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Twilight

In Books on August 29, 2010 at 9:49 pm

It’s rather difficult to take the trials of the heroine seriously when her name translates into ‘Beautiful Creature Symbolizing Grace and Elegance’.  A moniker like that is easily one of the least subtle ways an author communicates to her reader that the majority of this chick’s issues are going to center around the fact that she’s too hot for all the men in her immediate vicinity to handle, and that no matter how bad these issues are, everything’s going to end up beautifully for everyone involved, excepting those who don’t deserve it.

Before I begin, let me reiterate (see the former post) – I’m not saying that Twilight has no redeeming qualities as a story.  There’re good things about it – the fight scenes, the vampires’ physical prowess, the arguable support of pre-marital chastity.  I like a good smackdown; I totally want to be able to run from San Diego to Seattle in fifteen minutes, and I like the fact that Meyer didn’t allow her characters (not from any lack of trying on Bella’s part) to have sex before they were married.  And my nieces loved the fact that the vampires drank Bambi-blood.[1] It’s got action, danger, dramatic revelations, romance, bad guys – all the elements that make for a fun story.

Here’s the problem, though – the simple combination of all those elements alone doesn’t create good literature. It’s not a box of brownie mix; one doesn’t just throw in a good guy, a hot chick, a problem, and get an artfully-crafted narrative – it’s a subtle balance between an elementary and an esoteric use of these elements that distinguishes a good story from great literature.  In the next few posts, Jane and I will be talking about Meyer’s use of some of these elements in the Twilight saga – in this one, we’ll be focusing on her characters; specifically, Bella, Edward, and Jacob.  The purpose of this post will be simply to give a superficially-comprehensive overview of what sort of people they are – I’ll reserve my rant – ahem, my critique for the next one.

It’s a generally accepted maxim among writers that if the characters are neither believable nor likeable, then it won’t matter how tenderly the heroine describes her lover’s manifold perfections nor how many times the author graphically depicts the hero pounding a villain’s head into a wall – the reader will have a difficult time engaging with the story because they can’t enter into the experiences of the protagonists.

‘Right, Brooke.  That’s why those books have sold enough copies to fill Central Park, been translated into thirty-eight languages and spent four and a half years on The New York Times’ Bestseller List.  Because people can’t ‘enter into the experience’.

Excellent point.  If people were having such a difficult time digging the Bella-Edward-Jacob-Renesmeé love-quadrangle awkwardness, then why is Meyer’s tax attorney working overtime to keep her from having to pay out on those fantabulous capital gains she’s netted?  Why aren’t the editors at The New Yorker pounding down my door to get me into that cushy corner office in the Condé Nast Building?  I shall tell you why.  Because the characters don’t need to be good (i.e., well-written) in order to be entertaining. People don’t much care whether or not a book (or a movie, TV show, or even a human being, for that matter) is good, provided that it’s (or he’s) entertaining. The Twilight Saga is a prime example of how unbelievable and unlikeable characters can still create a fun, readable story.

‘OMGEEEEE what is your PROBLEM!?!  What’s wrong with Bella?  Isn’t she a good daughter?  Doesn’t she do her homework, listen to her Dad, help her Mom?  What’s your issue with Edward?  He’s nice to her, right?  Treats her with courtesy and respect, is totally in love with her, protects her, is soooooo hot!’

Chillax.  I’m not saying that Bella, Edward, and Jacob are detestable characters; merely that they’re neither believable nor likeable, and that this lack of authenticity and sympathy is one of the principal reasons why I won’t classify Meyer’s main characters as ‘well-written’. I’ll explain why in my next post; for now, let’s take a look at the characters.

