Thursday, January 22, 2009


Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, Read by Ilyana Kadushin, Listening Library, 2005

(Since The Wife often accuses me of embarrassing her in public and of trying to “suck the joy out of everything” and of being overall a complete and total hypercritical dickwad, she may wish to skip the following review.*)

Unless you live under a rock or on a desert island, you’ve no doubt heard of the teen lit sensation, The Twilight Saga, four novels charting the relationship between the teenaged girl Isabella Swan and the vampire Edward Cullen. I generally try to make a habit of investigating literary events just out of critical and literary curiosity, but I found myself dragging my feet on this one. Worse, I actively mocked the series despite the fact that I had little experience beyond knowing it was huge among teenage and pre-teen girls and as well as adult women. After reading an interesting take on the series by Caitlin Flanagan, I realized what was going on. I was resisting the books out of sheer pigheaded sexism. Having determined that the books were girly, I was determined to ignore and ridicule them.

Being a father of a daughter and a somewhat enlightened male (comparatively speaking) in regards to women’s issues, I realized that this attitude couldn’t stand. It was probably this “I won’t read it—that’s a girl book” attitude among males that lead J.K. Rowling to write Harry Potter instead of Harriet Potter. Girls will read Huckleberry Finn and boys will not read Anne of Green Gables and so it has been for quite some time.

So, obviously, I had to find out what all the hoopla was about, but being self-conscious about the books I tote around I had to get into Twilight on the sly. I also didn’t want The Wife to know what I was up to so as to surprise her. She had taken to reading the first book with the idea that it was a good policy for an English teacher to be hip to what the kids were reading. She read the first book avidly, it turned out, devouring it in big chunks. Of course, I teased her during the reading of it, my revelation about my attitude toward the book only changing when she moved on to the second book, New Moon.

When she finished that book, there were only two left in the series. I formulated my plan to race through the four books before her (I have tons more free time for pleasure reading than an English teacher) and finish first, just to prove to my wife at least that I’m not some douchebag guy. This plan in mind, I secured the audiobook versions of the novels and began listening. In the mornings on the way to work, in the evenings as I tidied up around the house, when I went outside to shovel our walk for an hour or so.

Now, gladly, I can deride this series from the position of experience, if the three follow-ups are anything like the first book, as amazingly annoying, immature, and juvenile. Obviously of course those three words can apply to almost any junior high to high school student, so no wonder it’s big in that age demographic. Ms. Meyers clearly understands her target market and nails them cold. The wonder of it all is the series’ popularity with older age brackets of women.

Having only listened to the debut, Twilight, I offer a limited perspective on the series as a whole. Perhaps Ms. Meyers grew in her talents as she wrote and perhaps as a happy result her characters grew and developed depth to accompany that. What I read in book one didn’t leave me with a conviction that that was plausible, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

Let us first dispense with the reader, though my usual method in audiobooks has been to leave that for last. Ilyana Kadushin appealed at first with her youthful tones and her almost wry delivery, but imagine listening to a twelve hour long lecture by a teenager in that know-it-all tone endemic to the age. By the book’s end, I seriously reconsidered my plan to listen to all four books. Also, something about hearing Meyers’ “just the plot points, please” prose made Kadushin’s reading come off as a Cliff Notes version of the story.

And story is what this book consists of. As far as this listener could determine, character growth from page one to page whatever is nil. Isabella Swan, our protagonist and quickly irritating narrator, is a doubtful cynic of a girl, convinced she’s an awkward, ungainly dork, who transfers from her high school and her life in Phoenix, Arizona to a new life in Forks, Washington. In case we don’t get what Isabella’s personality issues are specifically, Meyers has her go by a shortened version of her name, Bella. Get it? Bella Swan. It’s an ugly duckling story with a symbolic name for a hint. By the end of book one, that hasn’t changed, and very little about her personality has.

