Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Total Eclipse of the Heart

In Books on September 24, 2010 at 12:17 am

If you think about it, the Twilight series isn’t so much a vampire saga as it is a romance saga – the same elements are at play here as they are in Danielle Steel; you’ve got your tantalizing heroine and talented hero, the cruel fate that threatens to overwhelm them, the equally talented and even more tantalizing villain(s), and the cataclysmic showdown that’s meant to bring you to the brink of nervous exhaustion by sheer force of its melodramatic angst.  Meyer simply makes her protagonists vampires and werewolves and leaves out the descriptions of their secondary sexual characteristics.

In the typical vampire novel, there are usually some vestiges of the original gothic horror elements – the evil demon preying upon what is most pure and unsullied in the imperfect, but generally-morally-praiseworthy society.  We still have an inkling of this in Eclipse – what with Victoria and her army of newborn-vampires sweeping through Seattle and into Forks to destroy the kindly Cullens and their beautiful ward, Bella – but much more prominent throughout the Twilight Saga are the themes of ‘selflessness’, ‘self-sacrifice’, the importance of family, and (lest we forget) the all-consuming power of ‘true love’.  These themes constitute the meat of the story; what it’s really about – the events that transpire are merely a stage upon which we can watch Edward’s devotion and Bella’s courage manifest themselves throughout the harrowing slumber parties, college applications, contemplations of the myriad side benefits that go along with becoming an immortal, and the occasional werewolf snuggle.  For brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the ‘selflessness’ theme in this post.

The quotation marks aren’t my attempt at being grammatically correct.  I mean to point out that when I’m referring to these virtues, I’m referring to Meyer’s characterizations of these virtues. Here’s the Big Point – I don’t believe that her characters exemplify the qualities that she would have us believe they do. In her Twilight post, Brooke mentioned that one of the reasons why she doesn’t like the series is that Meyer’s characters aren’t believable – this is what she meant by that.  See, Meyer would have us all believe that Bella is the selfless heroine and Edward the devoted hero; that each would willingly sacrifice themselves for the other, and that their families are of paramount importance to the both of them.  While I agree that they would sacrifice themselves for each other, (indeed, both make pretty fair attempts to out-do the other in this respect, and more than once) I wouldn’t say that either of them are selfless or devoted.

“Well, Jane’s clearly off her rocker,” you may be thinking.  “Did Brooke put her on decaf again?”   After all, Eclipse is peppered with Bella’s assurances to Edward that she doesn’t care about her soul and how he can have it and how she doesn’t want it without him and can’t they please just get to third base already.  Her soul, her ties to her friends and family, her (ahem) virtue – anything and everything she has, she willingly gives over or gives up for his sake.  The willingness to relinquish one’s soul for the sake of another mere mortal is a genuinely selfless act, no question – I would argue that there’s nothing else one can do that’s more careless of one’s good.[1] However, the moral praiseworthiness of it somewhat diminishes when one recognizes that Bella cares nothing for her soul. We don’t see her pondering her ontology[2] or that of human beings in general; she has no feelings about who God is or who she is in relation to him; she gives no serious thought to whether or not there is such a place as heaven or hell – she simply exists and takes the existence of her soul as a given.  The question of its value only came up when Edward told her that she would have to relinquish it in order to become an immortal – and (to put it delicately) her nights weren’t exactly spent in gut-wrenching agony at the thought of having to spend eternity as a condemned creature of darkness.  Neither do we see her shedding many tears over her inevitable parting with her parents, or her school friends Angela and Ben, or even Jacob – the loss of these people she counts as dross that she might gain Edward.  Here’s my point: true selflessness involves a measure of understanding of the significance of the things that one must sacrifice for the sake of some other good.  Selflessness recognizes that that which one is considering giving up (e.g., one’s soul) is at least as valuable as the object for which one would sacrifice it (e.g., one’s boyfriend/girlfriend), but, for the good of that object, sacrifices it anyway. That’s not what’s going on here – Bella isn’t willing to relinquish her soul because she believes that it’s needful for Edward’s well-being; she’s willing give it up because she values him far more than she values her humanity.  Her reasons for giving up her soul are purely selfish – she wants him.  Life apart from him is, for her, utterly meaningless – it was no accident that Meyer deliberately left the pages for the months of October, November, December and January blank in New Moon. Without Edward, there’s nothing to do and nothing to say – action and conversation lose all significance in his absence.

