Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A review of Demon: A Memoir--Sympathy for the Devil?

I just finished reading Tosca Lee’s Demon: A Memoir. Regular readers of my blog know I’m keenly interested in a variety of science fiction and fantasy topics and as Christian writer I’ve taken a particular interest in some aspects of the supernatural. Specifically, I’ve written numerous posts that relate to the topic of angels (my last was Angels and Aliens).

So I was keenly interested in how Demon would portray fallen angles, a.k.a. demons. By the way, in talking about this book, I’m naturally going to commit some spoilers…

Overall, in spite of a few ticks that are other than human, such as the demon in the story being fascinated with watching people eat and drink, this work does quite a lot to humanize the demonic, though I don’t think that was the author’s intent. In fact, I’d say the demon Lucian is really every bit as much an empathetic figure as the narrating protagonist, Clay. Again, I don’t believe Tosca Lee intended that, but I think that’s the case.

I found the story well-written, rich in details of sights, smells, and sounds—too rich for me, in fact. I was interested in what the demon Lucian had to say, not the latest human guise the demon appeared in or the latest bistro or whatever fashionable place they go where Clay eats and drinks and Lucian pretends to, watching him. And gives his story, one little bit at a time. Inevitably, Lucian says something not all that shocking, Clay overreacts to it by being shocked and awed, Lucian complains time is short, after which he disappears for an undetermined time before appearing again who-knows-how-long later in the form of yet another human being. In the meantime, the reader is treated to Clay doing a fair amount of wallowing in self-pity and both dreading and looking forward to his unknown next appointment with the demon who picked him out to tell his tale. I’m over-generalizing a bit—not all of the encounters are exactly the same, but they do tend to follow this pattern.

Lucian’s series of encounters with the human he picked is ostensibly to tell the story of his life, though we never really learn why Lucian finds his story so important to tell, and in fact, he tells next to nothing of his own individual life at all. Almost all of what Lucian relates is about what you could call the “common demonic experience” of first being the object of God’s approval prior to the creation of the human race and then irredeemably falling from His grace after Lucifer’s fall. In idea terms, this is the central theme of the book, both the most interesting concept the story engages and simultaneously one of the most damning facets of the tale.

That is, the book portrays the demons as having a perfectly valid reason to hate God. It unfolds that (following common Christian theology) God cast out the demons, the former angels, from his presence once and for all for the single trespass of following after Lucifer’s desire to make himself greater than God. One sin, as it were, and they were out of God’s plan, never to be allowed to return, forever, permanently. Whereas humans, or people of clay as Lucian likes to call them (note the connection to the protagonist’s name), are given chance after chance after chance to repent and come back to God. So of course the demons hate us human beings—they have a reason to hate us as much as they have a reason to hate God. God has been unfair. He has loved us and not loved them.

Note that the phrase “God has been unfair” is my summation of some things Lucian says. The phrase doesn’t appear in the book in the form I stated above. Note also that I don’t think it was Tosca Lee’s intent to put demons in a good light. In fact, Clay’s overreactions and some of Lucian’s sudden and inappropriate emotions (and a few other details) are clearly intended to creep out the reader and convince us, yes, demons really are bad. Plus, Lucian casually brings about the death of a bystander in the story.

But here’s the thing—if this portrayal of demons is true, if they and the devil himself have been abandoned by God without redemption for a minimal cause, if they still long for the relationship they had with God before their rebellion, then they have a reason to hate the human race, so in that case having a few inappropriate emotions when talking to a human is probably understandable. As would be some hatred—and even killing a human being. If the demons are at war with God and His favored creation, humanity, such things are really quite human under the circumstances. It’s possible for a human soldier to fight the enemy without any hatred or ill-will, but that’s not normal. Normally, human beings hate their enemies.

Now, to want to do more than kill, to feel more than simple hate, to desire not only to destroy but also to humiliate, not only to defeat but also to degrade and defile in any way possible, that’s something humans are capable of but we correctly call “inhumane.” That’s the heart of the demonic, which C.S. Lewis managed to capture to a degree in The Screwtape Letters but which Tosca Lee almost completely fails to convey in Demon: A Memoir. Demons aren’t shown to be so bad and the degree to which they are bad is for a clear reason.

As a writer, I think I know how Lee walked into the story situation she did. Authors tend to explore the motivations of their villains, wondering why they are so bad. So she found a possible explanation for the “bad” of demons in the Scriptures and wrote a story around it. Or maybe I should say, “The most common Christian interpretations of the Scriptures,” as opposed to the Scriptures themselves.

However, the most fundamental problem I have with this story isn’t that it fails to make demons look demonically evil, but rather that I’ve pondered the issue of what the spiritual realm is like and have come away with my own notions that don’t match Lee’s very well. That is, the demon Lucian does not seem like an actual spiritual being to me...I find it highly unlikely that either angels nor demons are human in their outlook on life. Lee attempts to capture this “other than human” quality at certain moments with some passages that relate sequential events that happen before time begins (which doesn’t quite work for me) and a fascination with eating and drinking and newly-minted time and a few other details. But I’ve imagined more fundamental differences.

For example, what if these spiritual beings are incapable of feeling regret? Regret is a product of a lack of foresight about the future coupled with time passing and the reality of what the future really has become hitting you in the face. What if the angels have much better foresight—so the ones that rebelled knew precisely what following Lucifer (a.k.a. Satan) entailed, but chose it anyway? So they have no regret? Or what if their relationship with time is different, so that their past moments are every bit as real to them as their present (which is not true for a human being—our memories of the past are generally nowhere as vivid as our present experiences)? So that would mean that demons are incapable of regretting the moment of their choice, because they are effectively still living in that moment, wouldn’t it? Or what if out of a sense of stubborn pride they would not allow themselves to even begin to regret a past decision—and they have complete conscious control of their minds? Without a human subconscious and our ability to contradict ourselves, a demon fully determined to never have regrets never would have them, right?

A writer following Tosca Lee’s storyline with a different presumptions on what is true about the spiritual realm would thus show there is a natural reason why it would be that God did not provide a redeemer for demons—they are not capable of wanting one. And this quality would mark them as fundamentally different than the human race, wouldn’t it? Potentially making an interesting speculative fiction story? Though they might be challenging to write as characters if they really truly never changed their minds about anything once their minds were made up…

Alternatively, a story could be written that states that fallen angels really do have a means of redemption, but this is something that has never been revealed to human beings because we don’t have the need to know about it. This also could perhaps form a really interesting story, one I’m sure I could invent details for, but I’d be concerned that someone might take my flight of speculation and either consider me a heretic for writing it or found a new and bizarre religion based on it…so I’ll pass.

All things evaluated, I do recommend Demon: A Memoir to Christian writers of speculative fiction. However, I do not do so because I think the book was highly successful in what it attempted to portray, but rather because I think both what it does well in beautiful description and what it does not do well in incompleteness of concept can provide a source of inspiration for a writer to do the same sort of thing, only better…