Books By Women: Memnoch the Devil

I know I promised that my next book post would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I just finished Memnoch the Devil and I have a lot of critique I need to express.

download (2)Memnoch is the fifth book in Anne Rice‘s Vampire Chronicles Series (Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, etc). I read the first four books my first year in college, one after the other after the other after the other and fell into Anne Rice’s characters with devotion I couldn’t begin to explain. I talked about the series for hours to my mother and pulled out quotes and passages I found devastating or hysterical or blindingly real and human, despite the characters being undead. There are still passages in The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned (book three of the series) I can still quote from memory, though I haven’t reread the books in nearly five years. Anne Rice’s characters are nearly all pan-romantic and homo-erotic overtones shape her narratives. The first three books are a dream.

Without going into too much detail, I found the fourth book, Tale of the Body Thief, bland and overall unpleasant in any number of ways. I stopped reading the series there because I had been told by friends and numerous internet reviews that Memnoch the Devil was the worst of the entire series (now ten books total).

The premise is that the vampire Lestat, the narrator and hero of the past three books in the series, gets called upon by Memnoch the Devil to serve as the Devil’s Lieutenant in Hell. Throughout the book, the Devil takes Lestat through Creation, Heaven and Hell as well as throughout time. Lestat needs to decide if he’ll serve God or the Devil by the end of this journey.

I wasn’t expecting much but was somehow still deeply disappointed. The flowing descriptions that characterized Anne Rice’s historical settings in Paris and New Orleans became purple prose and were spent describing three things:

  1. Lestat’s clothing and appearance (even for a self-identified dandy of a character, it’s an incredibly odd and jarring choice because Lestat is the narrator)
  2. Dora’s beauty (the one Human female character Lestat is obsessed with)
  3. Lestat’s tears (you could play an intense drinking game for all the times Lestat cries in this book–for a bonus round, take a drink every! time! there’s! an! exclamation! point!)

But her writing style aside, what upset me the most was her treatment of her female characters and the way women are woven into (and not woven into) this alternative creation narrative. And while Anne Rice published Memnoch in 1995 and just declared on Facebook that she quit Christianity, saying “I refuse to be anti-feminist” I still find it important to discuss the ways this narrative remains a harmful portrayal of women, rape culture, and the erasure of female narratives within religion. Regardless of whether she continues to hold the views or opinions I gathered from this book, it is still important to discuss the issues.

The narrative is told from Lestat’s perspective, but there is no pushback against his misogyny. We, as readers, are expected to agree with him and be sympathetic to his views. So when Lestat’s narration reads:

[Dora’s] voice was small and typically feminine, that is, the pitch was without mistake feminine, but she spoke with terrific self-confidence now, and so her words seemed to have authority, rather like those of a man.

are we supposed to agree with him?

Dora is a saint, a televangelist saint, who is perfect in every way. She is not afraid of Lestat even he reveals that he killed her father or when she knows he’s a vampire. And at the end of the novel when Lestat returns from his journey with the Devil and is distraught and crazed, Dora kisses him and she’s on her period (which Lestat has noted every time they’re in the same scene together). Lestat’s response is:

I rolled her over gently […] and I pulled up her skirt and I lay my face against her hot naked thighs […] my tongue broke through the thin cotton of her panties, tearing the cloth back from the soft down of pubic hair, pushing aside the blood-stained pad she wore, and I lapped the at the blood just inside her young pink vaginal lips […] blood that brought no pain, no sacrifice, only her gentle forbearance with me, with my unspeakable act […] my tongue licking at the secret bloodstained place, taste and smell of her blood, her sweet blood, a place where blood flows free and no wound is made or ever needs to be made, the entrance to her blood open to me in her forgiveness.

um…well, it’s great to know the female body is there for a male character’s enjoyment and forgiveness. It’s even better to know that Dora’s response is to hold Lestat’s head as he cries, call him her darling and her angel, and then ask to sleep beside him when he goes to rest. Did I mention there are two other male vampires in the room and no one does anything to stop or question Lestat’s actions? I can’t remember the last time I was so angry or disgusted over the treatment of a female character.

