Saturday, October 25, 2008

Twilight: An Exposition and Protest

I'm in a rather furious mood right now. Care to guess why?

I mean, I don't even know where to begin here. As a long-time Anne Rice fan (I first read Interview with the Vampire when I was thirteen) I was intrigued by the excitement surrounding Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, which is said to be bigger than Harry Potter in some circles. However, I was also wary. According to several online reviews I had read (like this one and this one), the series is also alarmingly sexist, maybe even misogynist. I entered the first book with an open mind, but all too soon realized that the criticism was well-deserved. In fact, I will venture to say that the fact that I even finished all 498 pages of that tripe is surely a testament to my tenacity as a reader.

Now I'm not such a literary snob that I think all YA novels are mere fluff. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and Diane Duane's Young Wizards series are challenging, philosophical, and composed of flowing lyrical prose. Duane's High Wizardy, for example, tackles themes of entropy and redemption against a sci-fi backdrop that rushes from one fantastic planet to another with an ancient, demonic enemy in hot pursuit.
It was not her own [galaxy]. The Milky Way is a type S0 spiral, a pinwheel of stars. This was a barred spiral, type SB0, seen almost face-on. . . Dairine had seen a hundred pictures of them. . . But now she was seeing such a galaxy as few, even wizards, ever see one – not as a flat, pale far-off picture but as a three-dimensional object near at hand, rich with treasuries of stars in a spectrum's worth of colors, veiled about with diamonded dust on fire with ions and glowing, dominating a third of the immense horizon, seeming frozen though in the midst of irresistible motion, its starry banners streaming back in still and complex glory from the eye-defeating blaze of its core

[. . .] She pulled the computer close. "Did we lose them?" she said to it.

"Pursuit has halted forty trillion light-years from this location and is holding there."

"Forty trillion. . . " That was beyond the reach of the farthest telescopes, over the even horizon generated by the big bang itself: Galaxies past that point were traveling with intrinsic velocities faster than light, and so could not be seen. It was questionable whether such bodies could even be considered in the same universe as Earth.

In other words, to excuse poor writing and weak plot by saying, oh, it's only a teen book, what do you expect, you're too old to understand. . . That's insulting to teens and insulting to the writers who write for them. So no, I am not going to walk away from Twilight and its sequels and dismiss them as a lower literary form not worth my time. There are real problems with these books that need to be addressed.

The meteoric celebrity of cheesy boy bands, trashy reality shows, and Paris Hilton is more than enough evidence to prove that popularity does not always indicate quality. To me, the hype surrounding the Twilight saga is equally mystifying. Thematic issues aside, if the first book is any indication, they're not even good. The story is overly drawn-out and needlessly meandering, while the characters have no character at all: they're dull, flat cardboard props that merely people a plot. Take protagonist Bella Swan (and yes, that is her name), for example. When we first meet her, she's nothing but a sullen child transplanted to a town she hates. "It was to Forks that I now exiled myself – an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks." (Oh the drama, the sweeping flourish.) From there she never develops, never exhibits anything but perpetual disdain for her surroundings despite the two boys who immediately fall in love with her and the group of friends she effortlessly joins. But then she meets undead Adonis, a.k.a Edward Cullen.
His white shirt was sleeveless, and he wore it unbuttoned, so that the smooth white skin of his throat flowed uninterrupted over the marble contours of his chest, his perfect musculature no longer merely hinted at behind concealing clothes. He was too perfect, I realized with a piercing stab of despair. There was no way this godlike creature could be meant for me.
It's as though the existence of this flawless being alone lifts her from her interminable grumpiness to a blindly blissful stratosphere beyond the reach of such lesser beings as her classmates and father.

And yet, paradoxically, it is also the proverbial gilded cage. She's lost in him. He has become her whole world.
I wondered where we would have gone. North somewhere, so he could be outside in the day. Or maybe somewhere very remote, so we could lay in the sun together again. I imagined him by the shore, his skin sparkling like the sea. It wouldn't matter how long we had to hide. To be trapped in a hotel room with him would be a kind of heaven. So many questions I still had for him. I could talk to him forever, never sleeping, never leaving his side.
Now obviously, that's how love often is for teens, there's no denying that. But the simple fact that we're talking about a guy whose sole asset seems to be his utter physical perfection leads the reader has to wonder if this is only a case of the other L-word: lust. And it isn't so much that Edward lacks a personality (as some have charged) - it's that the personality he has is so damn disturbing.
"I'm the world's best predator, aren't I? Everything about me invites you in – my voice, my face, even my smell!" Unexpectedly, he was on his feet, bounding away, instantly out of sight, only to reappear beneath the same tree as before, having circled the meadow in half a second.

"As if you could outrun me," he laughed bitterly.