BELLA: Bella Swan is the seventeen-year-old daughter of an impetuous, puerile woman and a staid, reliable policeman – while she enjoys living in Phoenix, the realization that her mother’s short attention span can only encompass comparably-immature men (e.g., Phil, Bella’s stepfather) prompts her to move to Forks, Washington to live with her biological father, Charlie.  It’s this sort of precocious sagacity that prompts her mother to affectionately nickname her ‘my middle-aged child’ and makes her father’s loving apathy toward her physical welfare more forgivable – any teenager possessed with such penetrating perception surely might be permitted to spend nearly every moment (waking and sleeping) with her boyfriend without adult supervision. After all, her slavish devotion to her idol in no way detracts from her filial duties – her father’s home is always kept in order, and dinner is nearly always ready for him when he lumbers into the kitchen at the end of the day.  Neither are her studies neglected for her passion – she attends school regularly, does her homework, and is accepted to several colleges before graduation.  To be sure (as it invariably is with young love), her friends are somewhat neglected, but considering that the majority of them seem to be composed of smitten suitors and false jades, this is perhaps all to the good.  Her true friends (e.g., Alice; Edward’s sister, and Angela, a friend from school) are themselves equally enthralled by their young men, so the charge of sororal neglect may as easily be laid at their door as hers – she certainly doesn’t intentionally neglect them, just as she doesn’t intentionally place herself in harm’s way or intentionally attract the attention of most of her male acquaintance.  Bella’s character is largely formed by her circumstances – like any young girl devoid of parental guidance, she reacts instinctively to her surroundings and the circumstances in which she’s placed, so any sketch of her personality should take this into account.

EDWARD: Edward Cullen is the physically-seventeen-chronologically-one-hundred-seven-year-old vampire paramour of Bella Swan.  He is He-Man without the fur briefs.  He is Byron without the homosexuality.  He is Churchill without the fat.  He is Ronaldo with a moral conscience.  Take every quality that women have wanted in men since the beginning of time, strip it down, platinum-plate it with diamond pavé, and you have the behemoth of archetypal masculinity that is Edward Cullen. Born in turn-of-the-century America, Edward was ‘turned’ by his ‘father’, Carlisle Cullen, when an outbreak of Spanish influenza swept the country and annihilated a large part of the population.   As his mother lay dying, she begged Carlisle (whom she knew to be a vampire) to save her son’s life – Carlisle assumed the role of mentor/father to the (literally) new born Edward, and is largely responsible for the shaping of Edward’s intellectual and physical development, post-transformation.  Like his ‘father’, he is well-educated, handsome, suave, well-mannered, and genteel – he speaks several languages, plays several instruments, holds several post-graduate degrees, is impeccably dressed (his penchant for neutrals notwithstanding), protective without being overbearing, kind without being simpering, and athletic without being thuggish.  He also worships Bella.  I don’t say that flippantly – if the verb ‘to worship’ may be defined as holding someone or something in reverent awe and adoration, then I may accurately represent his treatment of Bella as worshipful. He has no thought but for her; there is no impetus to his speech or action that has not its foundation in her desires or well-being.  Is Bella safer without him?  He will exile himself to the frozen north or the soporific south.  Is Bella happier being with Jacob then going to class?  He will grit his teeth and make her excuses.  Will Bella sleep more soundly for his presence?  He will keep the most watchful of vigils at her bedside.  Is there a mortal female who would be able to withstand moral, physical and intellectual magnificence of this magnitude?  Say what I will about him (and I shall), I can’t deny that so many virtues united in one man wouldn’t tempt me to overlook the glitter.

