Wednesday Book Club: Twilight

Wednesday, 14 January 2009 — 11:44pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Twilight (2005) by Stephenie Meyer.

In brief: There is a difference between supernatural and superficial. Stephenie Meyer disagrees.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Twilight, keep reading below.)

1.

Before anyone accuses me of treating a book unfairly because I do not belong to its target audience, let me make something very clear. The best novel I read last year was about a terminally passive young heroine who falls in love with a brooding, self-repressed gentleman and daydreams her way through the emotional confusion of her newfound domestic circumstance for roughly three hundred pages before the author snaps her fingers and kicks the plot into high gear. It was elegant, sharp, and utterly unputdownable.

Twilight is none of these things.

To describe Meyer’s teenage vampire romance in the abstract would be to lay out a template for what could have been, to the best of our twenty-first-century approximations, a Daphne du Maurier novel. It is, for one thing, about a terminally passive young heroine who falls in love with a brooding, self-repressed gentleman and—well, you know the rest. In more general terms, Twilight longs to be a genre piece transplanted into a contemporary meditation on feminine desire, which is probably as good a description of du Maurier’s modus operandi as I can hope to muster.

So I was bemused to grab the Amazon.com link to Twilight for the purposes of composing this article, scroll down to the Q&A with Stephenie Meyer, and find the following exchange:

Q: What book has had the most significant impact on your life?

A: The book with the most significant impact on my life is The Book of Mormon. The book with the most significant impact on my life as a writer is probably Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, with Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier coming in as a close second.

Stephenie Meyer isn’t fit to lick du Maurier’s boots, but I don’t begrudge her for that: most authors, aspiring or published, aren’t fit to lick the boots of the forebears who instilled them with a love for their preferred variety of books. To mention them together in one sentence is like assigning Dan Brown and Umberto Eco to the same table at a dinner party: it’s unfair, and I shouldn’t do it.

But God, I missed Rebecca.

2.

The remarkable thing about Twilight is its blissful mediocrity. I am sorry to disappoint those readers of mine who were itching to see me savage this book, but contrary to the impression I must have given so far, it is not a completely horrid affair—just plain, unambitious, and twice as long as it has any reason to be.

It doesn’t even try to be clever, so I’ll look upon it with pity and not spite. Outrageous sales figures aside, I see no reason to disembowel a book so innocent, so helpless, so downright superficial.

One thing’s for certain: it has the characters to match.

Our heroine-narrator is Bella Swan, a seventeen-year-old girl of no particular stature (read: klutz) who moves from Phoenix, Arizona to a small town in the Pacific Northwest called Forks, where she is almost immediately pelted from all directions by raindrops and not-so-secret admirers. This turns out to be a bother, as Bella is far more interested in the dark and mysterious Edward Cullen, who broods in the cafeteria corner with his equally dark and mysterious adoptive siblings.

Bella has no sense of self-preservation. She also smells like flowers. (Look, people: her name is Bella Swan. What did you think she was going to smell like, cabbages?)

Edward has super powers. These include super speed, super strength, and super mind-reading, though the last one doesn’t work on Bella because she is as definitionally mysterious to him as he is to her. (Her fragrance gets in the way.)

Edward and his cohorts are described at every opportunity as being incredibly handsome, though all evidence points to the carefully airbrushed images of so-called Beautiful People in mass media as the barometer of good looks. If you have ever seen carefully airbrushed individuals strut around in the real world, you may be familiar with how out of place they look under regular lighting, as if they were computer-generated escapees from the depths of the Uncanny Valley. Perhaps this otherworldliness was the intended effect, though I find it more likely that Meyer chose to draw on televised conventions of physical beauty as an easy wish-fulfilment device.

The Cullens are on various occasions referred to as “vampires”, a word that Meyer throws around haphazardly to convey the activity of suctioning blood from pretty necks. One gets the sense that Meyer used the word at all to get the reader’s attention, only to pull it back and say, “Well, they’re not your stereotypical idea of vampires, whatever that may be.” Like the word “human”, which also gets tossed about from time to time, it is ultimately meaningless: all it denotes is an ambiguous heap of pop-cultural baggage with all the prepackaged intrigue (and accompanying lack of specificity) of words like “pirate” and “ninja”.

