Sunday, July 8, 2007

Book Review: "A Density of Souls" by Christopher Rice

I should preface this review by noting that I knew two things about "A Density of Souls" which colored my reading: first, author Christopher Rice is Anne Rice's son, and while biology isn't destiny, it's kind of hard to avoid the question of influence. Second, this is Rice's first novel, and that goes a long way towards explaining certain awkward aspects of the book that would have been much more difficult to forgive, had said blunders been committed by a more experienced writer.

"A Density of Souls" can perhaps be best described as a novel of contradictions. It's an inter-familial drama which includes explosions, shoot-outs and bloodshed. It's a realistic story that, at one very uncomfortable point, attempts to inject a supernatural angle that just doesn't belong. There's a certain flatness to the individual characters, but the tapestry of lives that Rice creates is surprisingly compelling. It's a personal story, but it's also very much concerned with the community and its buried secrets. It's about a bunch of kids yet their parents have storylines too. It's a book that's clearly influenced by the works of the author's mother - occasional lapses into the violet end of the writing spectrum, overwritten and hyper-detailed descriptions of beautiful men, etc. - and yet I feel that Christopher touches upon a kind of emotional realism that Anne, with her pompous and overblown fixations on vampirism and Jesus, may never achieve.

The first half of the novel is primarily centered around four New Orleans kids - Stephen, Meredith, Greg and Brandon - whose childhood bonds are distorted by their passage into teenhood. Rice sets this up nicely, starting things off with a brief glimpse of the four at their closest, only to immediately leap ahead into high school after the damage wrought by time (and other factors) has been done. As each of them deals with somewhat-typical high school issues (bullying, sexual identity crises, peer pressure and the like), tragedy strikes, the full scale of which is not immediately apparent. We then move five years forward into the mind of Jordan, Brandon's older brother, whose return to New Orleans after a long exile starts a chain reaction that gradually unearths the community's darkest secrets.

Characterization is a bit of an issue here. The cast of "A Density of Souls" aren't fully rounded, but they're not two-dimensional either. At first I thought Rice was trying to convey something deeper but didn't quite have the words for it, but now I think it's more because this type of story - dealing with a network of interconnected histories rather than any one person's tale - wouldn't benefit from scooping out the insides of an individual's head for the purpose of deep introspection. In that sense, what we get is enough, especially considering that we're simultaneously exploring two generations of each family.

Rice's status as a novice is more apparent in some places than in others; on a purely technical level, his sentence structure leaves something to be desired, but that's more irritating than genuinely disruptive. The mercifully brief suggestion of the supernatural is indicative of the book's larger struggle for identity - it's part "Dawson's Creek" and part "Blue Velvet", and to Rice's credit he reconciles these aspects seamlessly, but then you get accusations of witchcraft in the middle of a completely realistic narrative, and that comes off as Rice invoking tropes associated with his mother's novels not because they have any functional purpose, but because they make for a useful crutch. I also can't deny there's an element of artificiality when it comes to the weepy gay guy becoming the object of everyone's affections - that's more about wish fulfillment than maintaining credibility.

At the same time, I was captivated by these characters, by their lives and their secrets, by Jordan's quest for the truth, by the shocking twists that pepper the book all the way to its very last page. And that's no small feat for a beginner. "A Density of Souls" has its flaws, no question, but it does quite a bit right as well.