JACOB: Jacob Black is Bella’s James Dean-esque werewolf / shape-shifter childhood friend – smash a Native-American Channing Tatum and Orlando Bloom together, and Jacob Black is the resulting remix.  They meet up again when she returns to Forks and – prepare yourself – fall in love.  How’s that for a plot twist?  While Edward may be all that is great and good in men, even he cannot withstand the assault that Jacob’s post-phased abs unleashes upon Bella’s already overcharged libido.  Graduate degrees are great, and being able to compose sonatas is pretty kickass, but he’s pitted against a six-foot-four ripped-out-of-his-mind space heater with an affinity for cliff diving and custom dirt bikes – and who doesn’t glitter.  Or skip town on a mood swing.  While Edward is a decidedly more cerebral character (and I use that term in the loosest of senses), Jacob is a much more practical dude; he attends school on the reservation where he lives, but his life (like Edward’s, interestingly) primarily centers around Bella and his pack.  While he’s as devoted as Edward in many respects, his adoration takes on a decidedly less flamboyant form – there are no page-long professions of love, no outpourings on the banality of existence prior to her appearance in the drama of his life, no declarations of intent to suicide should capricious Fate see fit to rob him of the glory and wonder that she is.  Jacob’s identity is primarily rooted in his tribe and place in their history, as a member of a band of brothers united against a common enemy for the protection of their ideals and their culture.  As a result, his loyalties and affections are claimed by something  greater than Bella, and so provide what Stephenie Meyer has called a more ‘realistic expression’ of love.

NEXT WEEK!  Jane explores the possible reasons behind Meyer’s choice of the moist and mystical state of Washington as the setting for her heroine’s foray into the tempest of teenage love.  (Reasons besides the one that stated she needed a place where Edward’s glittering magnificence would be appropriately veiled from unworthy eyes.)   


[1] So not joking.  Shoot us an e-mail at lesfootnotes@gmail.com.

 

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Dracula: Dark Dad of Emo

In Books on August 12, 2010 at 11:55 am

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

We said we’d begin with Twilight, and we will. However, we won’t just jump right into the story, because (1) Brooke spent a lot of time reading source materials at UCSD, and she wants to show off , and (2) I’m way too much of a nerd myself to pass up the chance to delve into literary history.  Deal with it.  You won’t complain when you’re the only person in Intro to Gothic Literature who actually recognizes the titles your professor starts popping off, now will you?  Read this and you’ll be able to spend class Facebooking.

Despite what the fans would have us believe, Twilight is by no means an avant-garde series in the genre of vampire literature.  When I say ‘vampire literature’, I’m not referring to every single story that has a vampire as a principal character, like Charlaine Harris’ The Southern Vampire Mysteries (which are the basis for the True Blood series on HBO), or even Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (Interview with the Vampire, et al).  I’m referring to the classic gothic horror stories; the fantastic tales of evil demons and their human prey.

Qoheleth[1] said that there’s nothing new under the sun, and he was right.  Vampire literature didn’t appear in a vacuum; there have been superstitions about ‘undead’ creatures as long as there have been drunk people to talk about them.  They usually involved a creature with the ability to prolong his or her life indefinitely by feeding off the blood of the living, mysteriously appearing in the victim’s bedroom at night in order to do so, often as an animal, and sleeping or remaining inactive during the daylight hours.

Many of the superstitions surrounding vampires were compiled and solidified in the popular imagination by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, widely considered to be the definitive work in vampire lit.  Stoker did extensive research into the folklore, mythology, and legends before writing his novel in 1897.  At the time it was published, it was just one among many popular sensationalist novels; an “invasion lit” tale where a mysterious foreign entity appears out of an Eastern country and threatens the British Empire.  According to the learned scholars at Wikipedia[1], Stoker was heavily influenced by Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, which is about a lesbian vampire who preys on lonely young girls, as well as The Vampyre by John Polidori, [2] and Emily Gerard’s Transylvania Superstitions.

Stoker’s vampire, the enigmatic Count Vlad Dracula, is meant to be a terrifying creature, not an attractive one.  This is a story about something disastrous and horrific; about a being that is not readily understood and how the protagonists must confront not only the creature himself, but that which he represents – an intrusion of the malevolent supernatural into the elegantly quantified and systematized roles and rules that govern Victorian society. Stoker’s novel was published at the time when modernism was at its peak; in the wake of the Enlightenment and during the first flush of Darwin’s Origin of Species – Jonathan Harker, Drs. Seward and Van Helsing, and Mr. Quill are incarnations of this developing intellectual, physical, economic and social power.  Dracula represents that which was there pre-modernity; before scientific inquiry and autonomous reason were the ultimate arbiter of fact; before technology gave man his unprecedented power.  The human protagonists understand the movements of the stars, the minds of men, and the order of creation, but little beyond that – it is this failure to acknowledge, study, and comprehend this super-natural (literally, above the natural) element that constitutes their weakness. When it shows up in a world dominated by science, what does society do?  What will happen to the roles and rules; is man’s power sufficient to conquer and subdue it?