Over time, we do find out a thing or two about the Stephenie Meyer vampire. The Meyer vampire is immortal, preserving the age and appearance of the time of its conversion. The only way to destroy one is to dice it into pieces and incinerate it, which asks us not to think too hard about how vampires go about recomposing themselves if they are disposed of with less care. Oh, and they sparkle in the sunlight.

Meyer accounts for her vampires’ stunning, glittering beauty as an evolutionary advantage (think carnivorous plants), which makes sense in the context of the vampiric instinct to propagate the species through the viral infection of others. One would think that immortality is the ultimate advantage for the survival of a species, but never you mind. It is a sufficient relief to see Meyer step back once every now and then to buttress her fiction with something resembling a system, or indeed any evidence of logical forethought.

3.

When I say that Twilight is unambitious, I mean that in the span of over five hundred pages—that’s a whopping half-thousand, for those of you keeping track—it has almost nothing to say. I am struggling to come up with an original, perhaps even enlightening commentary that offers a fresh perspective on the novel, but there simply isn’t much there.

I’m sure the legions of Stephenie Meyer fans out there organizing Twilight conventions will have an absolute ball calling for paper submissions and booking speakers to lead the whole costume party in an ivory-tower powwow. If they find something to talk about, consider me impressed: I’d be thrilled to see a creative analysis of this novel that doesn’t seem forced. By my count, there is only one thematic idea, one balance of values, in all of Twilight: the resistance to lustful temptations. Bloodlust, sexual lust—in a vampire novel, it’s all the same.

Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Twilight is a transparent parable about sexual abstinence. Edward is addicted to Bella’s scent and so desperately wants to bite her, but won’t. Bella is addicted to Edward’s… glitter, I suppose… and so desperately wants him to bite her, so at least something is mutual. But what’s the big deal? Why not give in to temptation and puncture the little brat?

The viral nature of vampirism offers a convenient answer: because Bella would lose her essential humanity. This goes unquestioned as a Bad Thing, though it isn’t the least intuitive thing in the world to value life over death (and by extension, “undeath”). It takes the guts of an author like Philip Pullman to say, sin and temptation be damned—to fall from grace is human—and Meyer never pretends to be so daring.

In the moral axioms of the Meyerverse, the good vampires are the ones ashamed of their condition, and who remain loyal to the humanity they possessed in life: vampires like Carlisle Cullen, patriarch of Edward’s coven, who works as a doctor to save human lives as penance for who he is. (Given that Carlisle never chose to be a vampire—he was made into one against his will—it is in true Judeo-Christian fashion that he believes there is a penance to be served at all. One cannot help but notice a strong parallel to the idea that humans are born into original sin, and therefore have a responsibility to defy their own condition—or at least thank the fellow on the cross for doing it on their behalf.)

The bad vampires, in contrast, are uncultivated and feral: they prize the satisfaction of their own desires over the rights of the living to live. I make it sound far more interesting than it really is, since all available evidence suggests that Meyer is oblivious to the fact that her novel is really about the value of life (if it is “really about” anything at all). Everything about Twilight‘s protracted structure suggests that she designed it as yet another seasonal rematch between True Love and All Obstacles, and it’s no surprise to anybody who overcomes whom when the roster of All Obstacles keeps shifting between innings.

Meyer can’t seem to decide on a genuine threat to the mutual infatuation that keeps Bella and Edward together. One moment, it’s the natives from the Quileute reservation who dislike vampires because, believe it or not, they’re werewolves (an admittedly interesting choice, even if it plays to tired stereotypes of natives as shamanistic folk who are One with the Animal Spirits). Then at around page 375, a Bad Vampire called James (yes, James) comes out of the woods to menace everyone with a deadly combination of hunting prowess and Bella-lust.

