Friday, August 14, 2009

So lets talk "Twilight"

I finished reading "Twilight" earlier this week. Let's start with some context...

One of the opportunities (or problems) with this book is that it reinvents what it means to be a "vampire". The standard mythos of vampires gives them many easily recognizable traits: no reflections, hate garlic, avoid sunlight, fear the cross. There's also an even larger cavalcade of secondary traits that often apply to vampires, such as being unable to cross moving water, being unable to enter a dwelling unless invited, turning into bats, and having some form of mind-control.

Twilight does away with all of this. Every single one of the things I mentioned has no relation to the "Twilight" vampires. They even poke fun.

Which is fine, because when we get right down to it, there's really only one core vampire trait: sucking blood. This is a trait that most tales of vampires share with each other, but also share with the only "real" vampire: the vampire bat. The vampires from "Twilight" also like blood, though they don't seem to have the fangs that identify other vampires.

Notice that at least half of the common traits of vampires listed above are vulnerabilities. That's a critical part of the myth, because vampires have extra-human powers. Most times the vampire is faster, stronger, and more hearty than the humans; they are, in fact, our predators. But we have several advantages over them. We can move around in the daytime, enjoy Italian food, and see the unsightly errant nose-hair in the bathroom mirror.

These vulnerabilities are important because otherwise the monster is too powerful -- we wouldn't have a chance, which doesn't make for good tales by campfire. We have to at least have a chance of surviving, otherwise we don't identify with the story as much.

I don't want to sound like I'm harping on about this, but I feel it's important. I know that some people are very angry that the "Twilight" vampires don't share a whole lot in common with "vampires" as we know them and are ignoring the rich traditions of the myth. That's not the part that bothers me.

What bothers me is that the book vampires don't have weaknesses. Let's take Edward, the romantic lead vampire.

-He's super strong.
-He's super fast.
-He has super reaction speed.
-Sunlight makes him sparkle like granite, but doesn't hamper him.
-He doesn't need to sleep.
-Or breathe.
-He's REALLY beautiful, as all vampires are in this world.

To add to this, each vampire gets a bonus superpower that's unique to them. Edward's super power is that he can read minds. Anyone's mind. From a distance (a mile or something?). Everyone EXCEPT Bella, because... well, that's not really covered. Not that it matters: she wears her emotions on her sleeve and half the time he seems to guess what she's thinking anyway.

The only way a vampire in the "Twilight" world can be killed is seemingly through being pulled apart (by another vampire, I assume, since vamps are super-dense and resilient) and setting the pieces on fire. So, regular people are just out of luck. We are merely lambs at slaughter.

In fact, the book takes a rather dim view of humanity. All the people at school are wrapped up in petty relationship issues, parental figures are absent or distant and unconnected, and the vampires seem to get a lot of amusement from being superior.

And they are superior. Or, in the parlance of the book, "perfect". By the last page, I was really tired of hearing how perfect Edward and all of his vampire friends were. There's far too much use of the word "perfect". They're perfectly beautiful, perfectly graceful, perfectly muscled, perfectly happy, perfectly successful, perfectly family-oriented, and so on. He even has perfect breath, which is good. Someone who dines exclusively on blood might be expected to need Mentos now and then.

In fact, the only thing about Edward that isn't perfect is that he loves Bella TOO MUCH. That's like saying my flaw is that I don't win every footrace, just the ones I enter and compete in. Edward's flaw manifests because he's afraid that he won't be able to avoid chomping on his beloved. But then he tries hard, and he CAN resist. Yay, character arc!

Bella's character arc is ... different. She starts off depressed. She's smarter than most people, way ahead of her classes, and despite her constant bewilderment and annoyance, she's apparently really attractive, considering she has at least four guys after her (in a book where the cast isn't that large). She may not be on vampire-level perfection, but she's pretty high on humanity's pedestal.