Dracula wasn’t metro, he didn’t wear LaCoste, and he sure as hell didn’t glitter. His attraction is enigmatical and mysterious; his victims are intuitively aware of the power and intelligence accumulated from centuries of immortal life and it’s the allure of this knowledge that draws his victims to him.  Unlike the literary vampires of subsequent years, he isn’t a rebel without a cause, but a consummate renegade – a thing utterly inhuman, yet able to blend into human society and observe the rites and rituals of society impeccably.  Dracula’s goal is to quietly dominate society; not simply fit into it and certainly not protect it.  He draws no undue attention to himself; he cares neither for society nor companionship, viewing them with a rather mocking, slightly bored detachment.

The female protagonists, Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray, are not overwhelmed by Dracula’s beauty or charm – his power and ability to subdue humans is neither attractive nor desirable.  In fact, he takes particular care not to make himself known to them in human form until nearly the very end, choosing instead to haunt Lucy’s dreams and lure her to him through voices in her head or ghostly appearances as a mist or wolf.  There is no desire to be “chosen” as his victim, and no lust for the same kind of eternal life he enjoys and could offer them.  Indeed, when Mina realizes she has been defiled by being physically forced to drink his blood, she cries out in agony: “Unclean, unclean!”  The idea that she might herself turn into a similar creature is abhorrent to her, and she actively fights against it.

Dracula’s reputation as a seducer is rather undeserved – he’s not looking for a soul-mate so much as he is a good supper, and it kinda stands to reason he’d prefer a hot chick rather than some fat bald guy.  I put it to you – you’re a vampire (male).  Which one ya goin’ for, Megan Fox or Michael Moore?  OK then.  While I’m sure both Lucy and Mina were smokin’ hot, Dracula’s choice of them as his prey isn’t precipitated by some physiological obsession, but rather his knowledge of his enemy’s (i.e., Harker, Seward, et. al.) weakest points – their women. “My revenge is just begun!” he says, incredibly pissed off when the heroes have attempted to corner him, “I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.  The women you love are mine already, and through them you and others shall yet be mine—my creatures to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed.”

Dracula to Twilight – kind of a big jump, no?  How’d we get there?  Why should we read Dracula instead of Twilight?  Dracula was pop-lit when it came out too, right?  How do I know that a hundred years from now there won’t be some bored blonde program specialist blogging about how Twilight is a milestone of American literature and why it’s worth our time and television-abstinence to read about it?  Well, why don’t we take the lock off Brooke’s cage and let her answer that one…..




[1] POP QUIZ!  Who was Qoheleth?  Chick-fil-A gift card for the first person who answers correctly.  UPDATE: Congrats to Matt DeLong, who won the Chick-fil-A gift card.  Why exactly he wanted it when he just spent the entire summer in the South, I’m sure I don’t know, but whatevs.

 

[2] Polidori was a contemporary of Mary Shelley, who as you know (if you were Brooke’s student, anyway) was the authoress of Frankenstein.

[3] Now, I realize Wikipedia is not exactly a paragon of accuracy, but since this is for fun and I am not actually writing a scholarly paper where I have to cite my resources, I’m going to go ahead and assume they have the gist of things correct.  Take that, MLA format!  I can hear my high school English teacher weeping even now….

The Glitter! The Glory! The Gag Reflex!

