by Melanie Anne Phillips
I am the critic, LessTact. I feed upon the creative efforts of others. Unlike many of my kind, I never prey upon the naive or creatively challenged, but only on the mistakes made by great talents who should know better. A case in point is the tale of the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice.
Be forewarned: if you have not yet read the Vampire Chronicles, what follows will almost certainly ruin the experience. But no matter. The fourth book in the series, The Tale of the Body Thief ruins the experience anyway. How can I say this? How can I be so callous? I am the critic, LessTact!
What is it that makes my blood boil about the Vampire Chronicles? Simply this: all four books in the series have the potential to work together as a single Grand Argument Story. Each volume develops another side of a larger vision dealing with the struggle of that self-serving blood sucker of a Main Character, Lestat, to find inner peace. And he finds it. BUT, we aren't told how!
Can you imagine that??? Two thousand pages of reading, all leading up to a final conclusion that ties four perspectives together, all dramatic forces converging on the Main Character finding a way to resolve his angst that has hounded him since the first book, and he just resolves it!
I mean, I'm sitting here in real life. I've got as much angst as anybody. Suddenly, here's this character who suffers even more than I do, but he won't give up. I perk up. I read on. In fact, this undead tragic figure is on a quest to find a way to put his angst behind him. Along the way he gets into the most amazing scrapes and I tag right along with the fellow, sticking right by his side so no matter when it happens, I'll be there to see just how he does it. Why? So I can do it too.
I was waiting to see how he did it even more than if he did it. That's what I wanted to know. And then, at the end of the fourth book in the series, suddenly all his angst is gone and I wasn't told how! Doesn't that just burn you? Well it burns me.
Of course, most of my fellow critics are bleeding-neck cry-babies who whine and complain when they read something they don't like. But I am the critic, LessTact, and believe one should never complain unless they have a better idea. Naturally, I have one. Follow me and learn, if you dare.
To make my point, I must invoke Dramatica, that weird science whose presence can be felt at work in all solid stories. Dramatica sees every complete story as providing four points of view to an audience: Me, You, We, and They. Let us examine each of these in a theoretical sense and then apply them to the volumes of the Vampire Chronicles.
The "Me" perspective is the view through the eyes of the Main Character. This is where an audience feels as if the story is happening to them. It is the most personal of perspectives on the issues of the story.
The "You" perspective is the view afforded of the Obstacle Character. If the Main Character is seen as a soldier in a battle, the Obstacle Character is the soldier coming toward them through the smoke of the battle. The Main Character cannot tell if this figure is friend or foe, only that the Obstacle Character is blocking his path. From this perspective, the audience, looking through the eyes of the Main Character, sees the Obstacle Character as "you."
Some Obstacles, such as Girard in The Fugitive are foes, and must be overcome. Others, such as Obi Wan Kenobi (Luke's Obstacle in Star Wars) or Hannibal Lecter (Clarise Starling's Obstacle in The Silence of the Lambs) are trying to tell the Main Character that he or she is on the wrong path and will not find satisfaction until he or she changes course.
The argument over this "change" issue takes place in the third perspective of "We," the realm of the Subjective Story. Here the Main and Obstacle Characters have it out, each arguing their point of view on the issue, impacting the other with a force that just might make them change. In fact, you can often identify the Main and Obstacle Characters in a story by phrases such as, "We are really both alike, you and I," and, "We're just two sides of the same coin," or, "We are nothing alike!"
Finally, the audience is afforded a fourth point of view: a view of the story more like that of a general on a hilltop watching a battle unfold below. This is the "They" perspective. It is the most objective of the four throughlines and is called the Objective Story. From this point of view, the characters are not identified by their feelings but by their function.
In most stories, these four throughlines are woven together so that they develop concurrently and simultaneously reach a conclusion. In some cases the throughlines are played one after another such as in Kurosawa's Roshomon. This does not mean the throughlines have to cover the same period of history. All that is important is that each follows the quest for a solution from the beginning of the same kind of problem to the outcome of that quest.