The vampires get bonus powers, so I guess it's only fair that the humans get... I'm not sure. What's the opposite of a perk? Anyway, Bella's anti-perk is that she's clumsy. Really clumsy. To put it into perspective, Inspector Clouseau is a freakin' ballet dancer compared to Bella. She tells us right off the bat she's clumsy. When her father picks her up from the airport (way back on page 5), she stumbles off the plane and her father catches her automatically, because that's what you have to do with Bella. She's a freakin' hazard to herself. If only she had a super-agile and intensely protective boyfriend...

The clumsiness is hammered home throughout the book. Bella is perennially getting hit by balls in gym, tripping down sidewalks, dropping things, fainting, and generally trying to force Darwin's hand to remove her from the pool. It's brought up so often and shoehorned in so readily that I was expecting something to happen near the end that would "pay it off". Perhaps she'd accidentally trip over a staircase, forcing Edward to reveal his powers to save her. Maybe she'd hurt herself in a way that would emphasize her frailty and humanity to her inhuman lover.

But nothing like that happens. She just keeps on tripping and fainting to the end of the book. In fact, when she DOES get mortally injured through no fault of her clumsiness, she and her friends conspire to let it be publicly known that she fell down the stairs. "Oh, Bella!" chide her school chums. "You SO crazy!" and they all laugh until the credits roll. And in the background, Anton Chekhov appears and takes away his gun in a fit of pique.

It occurs to me that perhaps this is simply intended to be contrast with the perfect and lithe vampires. They move so gracefully that they dance, always regarded as perfect. In comparison, Bella is gross and inefficient. She's acutely aware of how much better Edward and his family are than her at-- well, everything. She harumphs at him for being perfect, but only in a "do it again, baby" sort of way.

And that leads up to the final part of her character arc.

But before I address that: do you remember the book "Tuck Everlasting"? I think I first read it in middle school or high school English. It's about the Tuck family, who found a spring of eternal life. At the point the story begins, they've been alive for 100 years (coincidentally the approximate age of "Twilight"'s Edward). They live a life of isolation, this family of four, because immortality prevents "normal" life. A young girl, Winnie, stumbles across the family. The Tuck son who's her age is thrilled that she'll drink from the well, they'll get married, and everything will be grand.

But the book doesn't just force them into that fate: it talks around the viewpoints. The older brother once had a wife and children, who ran away when he revealed his secret. Eventually, the wife died in an insane asylum. The father explains that the Tucks are now outside of time, like "stones beside the road". Because the father views it as a curse, they live apart from other families and form no connections, since they would be doomed to watch everyone else die.

Ultimately, Winnie decides to live her life, including her death-- she embraces the order and the cycle. She does not drink the water, avoiding the sunny-eyed plans of the youngest Tuck to have someone. The final scene is many decades later, as the Tucks visit her gravestone.

"Twilight" is the anti-"Tuck Everlasting". In "Twilight", eternity is perfection, not stagnation. To be a vampire is to be better.

By the end of the book, Bella is actually begging Edward to make her immortal. She's so obsessed with him and whipped into such a passionate frenzy that she cannot conceive of ever having to live without him. She pleads to be given "the gift".

I don't blame her, given the knowledge she possesses about how her world works. She's seen how the vampires are basically all-awesome all-days. And here she is, a person who feels distinctly unawesome. She's the outsider. She's disconnected from even her family members, she's uninterested in the social things her peers do, she's madly connected to her new boyfriend. She's ready to make an eternal commitment to become awesome herself. Sure, she'll have to eat blood, but Edward's family seems to turn out OK, so how hard can it be? Plus, then she won't be clumsy. And maybe she'll be "beautiful-er". And she'll get a neato power, like being able to name whatever song is playing on the radio, or be able to talk to turnips.

I don't know the plots of the other three books, but I'm betting she ends up a vampire before the end. I'd be shocked if she dies of old age at the end. There certainly aren't any powerful drawbacks to make her pause! Often, the lure of power and eternal life tempts people to become vampires, but they reflect on never being able to watch the sun rise. Or being condemned to a life where one must directly consume human life in order to continue, a parasitic lifestyle which some people wrestle with. Or having to watch old family and friends pass away into dust.