In Books, Intro on August 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Last summer, Brooke and I began a collaborative paper entitled “The Angel: New Textures and Consistencies in Literary Excrement; Or, A Study in the Gross Overuse of the Words ‘Velvet’ and ‘Bronze’ in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.”  Sadly, the rent came due before this masterpiece of exegetical literature was complete.   Our mercenary landlady was less than impressed with our offer of 20% of the proceeds from all future sales of the nascent bestseller and insisted on receiving some sort of monetary compensation, rather than a stake in our magnum opus[1].  Thus, our cherished work of art had to be sacrificed to the daily grind of our nine to five jobs for a short period of time.  C’est la vie.  However, in the timeless words of AC/DC, we’re back in black[2], baby!  The rent has been paid, we are through with our nine to fives at five, and we now have the free time necessary with which to share our brilliance with the masses!  Learn and be edified.

All joking aside (all right, most joking aside,) we’re gonna kick things off with Twilight.  Not only is it a wildly popular book series, spawning secondary literature, manga, and tchotchke[3] galore, it is also a blockbuster film franchise that has Kristen Stewart and Taylor ‘Abs’ Lautner laughing all the way to the Caymans.  Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial rock or in cloistered seclusion, you have at least heard of Twilight, if you haven’t actually read the books or watched the films.  I know, I know – in our last post we said that we were going to explore the classics of literature, and the Twilight saga hardly belongs in that canon.  In fact, (Twihard Alert) we do not think that Twilight qualifies as a great work of literature, period – contemporary, classic, or otherwise.  It kinda shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same paragraph as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights, or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (all of which, by the by, Meyer references as parallels to highlight the love story of her protagonists).  However, that being said, we will admit that Twilight is an entertaining story.  We’ll even cop to liking the series – although Brooke will deny it to her dying day, the fact remains that when she needs a mental Mai Tai, she’ll reach for Eclipse in the hope that maybe, just maybe this time, Victoria wins.  And once she starts, she has a hard time putting it back down[4].

Here’s the deal: the books aren’t selling bajillions of copies for no reason at all; there’s not been a massive partial-lobotomy performed on two-thirds of the American female population, neither is there a conspiracy at Little, Brown & Co. to induce feminine relationship-dissatisfaction in order to sell the bare-chested bodice rippers of moist-eyed teenage fantasies.  It has, as we’ve said, an entertaining plot – forbidden love, self-sacrifice, cool battle scenes, a nice, light bit of grossly distorted history, and a few pointers on how to dabble in the black market – all the ingredients necessary for a Lifetime Movie of the Week!  But here’s the point – great literature does not just consist of ‘a good story’.  The formula isn’t simply: hot chick + hot dude + issues = WUV 4EVA.  It’s (wait for it…) a good story told beautifully – a story with multi-dimensional characters artfully developed through an interesting, well-crafted plot by the use of appropriate literary devices.  Here’s our point:  while Meyer tells a good story, she doesn’t tell it beautifully. She doesn’t tell it artfully, expressively, or well.  Brooke says she doesn’t really ‘tell’ it, so much as undergo some sort of Muse-induced emotional trance with pen in hand, precipitated by a lack of athletic participation and intellectual stimulation.  And this makes sense, since Brooke’s got a pretty big mouth and is fond of shooting it off whenever the spirit moves her.  We’ll see if she can back it up this time.

Stay tuned!


[1] We strongly suspect she was Team Edward.

 

[2] No, really.  Brooke refuses to wear any other color…it gets depressing.

[3] tchotchke [chahch-kuh]; n., slang: an inexpensive souvenir, trinket, or ornament, the purchase of which hardly justifies the expenditure in calories required to take it to the register, much less the $5.75 and 8% CA sales tax they’ll hold you up for.

[4] Unless of course, I make a snarky comment in hearing range, in which case that sucker will leave her hand faster than you can say, “Edward’s perfect face.”  These books make excellent missiles, and her aim is much better than you might think.  Thank God for paperbacks.