What does all this have to do with the Vampire Chronicles? I'll tell you, because I am the critic, LessTact! Each of the four books in the series explores one of these four perspectives. So, like Roshomon, they are taken one at a time.
The first book, Interview with the Vampire, documents the Obstacle Character's throughline. Louis is the Obstacle Character to Lestat's Main Character. To be fair, this does not seem to be the case when one has read only this initial volume. As a stand-alone story, all indications are that Louis is Main Character, Claudia is Obstacle Character, and Lestat is simply an Objective character, perhaps the Contagonist. Once one has devoured the sequels, however, the meaning of Interview with the Vampire is tempered by what follows. Taken in context of the series as a whole, the story of Louis and Claudia becomes a major sub-story and Lestat emerges as Main Character.
For all his suffering, poor Louis is the one having an impact on Lestat, rather than the other way around. Louis is stuck in his deplorable condition - a condition he did not truly want, but he deals with it. In contrast, Lestat, for all his bravado and flash is constantly forced to reconsider his outlook as a result of Louis' constancy.
What an inspired and unusual technique - to begin with the Obstacle Character's tale rather than that of the Main Character. It is all the more inspired that the decision to focus on Lestat was almost certainly made after the first story had been written. Recasting the dramatic relationship of a work by placing it in a larger structure is no mean feat.
Lestat clearly emerges as Main Character of the series in book two, The Vampire, Lestat. This is Lestat's history, documenting how he came to be living his problem, and how far he could get without changing his outlook. Of note, Lestat often refers to Louis' "Interview" as containing gross exaggerations and downright lies. Clearly, we are now to look AT Louis, rather than through his eyes.
In Queen of the Damned, we are shown the big picture, the objective story of the series. This is the tale that describes the nature and history of all vampires - how they came to be, how they ultimately fare, and where they are headed once the smoke has cleared. It is here we can determine success or failure as the outcome of the quest for the objective goal.
This leaves the fourth installment, The Tale of the Body Thief, as the Subjective story between the Main and Obstacle Characters. And, boy, is it ever! This whole volume concentrates on the personal relationship between Lestat and his mortal friend, David Talbot. Clearly, David Talbot has taken over the role of Obstacle from Louis. Just like Louis, he does not wish to be a vampire. In his heart of hearts, Talbot does wish to be a vampire, which makes him the dramatic opposite of Louis. This is part of what lays the groundwork for failure of this fourth volume. For a "hand-off" of dramatic function from one character to another to work, it must be the exact same function. This, alas, was not the case.
It is no accident that Talbot and Louis do not appear in a scene together until the end. Each would be trying to provide the impact to try and change Lestat, but it would be a different kind of impact from each. The message of the story would clearly be out of sync. Keeping their characters apart simply puts off the inevitable, since Louis' impact started things off and now we aren't allowed to see whether his influence had any effect or not at the day of reckoning. Instead, we come to that moment of truth propelled by the exact opposite force, which obscures the meaning of the whole series beyond redemption.
In dealing with a story so large that it takes four books in which to tell it, we might allow our memory of Louis' discontent to fade, and pay more attention to Talbot who is much fresher in our considerations. That is what makes it feel doubly odd to have Louis in the story at all. What dramatic function does he serve?
Sure, there is some poetic justice in his denial of Lestat's request for the "dark blood," clearly a reverse parallel of Lestat's making of Louis. But that's just an interesting irony. It simply closes a door to Lestat, but does nothing to impact him to change. In fact, Lestat simply gets mad and then sloughs it off. Louis is not acting as an Obstacle Character in this story, but because he had done so for the whole first book, he should not have been included here in a different role.
But that is not the worst of it. By the end of the book, we see how Talbot resolves his problem, but not how Lestat resolves his. Talbot is shown to have a moral view that he will be held guiltless if he wants something evil and is forced into it. This plays well against Lestat's view that one is accountable for one's nature, even if one cannot change it.