But Bella doesn't have to worry about things like that. In the hospital, her mother coming to visit is mostly annoying, because Bella just wants her to leave so Edward can caress her again. She's probably not going to sweat too much if she has to leave her dad and mom behind. It reminds me of other literary depictions of addiction, where a brief withdrawal makes the addicted shudder with ecstasy when contact is restored. Brief separations throw her into a funk, with her obsession devouring her life. Becoming a monster simply means she'll be able to get what she desires every day forever.

To me, it seems like she's suicidal. My experience with people who want to kill themselves is that they feel disconnected from their own lives and want to end it because anything -- even the cold nothingness of death -- has got to be better than living. Of course, Bella doesn't want to die: she's just spent most of a book finding out how great love is. But she is in a terrible rush to get this current life over with. By dying. The difference here is that, after dying, she'll wake up in Lollypop Land.

So she's actually more like a suicide bomber, in an all-fired hurry to end her own life to get to the mystical rewards that have been promised. Edward (to his credit) tells her that he won't change her and "damn [her] to an eternity of night." The roles reversed from "Tuck Everlasting"; this time it's the human pleading to be given eternal life, while the immortal hesitates and reasons.

In my opinion, this is the part of the story that most clearly shows the vampire's humanity. The author seems to connect it with "learning to love", as the relationship slowly unlocks the memories of what it is to feel human. I feel that we are never more aware of being human than when we contemplate death. It is important that it's Edward who feels that the natural order must be preserved: he, who is himself an affront to that order.

In conclusion, I'm not what I'd consider a fan. In the same breath, I can't deny that once there was an urgent possibility that someone was going to get dismembered and eaten, the story FINALLY took off and I kept the pages turning. I'm not saying that because it's a stereotypically guy thing to do; I'm not an enthusiast of blood and gore. It was more the realization that suddenly there was plot and conflict, and the action started moving fast (prior to that, it moves at what could be called a "leisurely" pace). There's some serious blocks that keep me from really enjoying it, though.

One-- the heroine. I never really liked her. My hoped-for scenario of the author making her intially unlikable to promote a change in her character did not materialize. She just morphs from grumpy sulking to strident obsession, surrendering all the power to her boyfiend. I kinda wanted to shake her by the shoulders and check that she still has an intact spine. I mean, she doesn't really freak out when it's revealed that Edward has been watching her sleep every night without her knowledge. Let's talk boundaries, little girl.

Two-- the hero. I don't know if I can directly blame Edward for... himself. Unlike Bella, he's actually underwritten, which makes for an unintentionally funny situation. Because Bella gets her thoughts exposed via the narration and because most other people are written to be shockingly obvious with their thoughts and feelings, Edward (the mind reader) is the one person whose thoughts and motivations are most obscured.

He seems to flit back and forth between making fun of her and brooding on the fact that he could destroy her easily. And he really likes to bring up the fact that she can't take care of herself, even though the times she came closest to being injured have nothing to do with her epic clumsiness.

Three-- the notion of love and romance. This is kind of its own deal. Maybe I'll address it in a later entry. Suffice it to say that everyone seems to have unappealing traits that go unregarded in the pursuit of love. Edward is controlling and jealous, but that's OK: Bella is so scatterbrained that she NEEDS help. Bella is rather manipulative and often in distress, but that's OK: she's just trying to get everyone to do what she wants.

Personal predictions for books two, three, and four:

-Bella becomes a vampire, because it's all she ever wanted (since page 300 or so).
-There will be a love triangle that's probably NOT really ever a triangle, because of her destiny with Ed.
-Nobody has sex until after marriage, unless they're evil. Consequently, Edward and Bella get married as soon as feasible.
-Hopefully, someone discovers that there's actually a really big flaw with becoming a vampire, so that it's not a simple "make me super" decision.
-Hopefully, Bella develops something (or someone) on the human-side that acts as a counterweight to all the vampy perfection. This might be the love triangle, but that would be REALLY cheesy. I'm hoping her mom has another kid and that Bella appreciates discovering a blood-relative (one last pun before I go) that needs her.

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