Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bloodsuckers in the Penny Press!

The latest issue of Vanity Fair, in addition to featuring the great Kate Winslet (who used to be quite pretty, until she stopped eating) on the cover, has a funny, playful article by culture maven James Wolcott on the publishing phenomenon that is Twilight and the Twilight movie that will open soon in theaters nationwide and become, by spring, the highest-grossing movie of all time, outstripping even Winslet's own Titanic.

Wolcott's the perfect choice on the magazine's part: he's rotund and orotund, laser-smart and reliably funny, and obviously, unapologetically adult - hence, in all respects the opposite of this book (and movie)'s target demographic.

And he doesn't disappoint: his take on both is wonderful and thought-provoking and wry. In the October 2008 issue of Open Letters, Sharon Fulton also has some funny and wry things to say about the Twilight books (among many other vampire-themed novels ... you should click on over and read it!), but Wolcott is only concerned with the first book, and with the movie it spawned.

I finally got around to reading that book (after having been urged to ceaselessly by all my tween girlfriends, who told me it was "like, soooo good"), and my feelings weren't as mixed as I thought they'd be. Of course the writing is no Turgenev - but it's not technically bad either. And quite apart from prose style, the book has another, far more prominent quality: it's monstrously, hypnotically, yes even vampirically irresistible. The pages are addictively readable. High brow literary critics (as impossible as it is to believe on circumstantial evidence, neither I nor Wolcott is one - we're steadfast literary omnivores who'll try anything in search of something good, but since I've just recently posted entries about Charles Lamb and the Earl of Clarendon, I'm not expecting a lot of you to believe me here ... perhaps those of you who've known me the longest, but nobody else) might scoff at this, to which I have my usual response: try doing it yourself. It's fiendishly difficult to pull off. In my youth, I could do it only when writing action sequences, and none of the five young people I know who are currently writing novels can do it at all - as good or interesting as you may find their books, you could set them aside to walk your dogs or watch an episode of Deadwood without a moment's hesitation.

Not so Twilight: once you're in, you're hooked. The book's author, Stephenie Meyer, tells the story of young Bella (who's clumsy but beautiful, thus an appealing fictional stand-in for every girl in high school)(except, ironically enough, the die-hard readers, who will spot the device in an instant), who moves to the rainy Pacific Northwest to live with her father. Her father is the Chief of Police of a small town where the sun hardly ever shines, and in Bella's new high school, there's a clique of drop-dead gorgeous adoptive siblings - the Cullens - who very much like the gloomy weather, because they're vampires (in Meyer's conception of vampires, they don't burst into flames in direct sunlight - but they do glisten, which is just as bad from the whole wanting-to-be-inconspicuous standpoint).

In the movie, Bella is played by gorgeous tobacco addict Kristen Stewart, and the young actress must be happy about that, because Bella, as a part, has some genuinely interesting potential. Much less so her vampire crush and then boyfriend, Edward Cullen - throughout the first book, he's written for one purpose only: to make young readers (female and, as Wolcott is the first to my knowledge to point out, male) swoon. Meyer literally never mentions him without reminding her readers that he's physically gorgeous - "godlike" and even "beyond godlike," and with a body as perfect as his face (all the Cullens - including their ageless vampire 'dad,' played in the movie by tobacco addict Peter Facinelli, who once had a great career ahead of him - are described as perfect, although Meyer doesn't explicitly link this to their bloodsucking status). And he broods quite a bit - mainly because a) although he's a telepath, he can't read Bella's thoughts (this isn't explained, at least in the first book), and b) he'd very much like to drink Bella's blood, but he doesn't want to be responsible for turning her into a vampire (even when she explicitly asks him to). In the movie, Edward is played by six-pack-a-day tobacco addict Robert Pattinson, who's a strange choice for movie executives who are obviously dreaming of spinning this movie into a Harry Potteresque line of sequels because a) he's only 4 foot 9, which is kind of a handicap for a romantic lead (although Zac Efron's only one inch taller, and it hasn't stopped him), b) he's almost certainly not going to be around for many sequels, since he literally smokes nonstop except when he's ordered, by someone who's paying him, to stop momentarily (for photo shoots and the like), and c) he's woefully ugly, which might not age well in any case.

Wolcott feels the addictive vibe of the book right off, and according to him, it's fully conveyed to the big screen:

Twilight is engulfed in sidelong looks and tentative touches, leaving the rough sex and parody of identity politics to True Blood (where vampires "come out of the coffin" to demand citizenship rights) and going for the full unabashed primal romanticism of first love. Watching the footage made me feel like a 14-year-old girl again. Let me rephrase that. Oh, forget it.

And he's equally acute, naturally enough, on the conflicted nature of the book's sexism:

Here it is not a haughty man with a secret hurt that makes him vulnerable and attainable, but a beautiful boy at the peak of his slender translucence, which gives "The Twilight Saga" a gay crossover appeal. Everything a girl could want in one dreamy envelope, Edward is the answer to a princess's prayers - doting, fiercely protective, carrying his beloved great distances in his arms like a groom forever crossing the honeymoon threshold.

