One of the weaknesses of Alexander Chee’s long, fitfully brilliant The Queen of the Night is the way it negotiates with the undead. Vampire fiction has something Chee wants, as fuel for the engine of his 553-page novel about the fortunes of Lilliet Berne, a nineteenth-century celebrity soprano. But he doesn’t seem to want the cross-contamination that comes with vampire lit: pulpiness, gothic sensationalism, the suspicion of un-distanced or un-problematized historical melodrama. Consequently, by the time Chee really needs vampires as subtextual motivation for a murder committed by his glassily distant narrator, the book has gone too far in its literary anti-infection protocols to allow any believable bloodsucking to take place. Which is a shame, because Chee clearly knows his vamps, and knows how interestingly—how powerfully—they interact with the major themes of his novel: including the chancy glamour that accompanies the possession of world-class talent like Lilliet’s, and the suggestion that such talent can turn its owner into a genuinely dangerous creature when she (or he) is starved of what they need.
From the first, The Queen of the Night insists on its narrator’s distance from us. Lilliet introduces herself as a blank, someone whose real name we will never know. "She is coming for me out of the dark, the girl I once was . . . I can’t tell you her name and she won’t, either" (p. 28). "Lilliet Berne" is an alias stolen from a gravestone on a farm just outside of New York City, and immediately used to sign a contract of employment with a circus troupe bound overseas for Paris. For the artist known for 553 pages as Lilliet is in possession of gifts that both cause her difficulty and allow her to travel and survive as a solitary woman in the nineteenth century: she is an instinctive gymnast, an ad-libber, and a rare soprano; so clearly destined for fame that her private identity doesn’t seem to matter. Even the narrator may have forgotten it: "I can’t tell you her name," she says, of her originary self. Beyond that is nothing—only a gesture toward a consciousness whose sole practice appears to be that of withholding: " . . . she won’t [tell you]" (my emphasis, in both cases).
Chee’s novel is a world in which identities are discarded fully and finally, leaving behind only a vacated set of public functions. For instance, when Lilliet is hired by the circus, she takes up the established role of the trick-riding, singing "Settler Girl" in the troupe’s Western-themed show—and inherits, also, a circus-horse named Mela. "No one ever mentioned the previous girl in my spot," she muses. "No one ever told stories of her, or why she’d left, or said if she was even alive . . . If Mela missed her, he had no way to show me…He, like the rest, gamely trotted out his paces" (p. 58).
So does Lilliet, and while her fortunes cycle through astonishing changes, her deliberately scrubbed-out personality and single-narrator status tend overall to make change feel like more of the same. Still, the summary is impressive: in her circus-role she sings for the French Emperor, Napoleon III, but then follows the triumph up by taking a detour into prostitution, motivated by sheer anger at the hypocrisy of the Second Empire’s system for drawing distinctions between officially virtuous and officially fallen women. As an expensive courtesan, she reveals her singing ability to a famous tenor who promptly buys her contract and moves her into a Paris apartment as his private mistress. Over the course of the fall of the Second French Empire and beyond, the tenor and the soprano remain locked in desperate, intimate battle. With the collusion of others, he directs and advances her singing career, even as she tries (sometimes successfully) to escape him, so she can use her gifts as she wishes and possess her chosen lover, the mysterious composer Aristafeo Cadiz. And it’s here that vampirism begins to filter into the book, as Lilliet and the tenor become established as antagonists fighting to determine who will, finally, be able to use their voice freely, both on the public stage and in the narration of their own life-story.
From the beginning of vampire fiction’s popularity, which we can peg approximately to Polidori’s 1819 Vampyre, the undead have been associated with the fascination and desire that constitute humanity’s response to great talent. It’s entirely possible that the model for Polidori’s lethal, creepily seductive Lord Ruthven was, in fact, Lord Byron—the mortal original of a genre convention later embodied by Anne Rice’s actor-turned-undead-rockstar Lestat, who of course insists he inspired "the deadly gentleman . . . [of nineteenth-century] stories and poetry and penny dreadful novels" (The Vampire Lestat (1985), p. 324) . The persistent pairing of vampirism with genius’ glamour may, as well, explain Mozart’s recurring presence in vampire fiction . And here again the undead and Lilliet Berne brush shoulders, because Chee’s novel is named after Mozart’s Queen of the Night, whose transcendent aria—containing an inset exhortation to murder—so perilously adorns the second half of The Magic Flute.