Beyond just not being selfless, I would argue that we can take it a step further – she’s actually incredibly selfish.  Anything and everything that could possibly rival Edward’s importance in her life is categorically subsumed under her desire to keep him for herself.  Anything and everything she does, she does only because it doesn’t interfere with her relationship with Edward.  She goes to school because she’ll see him there; she obeys her father because his rules don’t interfere with her time with Edward[3]; she spends time with her friends to keep her father happy so that he doesn’t attempt to restrict their idyllic Mutual-Worship-In-The-Meadow time.  The moment anything happens to divide the two of them on a significant level, all other considerations are disregarded in favor of being close to Edward.  A prime example is the  that takes place in the meadow:

Victoria has descended upon Forks with her army of brand spankin’ new vampires and is ready to slowly dismember the puny female whose boyfriend turned her boyfriend into a sparkly goth bonfire.  The Cullens have assembled in the meadow, cans of whoopass ready to be popped.  They’ve all spent a considerable amount of time planning this showdown, and have gone to a great deal of trouble training and negotiating alliances and boundary lines with the Quileutes in order to be able to do this.  Both sides have gone so far as to set aside their mutual loathing in order to fight together – all for the sake of protecting Bella.  Edward is constantly referenced as the most valuable fighter the coven has – Emmett is strong, to be sure, but not much of a tactician, and while Jasper is good, he can’t be everywhere at once.  Well, sucks to be them – Bella can’t abide the thought of Edward being in the battle and therefore liable to be hurt or killed, so she point-blank emotionally manipulates him into staying behind with her and letting the others fight it out alone[4].  Never mind that the vampires and the wolves are fighting to defend her; never mind that the long-suffering Cullens have already been materially inconvenienced by her presence[5]; never mind that the wolves are there only because of their loyalty to Jacob, who can’t bear to leave her unprotected – the only thing that she considers is what she stands to lose if Edward dies.  Nothing else – not her love for the Cullens, her best friend, their considerable claim on her love and affection for them – bears even a momentary consideration.  Admirable selflessness, indeed.

[1] I say so because (according to Brooke), I’m not a reductional materialist (i.e., someone who thinks that human beings are composed entirely of matter), but we can talk about that later.

[2] One of Brooke’s polysyllabic philosophy words: it’s the study of ‘being’.  Yes.  There are people who study that.  I know.

[3] The grounding doesn’t count – he still sneaks into her room at night to sleep with her.  Only not like that, much to her chagrin.

[4]Edward’s not much better, since he gives in.  For a much more poignant portrayal of how this ought to have gone, see Homer’s Iliad, book 6, the scene between the Trojan prince Hector and his wife Andromache.  I’ll post on this soon.

[5] Having to be around the yummy so-fresh-its-still-moving human blood smell on a pretty regular basis; having to flee the state because Edward has decided that having vampires living in the same general vicinity isn’t safe for her; having to endure the pain of almost losing Edward because of his determination to kill himself if Bella isn’t alive.


Wet & Wild In Washington: New Moon

In Books on September 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm

While sitting in the glorious sun-soaked sand of a beach in Waikiki, sipping a frothy Pink Palace from the Royal Hawaiian, I couldn’t help but think that the Twilight gang wouldn’t do well in Hawaii.[1] Sucks to be them.

This leads me to the all important question of setting: Why did Stephanie Meyer choose the small town of Forks, Washington as the location for her story?   What does a random small town in the Pacific Northwest really have to recommend it?  And why would such a mundane, dreary place be the home of mysterious forces and magical creatures?  No offense intended to the folks who actually do live there, but even they must admit that a quiet, out-of-the-way town is not exactly the first place one would think of when scouting out the location of a novel.

Well, there’s the reason she herself gives us: vampires can hang out there during the daylight hours without sparkling like tween girls who have recently discovered the glory of roll-on body glitter.

Quick side note (okay, it’s more “rant” than “note”).  And it probably won’t be all that quick…but I feel entitled to vent just a tiny bit, and since I’m posting before Brooke has had a chance to edit this bit out, I just might get away with it.

Something that always bothered me about the Twilight vampires was this: why do they have to sparkle?  I realize, of course, that many vampire legends have some sort of stipulation about sunlight, but the authors and the screenwriters of novels, movies and television shows have found a myriad of creative and compelling ways to incorporate this over the years.  The earliest European folktales didn’t really say anything on the subject, aside from mentioning that vampires were nocturnal.  Neither Sir Francis Varney of James Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampire, nor John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven of The Vampyre had any particular aversion to sunlight, although both men seemed to be more comfortable in the moonlight.  Later tales began to have vampires avoiding daytime instinctually, simply because they are creatures of darkness and therefore the light of day is anathema to their nature (Count Dracula grows marginally weaker in the daylight, while Carmilla tends to sleep rather late into the day).  The film Nosferatu seems to be the first vampire story where the sunlight becomes a deadly enemy that will physically cause a vampire to burst into flames and/or turn into an overgrown dust bunny.  And of course, this same anti-sun rule applies to the many characters in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and to the vamps in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s world (yes, I went there – deal with it.)  In some legends, light isn’t actually fatal, but will just make a vamp physically ill (Mick St. John and his ilk from Moonlight—a very short lived and rather cheeseball TV show, which I totally confess to liking).