The novel disregards women again through Anne Rice’s mythology of Angels and God. All the Angels are male. God is without a doubt male. This, despite the fact that Memnoch says Angels resemble females more than males yet Angels are without a doubt more male than female. And what angered me the most as a feminist was that rape culture and violence against women was explained as a natural part of humanity. When Memnoch goes to live among the humans, he chooses to become male. Lestat understands this decision, saying:

‘I would imagine you had seen enough of rape, childbirth, and helpless struggle to make the wiser choice. I know I would have.’

And right there, to be female is laid out as to be deficit and there is no challenge to this conversation. There is no alternative voice or speaker of authority to these two male character parading their superior maleness. There is no thought that women are not naturally victims of rape, that childbirth could be anything but horrific and painful, or that women do not naturally struggle.

Of course, I knew going into this book that not all female authors are feminists, but I was amazed by the breadth of the dismissal of the female sex. Although I’ve definitely read books since starting to read books by women I did not enjoy, this has been the first book I was angry about and would not recommend.

But, if nothing else, reading this book has made me more conscious of the fact that it’s not enough to be a female author writing speculative fiction. You have to consciously decide on feminism and equality.

Next up: We Have Always Lived in a Castle. Keep reading. Even the books you don’t like, just keep reading.

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Books By Women: Parable of the Sower

Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.

Octavia Butler

In my pursuit to read books by women for a year– and specifically women of color– I turned to Octavia Butler. Last summer I read books one and two of her Xenogenesis Series (also known as Lilith’s Brood) and her short story Blood Child–a pdf is available online.

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When I read Octavia Butler, I’m ready for three things.

  1.  science fiction with the understanding that the genre is perfect for commenting and critiquing our world and culture
  2. a detailed analysis of culture
  3. a diverse cast of characters and a female lead of color

Parable of the Sower lived up to these expectations.

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The book follows Lauren, a teenage black woman living on Earth after the planet has suffered ecological disaster and the United States has all but fallen into anarchy. Lauren lives with her dad, a Minister, and her family behind a walled city, one of the only ways to protect yourself from a world where walking outside of your gate almost certainly means being robbed, raped or killed. I loved the raw and brutal depiction of the United States because the danger was real and very plausible. The narrative brought up issues of modern day slavery where most jobs do not pay or pay in company scrip from company-owned cities and towns. The economic situation pitted the poorest people living on the streets against the less-poor but barely eeking out a living families who live behind walls, like Lauren. The story is a survival story: when Lauren’s walled city is destroyed, can she survive the danger posed by her fellow human beings?

Lauren also has a secret. Though her father is a minister and she was raised Christian, she doesn’t believe in a Christian G-d. Her understanding of G-d is a self-designed religion called Earthseed, told through poems at the start of each chapter.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

God
is Change.
Octavia E. Butler Parable of the Sower

I’m sure I missed many of the religious references because as a Jew, I don’t know the Christian Bible and often miss Biblical allusions, but someone with a stronger background in religion would, I’m certain, have endless entertainment parsing through the novel.

There were a few things in particular I loved about this book.

  1. Lauren is black but her race is not her one and only defining attribute.
  2. Lauren has sex and doesn’t apologize for it, demean, or demonize her sexuality.
  3. the main characters are racially diverse with multiple characters who are black, white, Hispanic, or mixed. One character never serves to represent their entire race.

I have not read the sequel, Parable of the Talents, but from the summary, it seems as if it will patch up a few issues of the story I struggled with. The novel is a brilliant text and a feminist text, but I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I wanted to be. Especially as the novel progresses and we have more and more main characters to follow I have difficulty keeping up and wished the story were more character driven and less plot driven (though the Xenogenesis series had the same issue). Still, I would highly recommend Parable of the Sower for your reading list to add more female authors of color to your shelf.

