"My agent told me he really liked it, but he also told me from the outset it was going to be a hard sell. But I got some great rejection letters from publishers! Really nice ones. Like, 'I like your writing, but ...' Or, 'You've done something different with the vampire genre, but I can't touch it. It's too controversial.' Or, 'We do gay literature, but this isn't exactly gay lit. This is popular writing, but it's gay. It's somewhere in between.' Pigeon-holing for some was a problem."
Forget the book business of pigeon-holing. The book's set-up alone could be a problem for more than some, and check out Vampire Vow from page one for starters.
A Roman officer named Victor Decimus (whose job in Judaea under Pontius Pilate is to "bark orders and look good") has it for a 23-year-old, unmarried "Jew boy" and "boy prophet" named Joshua, aka Jesus, aka Christ. Joshua joins Victor in activities that will be news to a lot of people -- skinny-dipping by day, "hot and drunk on the Mount of Olives" on Joshua's "homemade" wine by night -- but he keeps Victor off his back because of "religious qualms." This drives Victor's lust into overdrive and into the arms of a dark sorceress named Tiresia, who promises Victor eternal life and mastery over all, all but that circumcised Joshua guy, whom even the grave can't master. The downside to all this? Victor will have to leave "the world of the living" and enter "the league of the night" on his way to eternal life in the Kingdom of Darkness alongside his "consort," if and when he can finally find a boyfriend man enough to stand up to Victor's brand of really rough trade.
Not a bad offer, however, on Tiresia's part, except for the vampire part, which sends Victor, in revenge over Joshua's rejection, on a raping, killing spree across the centuries and in and out of Europe's juiciest monasteries ("the harems of Joshua's god"), until he ends up stateside a bloodthirsty sex fiend and Christ-hating monk among monks outside Knoxville, Tennessee. An early conquest, young Brother Luke, is a sex-starved pushover, so a no-go in the "marriage" department. It's hunky, weight-lifting, soul-lifted consort-of-choice Brother Michael who forces Brother Victor -- who suffers from a "skin condition" that puts sunlight (the Son's light?) out of the question -- into a feeding frenzy and totally bonkers. Bonkers too: readers easily offended by the sexually explicit, the graphically violent, and the patently blasphemous.
Not all readers, though. Vampire Vow is into its second printing. The publisher, Alyson Books, has featured it in ads in Out and The Advocate. A Memphis booksigning last August was a hit. Recent booksignings in Washington, New Orleans, and Topeka (the author's hometown): ditto. Next stops, Chicago and New York: more than likely, ditto on the ditto. But how's the book doing among Schiefelbein's colleagues at Christian Brothers University, where he teaches literature and specializes in the Victorian novel?
"I've been kind of surprised," the author admits. "People in the English department don't seem scandalized at all. A nun in the theology department called me up and said, 'I read Vampire Vow.' I said, 'Yeah?' And she said, 'I think your portrait of Jesus is very orthodox.'"
"Victor's attracted to Jesus, he's attracted to someone who's good," Schiefelbein explains. "And vampires are essentially sympathetic in some ways. They're lonely. But I also agree with a lot of Victor's criticisms of organized religion. That makes him sympathetic to me. At the signing in Topeka, though, someone did ask me about the controversial elements, whether I'd got angry responses, and I really haven't. The worst response came from a couple who told me they hated Victor, that he was despicable. They didn't see any redeeming qualities."
That couple needs to get a grip. For "redeeming qualities," we do indeed see Brother Victor suffering from isolation, suffering the "silence of Joshua," suffering the "detestable life of feedings and tombs and flights from those who hunted [him]." We just don't see him (forever unredeemed?) exactly at his best. (We will see him, however, again. A sequel, planned for fall 2003, is already in the works, again for Alyson.)
But what is an ex-seminarian and ex-Catholic (turned First Congregationalist), a teacher at a Catholic university in Memphis, Tennessee, doing writing such a book? Schiefelbein's other new title, The Lure of Babylon (Mercer University Press), is a study of anti-Catholic sentiment among 19th-century British novelists, and at first glance the two titles make an odd combo. Not according to this author:
"In Lure it's all about the mystique of Catholicism. Catholicism identified with superstition, with unenlightened thinking, backwardness, idolatry in terms of statues and icons and even the pope. But so many of the monks in the novels that I discuss in Lure are kind of vampire figures or at least ghoulish, unnatural characters who fall into the 'outsider' category.