The reason for this shift from sun and fun and friends to small, dull, dreary, rainy Forks is because Bella’s mother is remarried to a semi-pro baseball player and spends most of her time traveling with him. Bella decamps to Forks where her father, Charlie, Chief of Police, lives by himself in bachelor solitude with his fishing and his microwave meals.

Bella experiences the usual transition issues for a teenager. Finding a crowd to hang out with, dreading the “stand up and introduce yourself” part of joining new classes, navigating the tricky crushes of the local boys, setting her sights lower on the stores to shop at, etc. The latter one is particularly of interest because we are told that Bella is an avid reader, and though one jaunt to a nearby bigger town to find a bookstore goes dramatically awry, there is very little evidence to support Bella’s “love” of books. Throughout the course of the novel there are only two scenes of her reading when she’s not studying in her textbooks, and one instance is an English class assignment.

Sure, that’s small nitpickety but nowhere near as small as how much this book taught me to hate chuckling. In the near forty instances of the vampire Edward laughing, he does nothing other than chuckle. Every single time. (I am not exaggerating. To test this, go to Amazon’s Twilight page, click on “Search inside this book” and enter “chuckle,” “chuckled,” and “chuckling” as search terms.)

It became a game with me, listening along in the car. After every bit of conversation between Bella and Edward, I would add, “he chuckled” or “Edward chuckled.” If I got it right, I got to stop listening for the day. It took a long time to finish listening to this book. Over four weeks.

This brings us to the book’s largest aggravation, the character of Edward. Perhaps teenage girls really are obsessed with boys’ looks. I get that he’s a vampire and as such astonishingly beautiful, but we could have been told this a few times and got the message. However, if the combined years of subscriptions to Tiger Beat and the like prove anything, they at least dispel the myth that only males are greatly stimulated visually. Throughout the book we are beaten over the head with Edward as Greek god, Edward the Adonis, Edward as “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful,” and “beautiful to an excruciating degree,” and “too beautiful to be real,” and “the beautiful one, the godlike one,” and okay, okay, okay – we freaking get it already. Meyers goes so far overboard with her narrator’s worship of Edward that we are treated to this groan inducing bit of purple prose, so bad it merits its own hall of fame ranking up there with the best of the Left Behind books:

His breath blew in my face, stunning me. It was the same exquisite scent that clung to his jacket…

Seriously. A vampire – granted, a “vegetarian” one who only hunts animals and not people, but one who still drinks blood for sustenance, mind you – is described as having stunningly good breath, sort of like a leather jacket.

What the fuck?

What I find the strangest of the novel’s appeal, though, is the supposed dreaminess of Edward. He lives with his “family” of vampires, all of them gorgeous (naturally), but they keep to themselves and watching them is like watching some black and white European perfume commercial. (We learn in due time that the Cullen “family” are a group of vampires who don’t hunt people, taking their nourishment from large game animals like moose.) Yes, we are treated to description after description of his eyes, his pallor, his godlike physique, his cat-like way of walking and so on and so forth, but his personality is mostly flat. For someone over eighty years old, he demonstrates none of the charm or mannerisms of his life era, he’s described as speaking after the fashion of previous decades though no actual evidence of this is provided save the narrator’s statement of fact, and he seems to have not done much in his eighty plus years of undead life that rounded him out as a person. He likes to drive fast and he’s totally in love with Bella Swan. Big deal. He chuckles, he saves Bella’s life on several occasions, he withholds information from her, tells her what to do, picks her up and puts her in his car on occasion, and otherwise acts like a majorly controlling jerk. I pondered the reason why so many young girls and older women would be so taken with this kind of behavior. The allure was lost on me before I read the book and the actual experience of reading the book hasn’t enlightened me much on that score.