By this point, it is so far beyond doubt that Bella and Edward are together to stay that the whole sidelong adventure feels like a misguided attempt to paradrop a snarling rapist to save the book from plotlessness. It is an artificial conflict-for-the-sake-of-conflict in the most contrived extreme, made worse by its lack of any relation to everything we sat through to get there.

There is a minor attempt to create a sense of foreboding when one of the good vampires, who sees visions of the future just hazy enough to inhibit her from spoiling the plot, has a premonition of Bella wandering into a room of no particular consequence that will no doubt be the site of the Final Confrontation. I am very hesitant to beat Stephenie Meyer over the head with what I affectionately call the “Rowling hammer”—it’s much too easy—but Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix already had the last word on this device. For one thing, it questioned the degree to which prophecies should affect one’s choices when dire consequences are at stake. In Stephenie Meyer’s world, everything supernatural is at work because it is, with no further thought as to whether it should be.

4.

Up to this point I have ignored Meyer’s prose. This is because the words in Twilight are, for the most part, invisible. There is a certain school of thought in composition—not mine, that’s for sure—that insists the words on the page should never draw attention to themselves and disrupt the reader’s mental connection to what they represent. And it’s true that the stylistic self-consciousness of a novel often has an inverse correlation to its pace: the less you notice the words, the faster it is to read. In theory, this should have made Twilight a quick read, and many will profess that it is.

Meyer writes in the convincing voice of a besotted seventeen-year-old girl: it really does feel like Bella Swan is the one telling the story, noticing and emphasizing precisely the things that we would expect. It’s plain, literal, and means no more or less than what it says. There’s a fit of sophomoric clunkiness from time to time: before the first hundred pages are through, you will find yourself seeking a court order to prohibit the author from ever using the words “chuckled” or “snickered” again. (The chuckling and snickering thankfully subside as the book goes on, yielding to a different onomatopoeic dialogue tag for darker times—”muttered”.) The prose is otherwise sufficient to get the reader through the quotidian high-school portion of the book.

Then Meyer falls into two separate traps that draw attention to her writing’s limitations straightaway.

The first is in keeping with the world according to Bella Swan: the typical conflation of vague writing with pretty writing, which inevitably degrades into melodramatic cliché. An out-of-focus blur of emotional rapture does not impressionism make.

The second is Meyer’s failure to write in any voice other than that of a teenage girl with delusions of True Love, and thus her inability to sustain the pretence that the Cullens, being immortals anywhere from one to three centuries old, speak in an old-fashioned manner. Meyer succeeds in giving her vampires names that are regal and quaint—names like Carlisle, Esme, Rosalie, Jasper, and Alice—but nobody can buy for a second her suggestions that Edward laces his speech with odd nineteenth-century turns of phrase. His vocabulary tends toward the analytical end from time to time, but the way Meyer thinks old people speak is so far off the mark in every basic dimension of syntax or diction that it all comes out sounding fake.

So you end up with passages like this one, caught in both traps at once:

“Are you still faint from the run? Or was it my kissing expertise?” How lighthearted, how human he seemed as he laughed now, his seraphic face untroubled. He was a different Edward than the one I had known. And I felt all the more besotted by him. It would cause me physical pain to be separated from him now.

Yes, I’m sure it would.

Curiously, the paragraph I quoted above comes from one of the more (intentionally) entertaining passages in the book. There are two kinds of chapters in Twilight that don’t feel like a waste: the ones that offer us a sense of background, history, and principle behind the supernatural goings-on and suggest the wonder of myth; and the ones that let Bella and Edward have a moment alone to interact with each other and float in the breathless suspension of limerence.

The problem is that Meyer’s aptitude as a writer, which is at its most authentic when it stays within the premises of a modern high school brimming with petty concerns, is directly at odds with the story’s aspirations to transport heroine and reader alike into a timeless place of wonder. Meyer can’t write timelessly, but the story demands that she does.

5.

