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Book Review: Twilight

March 21, 2009

(I read this book a month or two back, but since the movie version just released on DVD, it seemed like a good time to post the review.) 

I bring up Harry Potter a lot, and it’s really no accident. I love the Harry Potter book series. When making LOTR, Christopher Lee said that he reads the books about once a year. I’m getting into an every-other-year groove with HP. But it didn’t start out that way. Like so many people who haven’t gotten into the series, I dismiss and even disparaged the books sight unseen. They were, I believed, kid’s books, and it was ridiculous for anyone past puberty to read them, much less get so into them, my god. Not to mention my natural aversion, as a high schooler, to doing something “just because it’s popular.” 

But eventually a close friend’s sister, who was a fan, forced him to read the books (1-4, at that time), and he became a convert. He then forced me to read them, and I converted to a fanboy as well. 

While a massively popular book can still certainly be a piece of shit (The Da Vinci Code, for example, was just awful), I no longer allow myself to resist reading a book merely by dint of its being popular. Likewise, the “intended audience” of a book can also be wildly misleading. 

If I had dismissed Harry Potter as so much kid’s stuff and/or pseudo-literary hackery for the unwashed masses, I would have missed out on one of the most satisfying reading experiences in an entire lifetime of reading. So it was with that in mind that I swallowed my pride and read Twilight

Twilight is, it turns out, everything that I assumed Harry Potter was. Stephenie Meyer is not the worst author I’ve ever read, but she’s sure as hell not very good. Its target audience is absolutely teenage girls, and it makes no effort to avail itself to anyone else. The writing is verbose to the point of absurdity, and nearly every chapter is the same: 

Today I woke up and got dressed. I described my clothes in excruciating detail, then went downstairs where I tolerated my dad for a few minutes. He totally cares about me and wants what’s best for me and that is so lame. Then I went to school, where despite the fact that I am not attractive and say so every chapter, every boy in school is falling all over themselves to flirt with me and ask me out and that is so totally pathetic. There’s only one boy who doesn’t, and so I want him. He is obviously a vampire and pretty much tells me so every time we talk. Even after he states explicitly that he is a vampire who wants to drink my blood until I die, I still ask him to explain what he means when he says I should be more afraid of him, because I’m denser than the pre-Big Bang universe. Afterwards some more boys are still totally into me which is so annoying, am I right girls, and on my way back to my car to drive home I do something really clumsy and embarrassing. Edward the vampire invariably is right there when it happens and invariably walks by “chuckling,” which makes me so mad I could blow him until my jaw falls off. Then I drive home, decide arbitrarily whether or not to make dinner for my dad, and go to bed. 

Twilight is a 500-page book. That summary, repeated with minor variations over and over each chapter, comprises the first 400 of them.

The main character’s name is Bella, but it really ought to be Mary Sue, an obvious wish-fulfillment fantasy for young girls and middle-aged women alike. This way an unpopular girl gets to imagine that everyone wants to be friends or more and she rejects them all because she’s too cool for that.

“How you like me now, class of ’91?! I don’t need your love, you need mine and you’re not getting it so HA!” 

I tried to give Meyer the benefit of a doubt that she was intentionally writing from the perspective of an obnoxious teenage girl, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case. If the writing style had changed as the character did, I would have been able to give the book, and its author, more credit. But even when Bella supposedly goes through a major shift in her perspective, she remains obnoxious and just wholly unlikeable. 

And while we’re on the subject of this being a wish fulfillment fantasy, let’s talk about the wish that’s being fulfilled. The message that comes across in Twilight is “Girls are helpless and weak; you need to find a big strong man to protect you from the world and make all your decisions for you. If you try to make any of your own or be assertive in any way, the world will come to an end.”

This is basically a story told from the perspective of the damsel in distress instead of the hero. Edward repeatedly has to save her: from careening automobiles, potential rapists, bitchy girls, other vampires, and — most often — from herself. It’s kind of astounding that such a sexist book could be produced by a female author (and an equally sexist — or so I hear — movie adaptation produced by a female screenwriter and a female director), and the fact that Meyer is a Mormon may have something to do with it. Bella is passive and submissive throughout the book, allowing all the big strong men around to protect her — if Edward isn’t there, she latches on to the closest male for protection in his stead. And the whole time, everyone’s telling her how important and great she is, which is so oft-repeated and so hollow-sounding that it seems to boil down to “Pretty bird…pretty bird.”

Speaking of sexist Mormon craziness, let’s talk about sex — sort of. It’s a well-established tradition in vampire fiction that vampirism is analogous to sexuality. Anne Rice, probably the most famous author of vampire stories after Bram Stoker, describes the blood-drinking as being a mind-obliterating ecstasy for both the penetrating vampire (usually male) and the penetrated victim (usually female). Both of them enjoy it, but then they must wrestle with the consequences afterward. 

So what is vampirism in Twilight lore? Well, for the penetrated victim, it is excruciating, the worst kind of pain imaginable. The bite of a vampire injects a venom into your blood, and if it doesn’t kill you, you will suffer even worse pain for three days, after which you will be a soul-dead sexblood-crazed monstrosity. And for the vampire, the smallest taste of blood can send them into a wild frenzy of lust and they won’t be able to help themselves from taking and taking until there’s nothing left, so for God’s sake don’t let a man vampire stick it in you!