My initial reaction/belief was that Edward acts as a stand-in father figure for both age groups. For the younger girls, the implicit controlling side of his character is the want for someone to tell them what to do, to tell them what to do in a fashion that ultimately gives them what they want, yes, but still, an all-knowing superior figure to look up to while dreaming about. Textbook Freud territory. This hypothesis was somewhat bolstered by the book’s conclusion, the high school prom. Tricked by Edward, who engages his sister to doll up Bella in a dress and makeup and high heels (well, heel, as is the case following the book’s climax), he takes her to the prom in a tuxedo. Upon her complaints that she can’t dance, he lifts her up and slides his feet under hers. “I feel like I’m five years old,” she tells him in this telling scene, as he dances her around the prom in a fashion one usually employs with very young daughters.

For older women, the appeal was harder to determine, though I’m certain it’s an almost universal desire we all have from time to time, to have someone older, more experienced than us, take us under his/her wing and answer all our questions and desires eventually.

The other characters of the book flit across the screen leaving little impression, as is probably highly similar to the minds of most high school aged children, even ones such as Bella, who we are assured (again, without real evidence save her skill at cooking) is very mature for her age. They are flatter even than the two growthless leads, the girly girlfriends, the clueless high school boys, the barely there real father, the slightly hysterical absent mother, a whole host of microscopically minor characters in the grand romantic drama of Bella and Edward.

This burgeoning romance takes up the lion’s share of the book and in short time becomes as dull a saga to listen to as 99.9999999% of high school romances. As far as the rest of the book, Meyers takes us from one stale scene to another. “Does he like you?” “I don’t know. It’s complicated.” Then Bella goes home and cooks some fish for her father. Yaaaaawn. The writing comes alive only near the book’s very end, when another coven of vampires, ones who aren’t so dainty about where their cup of blood comes from, visit Forks and the leader, James, takes a liking to Bella. Suspense intrudes into this so-far predictable story and the shift is like reading a completely different novel. For the first time, my interest was held. The hunt was on. Alas, it came to an end all too quickly, and in the dramatic showdown between the bad vampires and the good ones, Meyers cops out and has Bella be knocked unconscious.

She wakes in the hospital, pesky threat to her life all gone, everything taken care of, nice and neat. In structure, Meyers is trying nothing short of wholesale theft of the Harry Potter plot structure. Arrive at a new school, learn some mysteries, big dramatic conclusion, end of school normalcy closing scene. Instead, Meyers robs her readers of the excitement she built up as surely as if she had ended her dramatic scene with “..and I woke up and it was all a dream.”

Of course, the legions of Twilight fans care nothing about this. The phenomenon of the books is very real. Whether it proves to be of lasting duration is something only time can tell. I for one, certainly hope not. The loyalty of people to something so uninspired and lifeless can’t be a good thing, can it?

(*In all fairness to The Wife, she's not going around recommending these books as great literature and found, by the second book, that much about the story was irritating to her, especially the vaunted character of Edward.)


flakygenius said...

First, let me thank you for noting that I'm not touting these books as great works of literature even if you did imply that I devoured the first book and typed your disclaimer in small print. I read the book ... quickly--it isn't that hard. I guiltily and shamefully enjoyed reading it, and I wanted that to remain something I only shared with you, my students, and my sister. I was outraged at the main character's dependency and complete willingness to give up all sense of self for her controlling (teens call it "protective") vampire boyfriend. And I'll be the first to admit that the prose is clearly aimed at teenagers ... not that I have a problem at all with books designed to be available to a wide teen audience. I don't need every book to be a great work of literature; I love that Twilight gets a lot of kids (and women) to read.

But I don’t think it is hard to understand the allure to teens or to “older age brackets of women.” I’ve found most guys, teens and grown ones, have a lot of trouble figuring out what the hype is. Heck, you mention Twilight in a classroom, and teen boys yell out in anger. I’m not sure if that’s because they resent that the girls are enjoying something that isn’t meant for them or because the girls are enjoying a guy who isn’t them.

