Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts on Twilight by Stephenie Meyers

Ok, so I read the damn thing in one night--yeah, I'm weird like that.

It is a page turner, I'll give you that. And yet, when I turned the last page, even with the "preview" of the next novel, I had absolutely no interest in what happened next, because the tension in Twilight (and I presume the sequels) is not whether or not Bella will die, but whether she and Edward will ever consummate their love. And that is the secret of its mad success.

Beyond everything it is a Romance novel that happens to be with young adults some of whom are vampires. If straight (read male) porn is all about seeing the climax, then romance (read female) is all about NOT having the climax. The long, slow building with the end only in the reader's imagination.

I have read that Meyers is inspired by Austen, and while Austen was able to weave a great deal about human nature and even politics and mores of her time into her books, which Meyers absolutely is not, the books are, at the heart, romances and their popular appeal I suspect, has far more to do with that than their literary value in lit.crit. classes. The agonizing denial is the heart of the books. It is Mr. Darcy desperately wanting to touch Lizzy in the rain and denying himself. It is Emma falling at last into Mr. Knightly's arms after he has waited so patiently for her to figure it out. And it is very telling that all other romances (and apparently this one as well) end with a wedding. They don't begin there.

It is relatively obvious why the books should appeal to pre-teen and teenage girls. They can picture themselves as Bella. The chaste kisses that can never go any further leave out the messy details of real sex. And even if they are having real sex, it gives them a place to live out romance and sensuality which is probably lacking in their relationships with real teenage boys. What most girls are looking for is what Amanda Palmer describes "Cause like any girl all she really wants is That fickle little bitch romance...all around the nation The girls are crying and the boys are masturbating." (Shores of California, The Dresden Dolls)

The Moms who like it are a) remembering their own teenage years, identifying with Bella both if they were popular and certainly if they were not and b) looking for romance as well. They may love their husbands, but they are probably well past being "in love" with their husbands--that mad, passionate time when all you want is to be with that person every minute of every day (again, for the girls holding hands and whispering sweet nothings and for the boys, going further). That all you can think of is that person, their smell, their voice, their mere presence is intoxicating. Romance, by ending at the wedding (or death as in Bella's beloved R&J, and I guess in this--the undeath) promises a lifetime of that emotion. We never have to see if Mr. Darcy snores or goes bald or gets fat. Or that Lizzy after having the first child isn't really interested in sex anymore. Edward promises a lifetime of feeling like that--nay, an eternity. He doesn't have morning breath, he exhales perfume (a little odd for someone who is dead). In this the books resemble nothing so much as straight Yaoi (which I'm not going to explain here--go look it up).

And I admit that I am not entirely immune to that feeling. I admit to rewinding (what an archaic term that is now--but what do we say, reversing?) that moment in the rain between Matthew McFayden and Keira Knightly a few times over, or the moment in The Painted Veil when Edward Norton and Naomi Watts finally fall into each others arms in pleasure and pain. I certainly remember when I was a teenager that the moments that caused the sweetest feelings were certainly not the blatant sex scenes in Judith Krantz, or Harold Robbins (which are just plain scary) but the moment in those "literary" romances that expressed the most longing. From The Scarlet Pimpernel, this passage has remained with me always:

Had she but turned back then, and looked out once more on the rose-lit garden,
she would have seen that which would have made her own sufferings seem but light
and easy to bear--a strong man, overwhelmed with his own passion and his own
despair. ... the will was powerless. He was but a man madly, blindly,
passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within
the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his
love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the
stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.


Dear God, who wouldn't want to be loved, worshipped like that? I read that passage over and over again. The suffering, the passion. That he is also the Scarlet Pimpernel, that daring and brilliant hero and it is his love for her and fear for her safety which make him stand aloof in defiance of his own feelings, is the crux of the romance, just as it is with Edward. The unfortunate effect of this is that we hold that romantic ideal into our grown up life. No one can be so devoted to us all the time, any more than we can be devoted to them all the time. Unless they are a cipher, a non-character existing only for those moments of devotion as it is again with Edward and Bella. I know people who expect that kind of devotion and when they do not find it (as it is impossible) they move on to the next, always disappointed and also, in many ways, cruel.

I suspect that even in the fourth book when the consummation occurs in the human sense, it is discretely off stage. That, like that other popular romance, Gone With the Wind, it probably ends with Edward carrying her off to their bedroom to engage in sex that is pain and awkwardness free. (Feel free to tell me if this isn't so.)