Talbot clearly explains that once he was transformed into a vampire against his will, it was his moral obligation to live that life according to its own nature. This is exactly what Lestat has never been able to do. Lestat would be left with a simple choice: leave Talbot and remain mired in his angst or take the same leap of faith and rid himself of his inner pain once and for all as he follows in Talbot's spiritual footsteps. In the first case, the whole series of four books ends as a tragedy: there is no hope for Lestat. In the second case, it is a triumph. Having remained steadfast in his view for hundreds of years, Lestat is finally convinced to change and adopt a new world view. Either way, it is this moment of truth where all four volumes converge: the moment for which we were all waiting.
That is what should have happened. What did happen is a tragedy all right, but not in the dramatic sense. Near the end of The Tale of the Body Thief, Lestat is confronted by Talbot's happiness and personal fulfillment and becomes happy himself. What?! Three hundred years of angst and he just shrugs his shoulders and says, "Oh, well, when in Rome..." (Not hardly!)
Still, by that time, there was not much else Lestat could do. You see, Lestat spends most of the book as a mortal himself. His vampire body is stolen by the body thief. The real question that Lestat should have been wrestling with is whether or not he wanted his vampire body back. There could have been a time limit after which the switch became permanent. Or, there could have been limited options where he required the assistance of at least one other ancient vampire to return to his body. One by one, he drops from their favor as he is tempted ever more strongly into the mortal ways. Finally there is only one who can help him, and Lestat must now choose a life or the choice will be made for him.
Wouldn't that have been nice? Alas, it was not to be. Within moments of becoming a mortal, even before he knows the thief has stolen his body, Lestat is sick and tired, in a very literal sense. He hates being mortal and wants his old body back without question. What a story it might have been if he started out hating it and learned to love it again. After all, mortality is an acquired taste.
Then, he might have had a decision to make. By the time he got the opportunity to recover his body, he would no longer be sure he wanted it. His resolve would waver. He would be forced to address the seat of his angst and either accept a mortal life of normality, or a vampire's immortal life of spectacular evil.
We, the readers, make this decision every time we choose to do what we can or what we feel is right. To make such a choice and be satisfied with it is a consummation devoutly to be wished! Ah, what a moment that would be! And which way would he go? Any way Anne Rice wanted him to. Her message might have been that we can receive absolution for our sins and blend into to normal life, even after we have seen Gay Paree. Or, her message might equally have been that one must accept the fullness of one's being - that is it better to shine as a beacon of evil than be lost in a sea of good. Clearly, the later is more consistent with the thematic lean of the series.
But the intensity comes from the fact that it could go either way. As readers, we just don't know until we are shown. That is what we were waiting for, but it is not what we got. No moment of truth, no balanced pros and cons, no pressure to choose. Nope. Lestat makes Talbot. Talbot is happy. Lestat is happy. Big deal.
This type of story problem is not without precedent. I felt the same disappointment after reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Orlando (the Main Character) struggles throughout the book to find the path to a peaceful heart, and in the end she (he) does. Again, we are not shown how; she just ends up happy. I suspect that was not an oversight, but simply that Virginia didn't have an answer. In writing about Orlando, she described her own quest for an end to angst. In supplying one to Orlando, she vicariously provided one for herself.
Alas, because the method for achieving a quiet heart was lacking, Ms. Woolf could not duplicate her Main Character's accomplishment and sadly killed herself. Ms. Rice has also given us a happy ending without the means to achieve it. In contrast, I, the critic LessTact, give you the means but will let you draw your own conclusions.
I propose that an author without a solution should not offer one. A story that ends in angst can be a masterwork, as well as a story that ends in angst resolved. A story that ends with angst resolved without resolving angst is nothing more than a merry chase that ends up at a wonderful destination from which its audience is unceremoniously barred.
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Copyright Melanie Anne Phillips - Owner, Storymind.com, Creator Storyweaver, Co-creator Dramatica