This is actually important for the climax of the novel (spoilers ahead). You see, the first 400 pages are abysmal, but in the last 100 pages or so it actually starts to pick up. While the vampire “family” to which the object of Bella’s codependence belongs has decided they want to live peacefully with humans and not eat them, another vampire tribe arrives on the scene, and one of them decides that he wants nothing more than to drink Bella’s blood. The last 100 pages is about the race to protect Bella and kill the character who becomes called “the tracker.” It improves because Bella starts to talk less about herself and more about what’s going on around her. Meyer also does one thing right, in that the sentences get shorter on average, ramping up the pace and also giving her less opportunity to throw in unnecessarily fancy words in an attempt to feel like a real writer. 

The tracker fools Bella into believing that he has taken Bella’s mother hostage and Bella, thinking at last of someone besides herself, decides to trade her life for her mother’s.

(This should be a turning point for the character, but she — and Meyer — actually seem to think that Bella has been set up this whole time as a kind and selfless character. The tracker muses that she is almost supernaturally, divinely selfless, and Bella seems unaware that this is a wholly inaccurate characterization of her prior to this moment.)

The tracker beats the shit out of her a little bit, a predator playing with its food, and manages to bite her on the hand before the “good vampires” show up to save the day.

Vampire venom is like snake venom: it can be sucked back out if you act fast. But you come back to the taste of blood being likely to drive a vampire into an uncontrollable bloodlust. So you have the most potentially intense portion of the book here, where Edward must fight everything in his nature to save the girl he (inexplicably) loves, by sucking out the other vampire’s venom.[1]

But instead of writing the scene, Meyer has Bella lose consciousness. Bella awakens in the hospital, and the best scene in the novel isn’t in the novel. The other characters explain it to her in a cursory way. Instead of getting the amazing scene, we get the other characters telling us how amazing it was.[2] 

Good work, Ms. Meyer. 

Oh yeah, that reminds me. Ms. Meyer apparently thinks that either her readers are stupid, or her ability to communicate ideas via juxtaposition and context is severely lacking, because there isn’t any subtlety in the writing. If I were writing the way she does in Twilight, I would have written the previous paragraph like this:

Good work, Ms. Meyer. By the way, that was sarcasm. 

Also, her vampires sparkle in the sun (instead of dying horribly), and they play baseball. 

Really.

I got both Twilight and its sequel, New Moon, as Christmas gifts. So I’ll be reading the second one or otherwise I’ll feel ungrateful. And how else will I learn my lesson. I’ll also rent the movie version — I already read the fucking thing, what’s another two hours. I kinda want to see how they handled the sparkling; although I must say, Edward is supposed to be the sexiest creature on the face of the Earth and, I’m sorry, but I don’t see the appeal in Pattinson. Heroin chic is not my thing. 

Of course, as Meyer is rich and published and I am neither, the joke is ultimately on me.

The punchline? Even diehard fans of the series say it goes downhill from here.


      

  1. If vampirism represents sex, I have no idea what this is meant to symbolize.
  2. For those keeping track of the analogy, yes: the book avoids climaxing.

From → reviews, story, writing

6 Comments
  1. That is hilarious because I think the movie was handled better than the book.

  2. Good call. I was told the HP books were targeted to a broad audience age. They kept me interested, but I’m not a fan.

    As for Twilight, I must be a cruel asshole because I’d thank them for the book and never read it. If I have no desire to read something, I simply cannot get past the first page or two. (I was able to push through Neuromancer because I was curious about it. IMHO re: Neuromancer, it is more entertaining in my head than it was on paper.)

    A friend was dragged to the movie by his girlfriend. She liked it and had read the book. He hated it and had not read the book. (Since he and I seem to like a lot of the same stuff… except girls, I’ll probably hate it, too, and I have not read the book.) Your experience may be better since they do not get the luxury to spend a lot of time on visual details when those details all shown to the viewer all at once in a movie. Then again, his girlfriend liked the book, too.

    Let us know.

  3. Man, I wish someone would read my writing and give such clear feedback!

  4. Just wait until you see Heroin Chic covered in GLITTER!!!

    I liked the books as insipid entertainment and I still hated Bella. If you thought this book was bad, you have to complete the series.
    The last one can be summed up in three letters. . . WTF.

  5. As a former Mormon, I too suspect Meyer’s perspective on females is largely the result of her upbringing.

    It’s amazing how when I was a Mormon, I thought nothing of it, because that was the norm. The church teaches females from a very young age that they are to get married to a man, and be his servant and have kids.

    Don’t get me wrong, the Mormon church doesn’t directly disrepect women. Not a “Get in the kitchen and make me a pie!” sort of way.

    Nonetheless, the Mormon church doesn’t teach women self sufficiency in any way that I’ve encountered.

    Saying all that, I know Mormon girls who do see it for what it’s worth, but choose the life of a submissive man-servant role, and actually either delude themselves into being happy with it, or are just genuinely fine with that lifestyle.

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