At the risk of sounding unliterary or uncool, I want to try to explain something I’ve been thinking about the popularity of the series, because I find it insulting to women and girls that critics can cast aside work that is clearly inspiring to many of them as mindless romantic drivel. Those criticisms remind me of the term “chick lit,” a term that implies that any piece of literature designed to be accessible to women is somehow not “real” or serious literature.

The thing with older women is that we were all once girls, teen girls, even. And many of us who have spent our lives reading, tend to have romantic or idealistic notions of the world, even if they are hidden or we deny them. For those of us who read the cannon, maybe these romantic notions are filled by one dashing Mr. Darcy, but for those for whom Austen seems unapproachable, Edward fulfills a similar role. I'm bothered by Edward's "protective" nature, but I can see why many grown women are attracted to him or the books. Meyers has created the story that many of us lived in our fantasy lives. We believed, we were told, or we actually were nothing special, but some little part of us wanted to believe differently, did believe differently. Yes, we hoped, we are special and when we get out of this town or away from these people, someone will figure it out and together we'll be better than them all.

The luxury of being a boy in this country is that you are constantly reaffirmed—everyone tells you you’re special, and you believe it. Trust me, you believe you are special and entitled and superior. Girls live the opposite. So there’s Bella—the girl who thinks she’s invisible, the purported nerdy girl, the quiet, plain one, an outsider, the girl reading the book. But despite her beliefs about herself, she’s clearly wrong, as many of us hope to be. And just how wrong is she? Not only does she become the center of someone’s life, but this guy is a godlike creature, he is perfection. And he listens to her. This mythical god wants to know her favorite color, her old school buddies, the mundane details of her life. Girls aren’t usually listened to even when they’re saying something important. Yes, he saves her from monsters and danger, but even more importantly, he saves her from insignificance. Personally, I prefer a story in which a girl makes herself, saves herself from insignificance. I like a story in which a girl recognizes the oppression women live with and call normality and then rejects it—a story like The House on Mango Street—but it is no wonder that girls and women would fall in love with anyone or anything that fulfills our ultimate, unrealized fantasy—a world in which we are important.

Annalisa said...

OMG. This is why I freaking love you and why we are friends. :)

A + D said...

"The luxury of being a boy in this country is that you are constantly reaffirmed—everyone tells you you’re special, and you believe it. Trust me, you believe you are special and entitled and superior. Girls live the opposite."



A + D said...

I would like to go on record and say that I completed agree with H., and this has caused many debates in our household. Which, always lead me to the conclusion that men are unable to understand how the female mind/emotions work.


Also, I refuse to read Twilight, on the same principle in which I refuse to read Harry Potter.Sigh.

The Critic said...

What principle is that, A?

D, do you find flaky's comment refutable? If so, refute away. I want this to be total debate WAR!

A + D said...

I completely disagree with it (her comment), but I'm not prepared, or care enough to get into any kind of debate. We already don't speak that much as it is. I'm observing a lot of anger and I believe she is going to have to come to terms with it someday. I feel there are trade-offs to everything; race, religion, sex, etc. I think as a whole people share the same struggles, although not specifically the same as the next person. I don't want to argue, I just want to coexist and not be hated for having a penis. We are all oppressed by something.

Citizen Carrie said...

If anyone gets kicked out of or stomps out of the house over this, I have a spare bed you can sleep in.

flakygenius said...

"I am not an angry girl
but it seems like I`ve got everyone fooled
every time I say something they find hard to hear
they chalk it up to my anger
and never to their own fear
and imagine you`re a girl
just trying to finally come clean
knowing full well they`d prefer you
were dirty and smiling"

Ani DiFranco

I am not angry. I don't need to "come to terms" with my anger. But I am aware. And I've spent a lot of time reading and studying and observing what it means to be a woman.

Anonymous said...

This whole discussion especially these comments remind me why I am so sad that
the word "feminism" has taken on the negative connotation it has. We're still settling for 75 cents on the dollar in life, quite literally. I wonder why we still think we have to?
ERA Forever.
Dreaming is a poor substitute for truly living.