by Andrei Codrescu
published by Simon & Schuster
366 pages, 1999
Buy it online
A Cut Below Rapture
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
If for years you've been expecting that millennial fever would bring about a widespread outbreak of eccentric cults, public displays of bizarre ritualistic sex, mass suicides, the landing of spaceships bearing extraterrestrials or space gods, pandemic psychoses and hallucinations, the Rapture, and/or global annihilation, then Y2K computer paranoia and the fad for tattoos and body piercing can't help but feel like unimaginative letdowns. Similarly, I read Andrei Codrescu's Messiah (a millennial novel, as it happens) with high expectations. His previous novel, The Blood Countess, was a brilliantly structured and entertainingly original fictionalization of the story of the infamous Countess Elizabeth Bathory. When I learned of Messiah, I salivated in anticipation of what Codrescu's imagination could contribute to the apocalyptic satire genre, for which I harbor a particular fondness. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
Messiah tells of two women who (at first separately and then, by the end, together) find themselves caught in the middle of two separate apocalyptic events -- one earthly and the other supernatural -- and how this adventure allows them to bloom into their true selves. Also, the reader is led to discover the identity of the eponymous messiah. Beyond that, it's a thematic and structural mess that offers both pleasures and frustrations.
Messiah is not a bad book. It's entertaining. Its characters are weird and interesting. It's peppered with good ideas. It has a good heart and great politics. Some of its scenes and images linger pleasantly in my imagination. I was charmed by its two lead characters: Felicity, a Catholic punk lesbian private eye in search of an orgasm, and Andrea, a mysterious Sarajevan orphan who finds haven in a Jerusalem convent and hopes to become the "Vanna White" of Israel's Wheel of Fortune.
I was most intrigued by how the two storylines (Felicity's and Andrea's) would eventually intertwine. It's obvious from the start that the author means for these two characters to meet and fall in love and lust. He manages to make us care for both of them individually, and make us yearn for them to find each other, their differences and strong personalities promising a fascinating couple. Unfortunately the meeting itself and their unfolding relationship is far from satisfying. When they finally meet (so near the end that they barely get to interact), Codrescu takes the easy way out and turns this into a meeting of "soul mates." He cops out of his opportunity to show two egos surrendering themselves to each other and to describe the tortuous, painful, sensuous, and ecstatic process of falling in love, choosing instead to fall back on the worn cliché of predestinated love. Their romance is too easy, too pat, and -- especially considering the long difficult buildup -- lacking in earthy emotional detail. Their relationship is all too vague and New Agey. It feels staged and artificial. I was unconvinced of the emotional reality of their mutual attraction, despite my earlier desire to see them come together.
At some point, after a strong introduction of the character, the author seems to give up on Felicity. For a far too long section of the novel, she is bereft (by her enemy, Reverend Mullin) of her memory and personality. As a consequence, much of the novel's drive and focus are dissipated, and I felt abandoned in a temporarily aimless story. When she does recover, she never again feels quite as real or as engaging. The Felicity who meets and falls in love with Andrea is only a shadow of the strong, witty, fragile, complex woman I cared for in the earlier chapters.
The novel's many eccentric and disparate details, as pleasant as they are to discover, are not satisfactorily integrated. For example, the whole subplot involving the Make Love to People from History Web site, the composition of its membership, and its role in Felicity's quest felt, once again, a bit too staged and pat -- not quite complex enough to be believable. The author glosses over some details that don't fit neatly with his plot. Similarly, the related subplot dealing with angels and the reincarnation of the Great Minds (Einstein, Ovid, Nostradamus, Tesla, etc.) is sketchy and seems to lack a few key scenes. By the end, I felt that many screws needed tightening for the structure to hold.
The above problems aside, there is much to enjoy in Messiah. The international group of mystics who befriend Andrea are a wonderful bunch. Codrescu's trenchant wit is well-aimed (evangelical corruption, adult cruelty and negligence towards children, blind religious faith and sexual repression, for example, all make for juicy victims). The chaotic sensuality of New Orleans is lovingly portrayed. And there are serpentine plots to unravel.
Still, ultimately, Messiah reads like a draft for a potentially great novel in need of a focused rewrite to let its full beauty unfold. With The Blood Countess, Codrescu showed a powerful artistic vision, a skillful grasp of narrative craft, and a compassionate intelligence. Messiah only allows its readers a glimpse of these qualities. | August 1999
Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays, and articles can be found on his Web site.