Lilliet performs that aria about four-fifths of the way through Chee’s book, just as her fury at the tenor is reaching its height. This conjunction of highly technical performance with secret feeling is, as she frames it, a serious risk for a professional singer:
The Queen of the Night aria, you cannot sing it angrily, but instead must muster the complete control that can deliver false anger. Yet I was angry; I was full of rage. It was dangerous for me to sing it this way, but still I had to begin. (p. 463)
Always, in the book, Lilliet can "begin" and finish, when the task at hand is musical. But her motivations and actions are elsewhere so obscure and constrained, so divorced from whoever she is, that in order to commit the highly unmusical crime she’s being steered toward by the author, she needs a subtextual push. And in order to deliver this, Chee abruptly depicts Lilliet and the tenor as a pair of warring vampires.
His formulation is, in fact, a thoughtful advance on the "deadly gentleman" convention, and allows us to understand the characters as rival talents who are very much at the mercy of cultural and political forces beyond their control. As opera singers they must play delicate games with the powerful and great to acquire the patronage that leads to starring roles, and in the aftermath of the end of an Empire these games are ever more fraught, ever more uncertain. Occupational stress, together with the tension of their very long and very cold war, tells on Lilliet and her captor. It tells on their reader, too.
At last, however, Chee shows us their denouement approaching. He signals it through a description of one of Lilliet’s dresses, done in vampiric black and red, and a conjuration of the archetypal vampiric throat-strike.
And what is this? the tenor asked, pulling himself to his feet and walking to where I stood at the mirror.
It is the afternoon visiting costume of a diva, I said.
[It was] more costume than visiting costume. A black silk velvet gown for evening…The waist severely corseted, the bodice trimmed in a black Spanish lace…A court train began at my waist and went back for five full yards behind, red organza roses fastened to this black organza tail. A red brocade loop hidden there went over my wrist . . .
And it takes so much time to get her into it she appears finally at sunset, the tenor said...He pushed his face against me and his sharp whiskers bit my neck. (pp. 489-90)
There they are, the undead lover-combatants. Fourteen pages later she kills him with a "poisoned barb" to—you guessed it—the throat. Also fire, and water. Best to be sure.
The supernatural subtext makes all kinds of sense here and ramifies interestingly, reintroducing to a story about surfaces (dresses, costumes, "composed" faces, and strategic self-presentation, the mirror-happy interior decoration schemes of the Second Empire) a conception of talent as blood; internal, essential to survival and vitality, a thing both well-hidden and perpetually at-risk from others who may try to steal, control or repurpose it. Also, blood is passionate, sanguinary; blood and the talent that flows through it will do insane, sudden things like (apparently) whacking a famous tenor in the throat with a pin dipped in prussic acid and then driving him into the Seine using fire blown from your mouth—a trick you learned in the circus, naturally! The reader can believe in that level of drama if it’s convincingly fueled by the kind of hunger we associate with vampires, and therefore with violence. But in affective terms, Chee’s briefly sketched bloodsuckers can’t break through the foot-thick ice that’s slowly accrued between Lilliet and her readers.
Chee’s construction of his characters as talented automatists, moving through life, and a series of public identities, without access to their own origins or motives, restricts the book’s access to its own chosen métier of melodrama. And his decision to write the book entirely in the first-person without quotation marks adds a further layer of alienation between the reader and Lilliet, whose words—implicitly—come to us as a sort of paraphrase, rather than direct statements. "It was not exactly like this," the omission of quotation marks says. "It was slightly other."
In some cases, an absence of speech-marks might be useful for literary historical fiction. It’s one way for a writer to show that he or she is not credulous, and does not expect their readers to be. But here, it reads more like an indicator that the author was worried by the lush, outrageous nineteenth-century content of his book. It’s as if Chee wanted to write a novel about artistry, love, war and opera without catching anything typographical from his subject-matter. All things considered then, it’s no wonder his obliquely cued vampires can neither derive enough sanguinary sustenance from The Queen of the Night to come to full un-life, nor inject enough blood into the novel to render Lilliet’s elaborate performance of genius finally convincing.
- See Carrie Frye, "How To Be A Monster: Life-Lessons from Lord Byron." The Awl, March 15, 2013. A recent mainstream work of fiction that uses the artist-as-vampire trope successfully is Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (2013).[return]
- Mozart is a major figure in Michael Romkey’s I, Vampire (1990). In Rice’s The Vampire Lestat the protagonist’s doomed lover, Nicholas, first comes to Lestat’s attention because he’s defied his family to study violin with the composer. Louise Marley’s Mozart’s Blood (2010) is dedicated almost entirely to the working-out of the relationship between vampirism and human genius.[return]
Catherine Rockwood is a poet and independent scholar based in Massachusetts. She gets verklempt in rare-book libraries, and the SF/F section of well-stocked bookstores. Her poetry can be found in Antiphon, Literary Mama, Literary Imagination, and Upstart, among other places.