He reached up with one hand and, with a deafening crack, effortlessly ripped a two-foot-thick branch from the trunk of the spruce. He balanced it in that hand for a moment, and then threw it with blinding speed, shattering it against another huge tree, which shook and trembled at the blow.

. . ."As if you could fight me off," he said gently.

I sat without moving, more frightened of him than I had ever been. I'd never seen his so completely freed of that carefully cultivated fa├žade. He'd never been less human . . . or more beautiful. Face ashen, eyes wide, I sat like a bird locked in the eyes of a snake.

And that's before he confesses to sneaking in her room at night and watching her sleep, a thoroughly creepy action which she finds quite flattering.

*Sigh* That's really the whole book – sour girl mopes around, then becomes trapped in the orbit of possessive, threatening sexy vampire dude. Oh, there's some action involving a "tracker" who wants to kill her, but it's still not enough to raise Twilight as a whole from its own banality. I think the real losers here are all those teenyboppers and bored middle-aged housewives who, for whatever reason, have fallen head over heels for these books. But JUST when I think I've had it with Meyer, I read THIS:
The question, of course, is what's a Mormon mother doing writing vampire stories? What part of her mental world makes room for these creatures of the night? She originally pitched her story to publishers as a “suspense romance horror comedy” and she says she is not into the horror genre at all. She hasn't read Bram Stoker's Dracula and told Entertainment Weekly, "I've seen little pieces of Interview with a Vampire when it was on TV, but I kind of always go YUCK! I don't watch R-rated movies, so that really cuts down on a lot of the horror. And I think I've seen a couple of pieces of The Lost Boys , which my husband liked, and he wanted me to watch it once, but I was like, it's creepy!"

Oh no no no. You did NOT just refer to Interview with the Vampire as "YUCK." Honey, you don't hold even the weakest, pathetically flickering candle to Anne Rice. Rice's Vampire Chronicles are everything your Twilight books will never, ever be. They're literary tour-de-forces, powerfully evoking the gothic ambiance of eighteenth-century New Orleans, the theatrical elegance of Victorian Paris, the vanished world of ancient Egypt. They're the products of an educated mind that knows her religion, philosophy, history, and literature. I mean, I can't . . . I can't even muster the words to demonstrate the superiority of Rice to Meyer. Here, I'll let Interview with the Vampire speak for itself:
"'I would put the book down and look out the porthole, feeling the gentle rocking of the sea, seeing the stars, more clear and brilliant than they had ever been on land, dipping down to touch the waves. It seemed at moments, when I sat alone in the dark stateroom, that the sky came down to meet the sea and that some great secret was revealed in that meeting, some great gulf miraculously closed forever. But who was to make this revelation when the sky and sea became indistinguishable and neither any longer was chaos? God? Or Satan? It struck me suddenly what consolation it would be to know Satan, to look upon his face, no matter how terrible that countenance was, to know that I belonged to him totally, and thus put to rest forever the torment of this ignorance. To step through some veil that would forever separate me from all that I called human nature.

"I felt the ship moving closer and closer to this secret. There was not visible end to the firmament; it closed about us with breathtaking beauty and silence. But the words put to rest became horrible. Because there would be no rest in damnation, and could be no rest; and what was this torment compared to the restless fires of hell? The sea rocking beneath these constant stars – those stars themselves – what had this to do with Satan? And those images which sound so static to us in childhood when we are all so taken up with mortal frenzy that we can scarce imagine them desirable: seraphim gazing forever upon the face of God – and the face of God itself – this was rest eternal, of which this gentle, cradling seas was only the faintest promise."

You know what? I think I'm going to go reread Interview right now, just to detox from Twilight.

(Oh, and here is a review of Breaking Dawn, the final book in the series. Apparently I'm not missing much.)


Special K said...

Your review is right on! It really does bug me how neither Bella nor Edward have ANY redeaming qualities for the other to love or admire (outside of "sparkling"!)

Thanks for linking to me!

Mrs. C said...

Yeah, what you said. And what K said. I am beside myself with the numbers of my students--all girls, of course-- who are immersed in these texts...All the girls gush so over them, and beg me to ASSIGN them as required text. I mildly respond that there is no room in the curriculum for them and that any money we have for books needs to be spent very carefully. When asked "Don't you LOVE Twilght?" I always reply, still as neutrally and mildly as possible, that I do not. When pressed, I go to the issue of character and the growth and changed that good lit accomodates for the protagonist, and therefore for the reader. I suggest to any and all that when they have tapped out Meyer's offerings, they check out Rice then come talk to me about literary value. Yeah, I saw an interview with Meyer--she is a vapid as can be. The good news? She seems to know it. She is a wee bit embarassed by having achieved so much notority so suddenly. Says she dreampt the first book, and upon awakening, felt it had to be written. The whole thing freaks me out, too. *SHUDDER!*

BTW--I don't know if this will post--commenting has been bizarre around here lately!

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