Tuesday, January 13, 2009
A brilliant fusion of horror fantasy and teen angst. A depiction of star crossed romance embodied by a vampire and a human girl. An imaginative series that’s captured the imaginations of millions of fans the world over. I’m talking, of course, about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s cult classic television show about an ordinary 16-year-old girl entrusted with an extraordinary mission. The show was by turns scary, funny, and moving, and imagined the strained experience of high school as a kind of literal hell. As for that other recent vampire phenomenon, Twilight—the book series and hit movie that have inspired a legion of “Twi-hards”? After reading the original book, I’d have to say that it has (if you’ll pardon the pun) considerably less bite.
Written by Mormon author Stephanie Meyer, these best-selling young adult novels are the kind of out-of-nowhere phenomenon the media just loves to celebrate (especially with J.K. Rowling’s vastly superior Harry Potter books now only a memory). From reviews of the movie, I knew that Twilight was less about bloody carnage and more about wistful gazes, with young Bella’s romance with “good” vampire Edward taking center stage. But as I read the novel, I was surprised by just how much of it was given over to hokey romance novel prose, and by how glacially paced it turned out to be.
Twilight is told from the perspective of Bella Swan, your average insecure teen girl, who’s just made the unhappy transition from life with her mom in Phoenix to life with her father, Charlie, in perpetually overcast Forks, WA. (Why she forced herself to do this is never made explicitly clear, especially since she seems so miserable about it.) Her thoughts as she enters her new school are much like any teen’s: all she wants to do is fit in, have friends, and not stand out. Anyone can relate to these feelings, so I started to understand why teen girls became enamored with the story. Of course, everyone loves a bad boy, too, and that’s exactly what Bella finds in the form of Edward Cullen, a pale, impossibly beautiful young man whose family is met with confusion and awe by the town. (All of them are described as runway model gorgeous, including their adopted father Dr. Cullen.) After initially thinking he despises her (he casts her death stares the first day in class), she soon learns that he’s both incredibly enamored with her and hiding a big secret: he’s an immortal vampire, and though he’s sworn himself to a life of non-violence against humans (feeding only on animals) his affection for her is tempered with bloodlust.
The slow pacing is meant to develop a rich romance between the two, but the characterization Meyer should be giving us is oddly stilted. Bella is relatively well developed, but she’s maddeningly insecure and neurotic; no matter how many times Edward tells her she’s desirable she refuses to accept it. Edward is compelling, yes, but in some ways he’s a one-dimensional and smug figure: he’s said to smirk so often and to treat Bella in such a borderline-condescending manner that I started to think he was kind of a prick. The entire book is sorely lacking in fully realized characters. Bella’s normal “friends” at high school are so bland it’s hard to believe she cares about them at all. The only truly likable character is Jacob Black, a Native American boy who reveals that his tribe has forbidden the Cullens to set foot on their reservation because of their supposed vampirism. (He doesn’t believe it, but Bella does.) He’s sweet, friendly, and exactly the kind of teen boy Bella probably should be involved with. (In later books they apparently develop a romance—never mind that he turns out to be a werewolf.) Bella’s fascination with Edward, meanwhile, is ludicrously over-the-top; though I like a hot vampire as much as the next guy, I doubt I’d ever lavish such soppy, relentlessly effusive sentiments on one. Bella is so thoroughly infatuated with Edward that the relationship begins to feel distinctly unhealthy. It’s clear that Bella has yet to develop a fully realized sense of self; by subsuming herself so completely in Edward, she loses all sense of her own identity. The other odd thing about Meyer’s depiction of the lovers is how “chaste” and yet relentlessly sexual it is. Sex is never explicitly discussed in the book (though I hear that later installments deal with it more directly) but it’s all over the descriptions of Edward and his interactions with Bella. Bella goes on and on about his beautiful face and gorgeous muscular chest; she denies that he elicits any fear from her but admits that he stirs up “other feelings.” The closest we come to talk of sex is what’s unsaid. When Edward spends the night with Bella, she tells him she won’t be able to sleep with him around and he asks “what else” they should do. She of course suggests another round of questions. Never mind what I would suggest if there was an undead Adonis in my bedroom. Given Meyer’s Mormon background, and staunch refusal to give her characters a sex life despite pressure from the publisher, some have suggested that the books are veiled abstinence propaganda. I don’t know that I’d go that far, but given all of the heavy breathing and nuzzling and caressing that transpires between these two, it’s hard to see why they never succumb to their baser urges. (Did Meyer leave out the part about the Forks High School Celibacy Club?)
About three quarters of the way into the book, we finally get some real conflict. A trio of vampire outsiders comes into town, and one of them, James, immediately sets his sights on Bella. Edward’s obvious urge to protect her provides the perfect challenge for this “tracker,” and he’ll stop at nothing to attack her. A chase ensues, with Edward’s siblings Alice and Jasper spiriting Bella away to Phoenix while Edward and his brother Emmet try to head off James. Action is minimal, though, and none of the supporting cast is ever really fleshed out, including our villain, who’s menacing enough but amounts to little more than a stock figure. Bella’s meant-to-be-heartbreaking bluffing of her dad (she tells him she hates life in Forks and is leaving, so that he won’t come after her) would be more resonant if their relationship had been better established; all we really know is that they like each other, she cooks for him, and he’s still in love with her mom. At the climax (which comes with an admittedly clever ruse courtesy of James), Bella is rendered barely conscious, and since we’re limited to her point of view, we get scarcely any details about the vampires’ battle. I suppose it’s not giving away much that Bella survives (after all, this book has three sequels), waking up days later. Edward tells her that Alive and Emmett had to kill James, which we know from his explanation earlier means tearing the vampire apart completely. But guess what? Bella slept through all that. Thanks for the letdown, Meyer. The book closes with an epilogue at the prom, which Edward has “tricked” Bella into going to. (Because she’s such a klutz, she never goes to dances; somehow, Alice’s doing her hair and makeup and putting her in a lavish dress, with Edward showing up in a tux, didn’t tip her off to where they were going. You’re not too quick Bella, are you?) After a brief interlude with Jacob, who’s come to warn Bella about Edward and his family on behalf of his dad (and who clearly carries a torch for her), the couple pledges their undying love for each other and yada yada yada. It’s all-too-obviously setting up another book, and as such feels distinctly unsatisfying and un-final. However, after slogging through this mess of flowery prose, repressive sexuality, and cardboard characterization, I think I’ll pass on the rest of this “saga.” When it comes to angsty vampire tales, I’ll take Buffy Summers over Bella Swan any day.