There are Catholics who believe in Christ but are agnostic about the other spiritual beings of Christian doctrine: angels (and demons). This may be why Anne Rice begins her new novel, Angel Time, with quotes from Saints Matthew and Luke, and from the Psalms. After all, more people may actually fear the vampires Ms. Rice used to write about than trust in those created beings about whom the Bible speaks plainly – in Psalm 91, for instance: “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.” Ms. Rice wrote scores of gothic tales about the pseudo-supernatural, at which point she stopped, found her way back to Catholicism, and has now written four novels – with more promised – about the truly supernatural, which is actually the truly natural.
The novelist Anthony Burgess once told an interviewer: “In our age it’s a weakness to make Catholic theology the basis of a novel since it means everything’s cut and dried and the author doesn’t have to rethink things out.” Burgess believed that if you create complex characters and put them in believable situations their words and actions will provide plenty of theology without the blah, blah, blah of encyclicals and sermons and such. I assume he didn’t like allegories, which is what Angel Time really is. And, pace Burgess, if an angel happens to make an appearance in a novel, he may not come quoting Aquinas, but he will surely give glory to God. In his eulogy of Burgess, Ralph McInerny wrote that “there are some authors who have lapsed and yet go on being Catholic in their imaginative fix on the world,” and this seems to be true of Anne Rice during her vampire period, as perhaps it was of her most infamous character, the vampire Lestat.
It’s definitely true of Toby O’Dare, the hero of Angel Time. When we meet this lapsed Catholic, he’s wandering through the cloisters at San Juan Capistrano thinking:
Maybe when you’re brought up Catholic, you hold to rituals all your life. You live in a theater of the mind because you can’t get out of it. You’re gripped all your life by a span of two thousand years because you grew up being conscious of belonging to that span.
O’Dare is a modern assassin who goes by various aliases and disguises. He doesn’t know for whom he kills, only the man – the Right Man, he calls him – from whom he receives his contracts. He’s the sort of murderer whose pulse never rises above sixty beats a minute when he kills. Precise planning. Cool efficiency. But just as “Lucky” (Toby’s favorite nom de guerre) is finishing his last hit, a stranger appears. He calls Toby/Lucky by name. Lucky is used to having, figuratively, an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, but this man standing in front of him now is . . is . . . Well, whoever he is, Lucky feels both rage and joy when he looks at him. What does this person, Malchiah, want?
I don’t want to give away too much about Ms. Rice’s tale, but what Malchiah wants is for Lucky to become a righteous gentile. Because he lives and travels in “angel time,” Malchiah is able to transport Lucky to another place in another era (to thirteenth-century England in the midst of an incipient pogrom) where precise planning and cool efficiency may be employed in saving lives not taking them. Toby finds himself in a new guise, Brother Toby, a tonsured Blackfriar.
The narrative voice of the novel is fluid – sometimes Toby’s, sometimes Malchiah’s – and it takes a confident writer to employ effectively a technique that in many books is mere gimmickry. Malchiah’s commentary is especially interesting: he has unique perspective, providing what my English teacher called exposition. And there are other voices too, including one of the Jews threatened by anti-Semitic thugs. And angels and men, Christians and Jews must struggle with a thorny moral-theological quandary: Against a deadly false accusation, may they lie to protect the innocent?
Anne Rice is fascinated with the capacity of the medieval mind to passionately believe both truth and falsehood. She seems to see the thirteenth century as Barbara Tuchman saw the fourteenth – as a “distant mirror” of our own time.
The transition from skeptical Lucky to faithful Br. Toby is abrupt, but I suppose that if your guardian angel appears to show you the way to rebirth, you’re reborn in a hurry. Angel Time chronicles an extraordinary journey which, in many ways, is very much the author’s own. Looking at a famous cathedral, still under construction, Br. Toby thinks about the “binding fabric of good and evil” and how God extracts glory from disaster:
Indeed, I sensed a danger while pondering why God allowed evil, and how He might use it. I felt He alone understood this, and we were never meant to justify evil or to do it out of any misguided notion that evil had in every day and age its certain role.
Chesterton wrote: “There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.” Anne Rice took a different route, but with the best result.