The other tension inducing consummation, that of Edward turning Bella, is probably described in excruciating detail because suffering for our love is so romantic. In fact, the writing style of the book reminds me of nothing so much as any teenage Live Journal that you can find from a quick Google search.

And there is where I loose interest. It is horribly written. Like some bad angst blog (which I hope this one is not) Bella is completely self-absorbed without any real self-knowledge. She is not a fully dimensional character and it's her book! Her narration! In some ways the book would be better if it were in third person. We might have a better sense of reality if someone or an omnipotent narrator were observing. Even Edward is hardly sketched in. He is passion and denial and guilt and that's about it. Everyone else is merely a line or two here or there. I could not stand four whole books of their dithering. The eroticism of his nose and mouth along her jaw wears out with repetition. I skimmed the unpublished and partial Midnight Sun to see if coming from Edward's perspective was any better--it's not. Bella is no more real or deep to him than he is to her. I quite frankly found it hard to believe that he would be interested in her. (And I find Kristen Stewart quite unattractive as well--which I suppose is fitting.) Although if we start down the path of plot points, why do the Vampires bother going to high school at all? They could pass themselves off as home schooled and their frozen ages would be less noticeable.

As Laura Miller in Salon notes:


... Bella is not really the point of the Twilight series; she's more of a
place holder than a character. She is purposely made as featureless and ordinary
as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader
can insert herself and thereby vicariously enjoy Edward's chilly charms.

I am intrigued by Meyers own story. A Mormon mother who has admitted Austen as her influence (which is unfair to Austen--as I said before, Austen is full of careful character and societal studies) as well as Orsen Scott Card, which makes more sense to me. Ender's Game appeals at a certain age because one visualizes oneself as the historyless and inner-lifeless Ender. Given that tribute, Midnight Sun makes more sense. Contrast Ender with Joe Hill's (Stephen King's son) Gunpowder sometime.

Likewise, contrast Twilight with any of its "cousins." Buffy and Angel couldn't consummate after the first time for totally different reasons, but Buffy had a vast life outside of Angel (and Angel had a show without her) involving friends, personal grief, conflicts and kicking ass, yeah, don't forget the kicking ass. Buffy was a match for Angel. She was the Slayer after all. Bella is no match for Edward in any way.

And the many comparisons to Harry Potter are (to me) unfounded. As Stephen King said, J.K. Rowling can write. Stephenie Meyers can't write worth a damn. And I know that many would find that rich coming from Stephen King, but both Rowling and King are able to do three things very well:
One--write, wordsmith, put sentences together that are descriptive, varied and with their own distinct voice
Two--write characters with histories that shape their presents and futures in which they change and grow, who are different from the other characters in the book and not just offhandedly superficially different
Three--craft multi-layered plots that leave one breathless with their construction, the early throwaway line or character who becomes vital later, the sense of real danger or at least of real change, the strong climax (no pun intended) and the graceful denouement

Likewise, Meyers is no match even for Anne Rice, her spiritual predecessor (in more ways than one), whom she does not cite as an inspiration, but surely it is Rice's beautiful, powerful, erotic but sexless vampires to whom she owes her own? Rice is an overblown writer, a little overly in love with her own voice (but then, so are Rowling and King) but her plots are far more interesting. I can still recall them more than 20 years later, the desperation at the end of The Vampire Lestat that one would have to wait for Queen of the Damned and then QotD's labyrinthine layers and detailed history of how the Vampires came to be. Her later books failed precisely because they gave way to sex in place of tension (and because she became repetitive.)

Touching briefly on Vampire literature and then I'll close, Vampires are always the other--first as objects of fear and then as objects of both lust, damnation and fear. They have stood in for our fears of the dark, our fears of addiction (both drug induced and human induced) and our fears of homosexuality. They are not going away anytime soon. There are many other Vampire series that are more interesting than this one and better written. Likewise there are many other books in general that touch on the same themes with better result.

Am I sorry that I read it? No, I do not mind the three or four hours of my life that are gone, but I don't regret that I need not watch the movies, or indeed ever worry about this again.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow. that's way more thought than i've ever given a silly popular book :)

Mari said...

Wow! Intelligent, insightful, thorough. I would expect nothing less from you.

You were way more persistant than I. I made it almost halfway through and couldn't take anymore of the teen passion. Guess I got over that about 20 years ago. Yet, if an author can get young adults to read with the passion that they have been reading Meyers' work, I'll take it.

Novel said...

I agree Mari, better to read something semi-sweet than to read nothing.