Here’s the dangling question I haven’t dared ask: why a book so shallow, so utterly unremarkable, is suddenly the biggest thing in publishing. It’s not even controversial! It’s a superficial book about superficial kids that doesn’t so much as pretend to be anything special. Yet somehow it has tapped into something fierce.

For clarity’s sake: this isn’t a complaint about how Twilight‘s success is completely out of proportion to its quality. Nobody who has been observing the fiction market for long enough honestly believes it to be a meritocracy. In recent years, Harry Potter has spoiled us into thinking that the biggest book truly is the one with the biggest dreams. This was an anomaly, and Stephenie Meyer is the proof.

But why Stephenie Meyer? What is it about Twilight that could possibly be mistaken for an inventive narrative hook? In what beleaguered universe would young women collectively decide that a not-very-forbidden romance with a glittering undead superman would be their generation’s wish-fulfilment fantasy?

How, to wit, has it come to this?

My theory is that this supposed phenomenon is nothing new at all, but the awakening of something ancient (or moderately old, anyway) that has slumbered for some time.

Meet Ann Radcliffe. Nobody reads her anymore; you can tell by the brevity of her Wikipedia entry. I haven’t read her either, apart from a few representative extracts. But Radcliffe was the most popular English novelist of her time, and her genre—yes, her genre, in the most possessive sense—was the gothic romance.

Ann Radcliffe played such an instrumental role in defining the conventions of the gothic novel—the ornate mansions, the tall dark strangers, the heroines’ propensity to faint—that Jane Austen famously spent the entirety of Northanger Abbey poking fun at her. To make a long story short, I don’t need to make fun of Twilight because Jane Austen already did it for me two hundred years ago.

So it is, for lack of a better word, hilarious that Bella Swan is a Jane Austen reader. As I’ve said on many occasions, whenever a character in a book reads another book, you should sit up and take note. But much as I’d like to believe that Stephenie Meyer is indulging in a clever bit of irony, in that Austen always valued sensible women (which Bella Swan is not), nothing about Twilight convinces me that she is operating on that level, and I doubt she gets her own joke.

The Stephenie Meyer audience is the Ann Radcliffe audience reborn. (Remember, I haven’t read Radcliffe and I can’t say this with authority.) But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they thought of themselves as the Jane Austen audience, although they would have to belong to that disturbingly large subset of the Austen demographic that doesn’t know she was a satirist.

Bella Swan sure belongs to that group. And if millions of readers have latched onto her as a lightning rod of self-identification—well I hate to put it this way, but Literature is doomed. Again.

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6 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Twilight

  1. Daniel Kaszor

    Thanks Nick, saying it better than I could have.

    I just want to point out that when the sexual subtext becomes just “text” it is strongly implied that Edward is a virgin … despite being 102 years old, having a “normal sex drive” and having Bella continually go on about how “pretty” he is.

    Saturday, 17 January 2009 at 9:07am

  2. Aaron Rankin

    Great review, Nick. I suddenly started hearing people mention this book a few months ago, and I was wondering if it might be good, on top of being so-hot-right-now. “Why not give in to temptation and puncture the little brat?” made me laugh, your use of “limerence” glowed, and I hadn’t thought of using the length of someone’s Wikipedia entry as a barometer of cultural relevance, but it makes perfect sense.

    Monday, 2 February 2009 at 4:46am

  3. Aaron Rankin

    Just noticed this line on the New Yorker’s books blog:

    “Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the movie version of the first book in Stephenie Meyers’ “Twilight” series, is writing a book about directing the film.”

    The source: http://www.theimproper.com/Template_Article.aspx?IssueId=11&ArticleId=3091

    Wednesday, 11 February 2009 at 12:45am

  4. Bravo. Perfect review, far better than mine. Its popularity is staggeringly weird.

    Wednesday, 22 July 2009 at 7:59am

  5. Anna Row

    well done Nick – totally agree! had a fit when this was chosen as our bookgroup book. You have to remember that the memoirs of Jordan have to date outsold the entire Booker shorlist to understand the climate in which we live..

    Monday, 2 November 2009 at 9:31pm

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