Next up: the Poisonwood Bible. Keep on reading!

Spirituality is not a Cop Out

Over the summer, I read a fantastic Justice League comic book and was amazed by the genuine interactions between Superman and Batman because when they spoke they spoke to each other as Clark and Bruce. They were witty and imaginative and personable and human. I knew I wanted to create my own interaction between the two heroes and cobbled together an idea based on a question of Batman’s religion.

I don’t see Batman as being religious. I cannot imagine Bruce Wayne following the structures and dogma that comes with religion. I do, however, see him as being spiritual. The premise of my story is that Clark calls on Bruce to go to dinner as friends, but interrupts Bruce when he was about to go pray. As the author I imagined Bruce lighting candles and praying that his parents went to a safe place and were happy in death.

I posted my story on fanfiction.net and one of the first reviews I got told me I had misinterpreted Bruce’s character because a man of Bruce’s intelligence could never deny the existence of God. In claiming Bruce was spiritual, I had copped out of a legitimate story.

Now, I understand that this is fanfiction, it’s about comic books, and all in all shouldn’t be so influential to my life. But I’m writing this post to explain why it has to be so influential. The reviewer touched upon a problem prevalent with religious understanding that has nothing to do with fiction. There is a strict dichotomy of Religion vs Atheism that is damaging to our understanding of God. If, as this reviewer claimed, spirituality is just taking the ‘easy way out’ from being religious then God is being put into a box.  Either one believes in God  and ties his or her faith to organized religion- and only to organized religion- or he or she does not believe in God at all. Where did this split come from?

God has become synonymous with religion. No other interpretation is allowed and any concept of a God that differs from the norm, leaves the believer ostracized between those who would call this belief heresy and those who would call any belief in God not worth consideration.

I do not mean to generalize about any groups of religious or atheistic thought, I only wish to point out that a person’s understanding of God should never be considered a cop out, even in fiction. Fiction is a window into the world of the times, and if spirituality is being critiqued as lazy, uneducated, and atheistic, it says something about how spirituality is treated in real life as well.

 

The Gender of God

I understand I am getting into dangerous territory in bringing religion and spirituality into my post. I take full responsibility for anything that I say and I will try to be as unbiased as possible. For the purpose of this blog I am working from the established principle that God exists and I do not seek to prove or disprove any issue on this point.

Now as I introduce my question of God’s gender, I wish to point out that I am also in the middle of reading some gender criticisms. I know that the term gender is controversial and when I use the word gender in this blog I will be referring to masculine or feminine pronouns.

It has already been said, debated, and fought over that God has been portrayed as a man in art work and when speaking of God the terminology is always He or Him. This becomes a bit rocky when Christianity is involved and questions as Jesus was a man the masculine pronouns could have some legitimacy.  But if at all possible, take God out of religious context. There is no doctrine, no dogma, no congregations. There is you and there is your relationship to God. God can be whatever you believe God to be, in any shape, and in any form. The possibilities are yours to decide.

From this relationship with God it is possible you see God as a person, perhaps as a man, I know I do though I am trying to deconstruct this habit. Deconstruct with me.

God is depicted as a man because what do people know that will be recognizable except other humans? If God were depicted as a woman, God would be a new term, Goddess. We are limited to language and that is the greatest limitation. Because we do not know how to explain God universally we use the masculine word God and the masculine pronoun He. We bring the unexplainable to a level we can all understand: we use language. But here is where our language fails us.

Why do we think the earthly language we possess will be applicable to the Divine? Going off the notion that God is Divine and therefore wholly different from God’s creations then why do we fit God with the limiting ideas of masculinity? Does God have a gender? Would it make any difference in the overall belief in God if God were not enclosed in our language?

There is no reason for God to be a He. There is no reason for God to be a She. Both do an injustice to a Being that is, as far as we know, without sex. I know I am working from a lot of preconceived notions with this argument, but there is no easy way to bring about this discussion without presuppositions. I only hope they have not hindered my argument or lessened my credibility.