orthodoxy shouldn’t be surprising, for two reasons. One, Rice notes in an afterword that since 1998 she has been a passionate Catholic. And two, it was Rice’s profound earnestness, her unwinking commitment to the material, that brought such power to her handling of vampires (who, like Jesus, one could argue, are beings of a dual, quasi-human nature). At the time vampires were in danger of sliding into camp, and they needed her earnestness. Jesus, not quite so much.
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