"Plus, I'd just taught Paradise Lost and was thinking about the Satan figure, the most interesting figure in Milton's poem. Thinking about the kind of person who challenges God, Christianity. And then I thought it'd be interesting to write about a vampire, and the first line of Vow came to me -- "I wanted Jesus." Once it did, the book really wrote itself because I had to explain how it was that someone would fall in love with Jesus, who that someone was, what happens because he does fall in love. That got the story going."
Anne Rice was an obvious model?
"Anne Rice, no. I was thinking of a generic, confessional kind of writing where someone is pouring out his soul. The secrets, the dark secrets particularly. A lot of Victorian fiction is like that. My own adult, seminary experience ... I drew from it to create the atmosphere, the dynamics inside a monastery.
"But before that, when I was 14, at a high school seminary in Kansas City, I was really idealistic. I wanted to be a saint. My friend Kevin and I wanted to be saints together. We had this whole regimen of prayer and fasting. We'd eat one meal a day. We'd sleep without a pillow. We said the rosary on our knees on the floor. We even incorporated cross-country running. The idea of sainthood was a way to perfection, of becoming one with God. So I think there, in that relationship with Kevin, were seeds for the novel. For me, with Kevin, I had a real emotional attraction and probably a physical attraction too. But I can't say I was very conscious of it. The dynamics of the spiritual and the sexual became intertwined.
"Catholicism, though, it's always going to be part of me. It shaped me. It shaped my spirituality. It's my foundation. I don't feel somehow now I have to reject everything it's about."
This is good. It means Michael Schiefelbein, who may have known versions of Brother Michael, who may have even known less drastic versions of Brother Victor, knows a good foundation when he sees it.
On the outrageous goings-on inside the pages of Vampire Vow ... it's only a book, for God's sake, and, to go with this year's Day of the Dead, sexy as hell. No "buts" (that's with one "t") about it.
-- Leonard Gill
Why Did I Ever
By Mary Robison
Counterpoint, 200 pp., $23
The book: Mary Robison's newest novel, Why Did I Ever. The gripe, at length: In a fictional world constructed of words, narrative continuity is essential to understanding. Complete artistic enjoyment is impossible without this continuity, which, when well executed, creates in the average or expert reader an empathetic consciousness careful to follow and relish the story no matter what contortions of logic or unexpected nonsense and craziness occur. This consciousness, like any focused attempt at comprehension, is attained through the acquisition of information flowing in an orderly, constant manner, with point in time made manifest. To masquerade any kind of guessing-game narrative as authorial license in rendering the psychological state of the narrator is to craft for oneself nothing but an artistic crutch and ruinously reveal a story for what it is: inchoate.
All this may sound redundant, but this crucial narrative flow -- present even in something so famously opaque as Ulysses -- is what's missing from Why Did I Ever, which might truthfully be described as a haphazard, fragmented, journal-like work of disconnected schizophrenia narrated by a woman who, it seems, has Attention Deficit Disorder, two troubled kids, three ex-husbands, and a perpetual Ritalin jones, among other woes both explicit and unidentifiable in origin.
The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University who studied under John Barth, Robison is a writer much associated with the Minimalists who triggered the short-story revolution -- and subsequent glut of "writers' workshops" -- of thse '70s and '80s and whose unlikely hero was that heavily edited but wonderful author of striking, stinking drunk fiction, Raymond Carver.
Unlike Carver, Robison has eschewed formal storytelling for the irritating bit-by-bit method of slow expository writing meant to sear with its emotional resonance. It does not ring true. This choppy style of paragraphs separated by pregnant pauses, vaguely allusive titles, or dubious numbering is better left to authors like David Markson. In such works as This Is Not A Novel, Markson employs this fragmentary style in a manner consistent with his aim. The inclusion of stabbing anecdotes and frightfully brilliant observations serves as an end unto itself while Markson fleshes out a very simple, very harrowing personal narrative. This narrative, constructed at intervals, is supported by and eclipses the accumulated minutiae that make up the greater portion of the work.
Why Did I Ever, in its attempt to portray what may be a woman's descent into schizophrenia, falls prey to confusion and cleverness. -- Jeremy Spencer
Mary Robison will be signing and reading from Why Did I Ever at Burke's Book Store from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Monday, November 5th.