Friday, 1 November 2013

Twilight: or, Vampires Love Us (a Halloween special)

If I had read Twilight when I was a teenager, I may have liked it. Its appeal to teenage girls seems manifold. The story, basically, is that an ordinary teenager, Bella, finds an unbelievably awesome boyfriend. Edward is super-hot and super-smart. He has a garageful of cool cars at his disposal and a great (nice, close-knit, good-looking, wealthy) family. He even has a really sweet sister (Alice) that Bella gets along with like her own sister.
Philip Burne Jones's vampire (Wikimedia Commons)
Edward is extremely moody, but that is because he thinks that he is not good enough for Bella so is not sure he should be with her. This humbleness is matched by extraordinary physical strength (useful for someone whose girlfriend is extremely clumsy) and fierce loyalty. He can never die, either. When he says, "I'll love you forever," he really means it. He is immortal, after all--"till death do us part" is a quaint limitation that only the profane love of ordinary mortals must contend with.

As it turns out, I was not a teenager when Twilight was published. I did, however, latch on to Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire. Twilight is a lightened version of that book, though Interview with a Vampire seems to be the model for Meyer's vampires. Moody Edward is a version of moody Louis; both vampires must explain the difference between the myth of vampires and the reality of vampires to their naive human companions. Louis, like Edward, does not like having to kill humans to survive.

Edward's world, however, is much easier than Louis's. Louis cannot easily turn away from human prey like Edward can. Louis's torment is more existential than Edward's: Edward worries that he cannot control his bloodlust with humans, but he is more or less at peace with himself, thanks to the guidance of his vampire family. Louis is anguished about his entire existence, and he doesn't have the luxury of a nice family to show him how to live among humans--his vampire father is the gleefully murderous Lestat.  Louis's adventures, in the end, are more complex--he travels farther, has lived longer, and has engaged in relationships that are more morally contentious. Rice's stories are more erotic too. As I look at the two books side by side, I can see how one book is in the young adult category and the other is in the adult category.

 The difference between Anne Rice's books and Stephanie Meyer's books is that Rice makes the restraint of passion a very difficult prospect. Even if Rice's vampires don't actually ever have "sex," the sexual passion among vampires--whether male to male, female to male, female to female or adult to child--and between vampires and humans is a constant presence. Relationships in those books are more tenuous, too, except perhaps for the primary relationship of Louis and Lestat. (Anne Rice has, unsurprisingly, had a few things to say about Twilight.)

In the end, I am an adult, not a teenager. Even when I was a teenager I was reading adult books--I left children's literature behind me after I finished reading The Black Stallion books in Grade Six. I have to pick Anne Rice over Stephanie Meyer now, and I probably would have made the same choice when I was a teenager. I was not a prom-going, high-school gossip kind of girl, and I didn't watch or play baseball (the Cullen family plays baseball).

The question for me, though, is why so many adults have read Twilight. Anne Silver, in her article "Twilight Is Not Good for Maidens: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Series," argues that the series advertises the benefit of the traditional nuclear family by having Bella, a child of divorce, acquiring in the Cullens a better family than her biological family. Bella does not become truly herself until she and Edward marry and she has a child. Edward turns her into a vampire, and from that moment, Bella  becomes competent and equal to her domineering boyfriend--she can hunt and fight as well as he can.

People who value that kind of traditional family would, I would say, find the book's tension lying not in the feud between the different vampire and werewolf clans, but in the conflict between the Cullens' closeness and Bella's desire to root herself somewhere. The right thing to do, Bella knows, is to become a vampire (that is, join Edward's family). Many things get in the way, though, before that happens (beyond the boundaries of the first book, certainly). Getting into a traditional family is difficult, not easy, in the dystopia of the human world. Like in Harry Potter books, in which the wizards, not the Muggles, are truly human, the Cullen clan is a moral and familial elite. Belonging to that elite is not just a matter of paying a membership fee or attending meetings. Bella is special; that is why she can become a vampire.

Meyer, a practicing Mormon, is pro-abstinence and anti-abortion per her belief system. Silver says that this moral orientation is overt in the later books. The two heroes do not have sex until after they are married; in the later books, this abstinence becomes a bigger focus than it is in the first book, though it is already present in Edward's fear that he could accidentally hurt Bella in a moment of passion. I know of someone, actually, who said she wanted her daughter to read Twilight as a kind of pro-abstinence education. Some readers of Twilight also see this aspect of the book highly desirable. Those who see marriage as the only place for woman to have social power and physical security would also like the book. There are the  Twilight Moms, for example. Perhaps these mothers are the kind of mothers that have made Twilight a bestseller.

Are these the same moms buying Fifty Shades of Grey? As I noted in my previous  post, E.L. James's book started as fan fiction. The plots of the two books are parallel to each other in a shameless way. They are so parallel that my complaints about that book pretty much also apply to this one, except Meyer is a slightly smarter and much better writer in terms of language.

Twilight is better than the previous two I've read, but that isn't saying much. I must confess I am getting tired of reading books that disappoint me so broadly.

The next book should be a change of pace. It's The Kite Runner.

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