In this sense, Twilight is nothing new - teen-fiction readers (of which I proudly admit I am one) have seen this exact same formula before (probably most closely in Tuck, Everlasting, especially in the sense of the heroine being accepted not only by her gorgeous, immortal boyfriend but his dynamic, welcoming, immortal family as well). It's Meyer's conviction in telling her story - and her ability to keep those pages turning - that sets her work apart.

There's only one nagging problem, and Wolcott puts his finger on it immediately: these are the bad guys we're talking about:

It's as if Buffy the Vampire Slayer's valiant after-school activities went for naught. For seven seasons (1997-2003), Sarah Michelle Gellar's girl-power prodidgy "Buffy Summers" stalked and staked nearly every bulbous head with bared incisors menacing the graveyard mists and nightclub shadows of Sunnydale, a mission climaxing in the series finale with an Armageddon showdown where the outnumbered forces of light faced off against the pale legions of darkness and emerged torn and scraped, but victorious. Yet here we are, only a few years after Buffy retired her pointy stick, up to our glazed eyeballs with the children of Dracula.

Naturally, I get a little misty-eyed at the mere mention of Buffy the Vampire-Slayer (especially that series finale, which was pound-for-pound just about as good as series finales get), and Wolcott has a point here: vampires have traditionally been monsters. Anne Rice figured out a way around this by having her 'good' vampires only drink the blood of 'bad' people (child molesters, drug addicts, the obese), but it felt like an ethical dodge - murder is still murder. likewise Buffy figured out a way to accommodate the presence of not one but two 'good' vampires by having them sustain themselves mainly on supplies from blood-bank donations (this has its own ethical limitations, as anybody who's ever had a loved one in need of massive transfusions can attest). Meyer's way of excusing the Cullens is much less excusable - they feast on large animals, which they hunt and kill in the wild (Edward is partial to mountain lion - a fact that's offered in Twilight without the slightest awareness of how horrible it is - Bella accepts it about Edward without a peep of outrage). The point is, they don't treat humans as prey.

Naturally, in Twilight not all vampires feel this way. The Cullens are the exception, and the drama of the first book comes from the introduction of a small clan of outsider-vampires who view humans as dining a la carte (the leader of this clan, in a nice touch, is genuinely puzzled that the Cullens would think any other way). Although the movie looks to be very different, readers should be warned about that word 'drama' when applied to Twilight the book: this is very much the first chapter in a long, multi-volume drama - this particular book, read in isolation, is a technical, plotting disaster ... it practically ends in mid-sentence, and the bad guys are not confronted until later in the series.

But Wolcott's point about Buffy is well taken, and it raises a larger point about animals in general. Meyer has one of her virtuous vampires point out to Bella how over-equipped they are as predators: not only are they much stronger and faster than their prey, not only do they have sharp fangs (and their bites are poisonous), but they're also alluring ... all of which is very interesting, but it raises a gigantic question Meyer (at least in her first book) doesn't address: why, then, aren't her vampires running the world?

In the Buffy-verse (as in virtually all vampire-verses since Bram Stoker started all this nonsense), it's because vampires have one crippling weakness: sunlight destroys them. Without a weakness just that profound and all-encompassing, a totally superior species (super-strong and immortal, no less) would rule the world. Take away that weakness (and substitute ... what? Glistening? What difference does it make to the dairy farmer if his cattle see him glitter?), and you take away any plausible reason why your vampires are secretive nomads. Meyer even takes Buffy out of the equation: in her universe, there's no way for humans to kill vampires - they have to be physically torn apart by other vampires to be killed.

The only mitigating factor Meyer offers is still and all pretty clever: apparently, in the world of Twilight, the act of making somebody a vampire is so close to the act of killing them outright that almost no vampires can manage it - and so there are very few in the world.

I'll settle for that, for now. But I suspect Wolcott would much, much prefer it if instead we were all enjoying Season Thirteen of Buffy. So would I, dammit.


brian said...

My advice to everyone would be to skip 'Twilight' and go see 'Let the Right One In'. Similarly themed, except LTROI is about real-world characters who exhibit real emotions and make real decisions. Too bad it's a Swedish production. I'm sure that turns everyone off (hence the American remake set to begin filming ASAP which basically says we are idiots). The movie actually, almost, made me cry. And, no, I haven't read/seen 'Twilight'. Yes, I'm still judging it.

elmo said...

I certainly did not find Twilight irresistible. You did because you're a tweenage girl.

I'm willing to call an mediocre book "good." But now that you've wipped out "irresistable" my gall bladder's kicked into high gear.

And I'm never writing again.

Sam said...

It's funny, I glisten in the sun, too--mostly that's due to the tanning oils, though. Now that's irresistible.

steve said...


You nearly cried at a SWEDISH movie??

Just how drunk WERE you?

steve said...

Oh and elmo: don't you disrespect us tweens! you'd be one yourself if you weren't such a mean old man!

elmo said...

I'll try to pad my writing with more description of how fuckable characters are- y'know, to emulate that whole "page-turning" vibe that's taken the reading world by storm.

brian said...

Nah, I didn't come close to crying. It turns out they oversalted my popcorn.