In any case, most vampires avoid the daylight hours, and those that don’t actually hiss and spit as they flee into their coffin at daybreak still need to keep out of the sun if they want to live.  Now, Meyer needed her kids to be able to exist out of doors during the daytime hours—school hours, to be exact.  This was crucial to the plot – how else can her sexy teenage vampires be all angsty and melodramatic over human love interests if they are unable to attend high school?!  You just don’t get that kind of PG-drama in an insurance company.  So, rather than go with one of these established sun-avoidance options of vampire lore, Meyer decided to be creative.  I have no issue with that.  One does not like to be repetitive, and new ideas can certainly reinvigorate a tired genre.  But for the love of Rob Pattinson’s pompadour, why do her vampires have to sparkle? Maybe exposure to sunlight could cause them to break into violent hives, or turn their skin orange, or transform them into unattractive butt-scratching plumbers…why sparkles? Brooke says I shouldn’t expect so much from someone whose study of English literature encompasses three authors and that I need to let it go.  Agree?  Disagree?  Need to know what a plot device is?  Please feel free to leave a comment—I really am curious as to what others think.  Moving on.

Since they have to sparkle in the sun, Meyer needed a place where the Cullens could hang out during the day living among humans and blending in discreetly, while being smugly self righteous about their ability to not go all starved-hyena on a zebra carcass on every human being within their vicinity.  They would naturally draw some unwanted attention if they lived in a warm and sunny climate like San Diego or Phoenix.   But since they only sparkle in direct sunlight, Forks would be perfect, as it has lots of nice cloudy, gloomy, overcast weather.   With all the rainfall, the state of Washington has some really beautiful forests, which provides our Veggie-Vamps a handy source of prey—the deer and mountain lions and such that they all brag so much about subsisting off of.  The proximity of lots of damp, dark, lush forests also creates a nice, wild, mysterious feel to the book, which works well for the supernatural element of the vampires-and-werewolves-walking-among-us idea.

The choice of Forks also allows for the history of a nearby Native American tribe to be appropriated and absorbed into Meyer’s story.  The Quileutes are an actual tribe of Native Americans, who do live on reservations near this area.  As a result, the Werewolves-That-Aren’t-Really-Real-Werewolves-But-Actually-Supercool-Shapeshifters-Powered-By-AWESOME can come crashing in to the supernatural love story and serve as a nice foil to their vampire counterparts.[2]

The small size of Forks also enables its inhabitants to have a clear idea of who is who, which in turn allows for Bella to notice and be noticed by Edward right away, and for them to be in a class together.  In the typical high school in a larger town, one’s graduating class may have several hundred people in it.  A girl would probably not even know whether a cute boy she saw in the halls that she had not noticed before was a new student or whether she just…hadn’t noticed him before.  This small town setting also creates a sort of celebrity out of Meyer’s heroine—as the estranged daughter of the town’s police chief, everyone knows exactly who she is, where she lived before, and when she is coming, and they eagerly anticipate her arrival.

Towards the end of the book, we get a nice European twist.  The setting switches to Volterra, Italy; the seat of the ruling class of vampires Meyer dubs the Volturi.  She is able to give her story a little whisper of authenticity here, by attaching it to a real city in a country with a rich culture and colorful history.[3]

So – cloudy place with lots of rain; check.  Mysterious forests, complete with isolated flower-studded meadows and dangerous inhabitants; check.  Small town where everyone knows everyone and yet no one knows each other as well as they would like to think, check.  Sleepy little semi-isolated town where you would never expect to find something so fantastic and amazing, check.  Quick side trip to an exotic locale that most of us will never be able to afford to visit, check.  And there we have it.    Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we dissect the themes and run through Eclipse and why Victoria rules.

[1] And for this, I blame Brooke, who had spent days begging me to at least THINK about Le Footnote while I was on vacation.

[2] We will save the Edward-Jacob debate for another day, although I would like it noted for posterity that Brooke was originally all for the vampires–because of the super strength and speed and other enhanced senses–until I pointed out that she’s always cold, and a “werewolf” would always be warm, so she’d have a natural built-in heater right there…and she promptly switched loyalties.  She had misgivings about the glitter anyway, so it really wasn’t a hard sell.

[3] No denying it, Stephanie Meyer did her research here.