In the author's note following Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, the first in a projected three- to four-volume ''autobiography'' of Jesus, Rice tells readers that she was ''ready to risk everything,'' including ''violence'' to her career, to ''consecrate...the book to Christ.'' She explains that ''nothing else mattered,'' describes the special challenge she faced (''to write about the Jesus of the Gospels, of course!''), targets her readership (''all Christians''), and even acknowledges that ''sometimes I thought I was walking through the valley of the shadow of Death'' during research. (Well, what writer hasn't?)
If I dwell on this intense attempt at self-justification rather than on the heartfelt and extremely dull novel that precedes it, I do so only because trashing the book itself is an exercise in futility in every way except as a lesson in how to generate unpleasant mail. The many readers for whom, in this case, subject trumps style probably aren't all that interested in hearing about what's wrong with Christ the Lord. For the rest of you, the problem is not the artistic arrogance or creative ambition of trying to find a voice to portray Jesus' childhood, with special emphasis on his Jewish upbringing. Artistic arrogance and creative ambition don't ensure success, but their absence guarantees failure. Artists who have dared to imagine Jesus from the inside range from Nikos Kazantzakis and Shusaku Endo to Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson. Why not Rice?
Perhaps more arrogance would have helped, because Rice's Christ reads like a bland young-adult novel, written in language that's supposed to be unadorned and poignantly simple but is instead as flat and leeched of poetry as the Good News Bible. So intent is Rice on cracking the mystery of who Jesus was that she forgets the attraction of mysteries that can't be solved, of the ineffable and contradictory. And whatever you think of her other writing, from vampires to porn, her decision to comb any linguistic energy out of this book seems an act of contrition, not creativity. ''I had to know who Jesus was,'' Rice says of her goal for the novel. The only response is the obvious one: Easier said than done.