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Posts Tagged ‘Twilight’

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.

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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.

 

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.