Tuesday, January 05, 2010

the twilight saga saga: chapter 1

Yesterday I pulled the insanely stupid move of publicly committing to reading the whole fershlugginer Twilight Saga (which, unless it's an epic Icelandic poem or a lame '80s metal band, is not a saga) and talking about it on my weblog. I have buyer's remorse. But I'm the kind who will gamely try to live with an impulse buy, so never mind the regret. We forge on.

Chapter 1: First Sight

Not a bad chapter title. You think she's going to fall in love at first sight, don't you? Not so fast. Stephenie Meyer is going to piss around and waste our time for a while. Maybe she would call it irony. I would not.

"My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue... my carry-on item was a parka."

I like this opening. She's just about to make a change, and to all appearances it's a radical one. She's leaving the heat and unblemished perfection of a desert city for somewhere cold. As in the prologue, Meyer is putting her character in a moment of transition.

Where she's headed is a cloud-covered town in the Pacific northwest called Forks. Christ, Meyer, why not send your heroine to a town called Choices? Or the District Of Growing Up Is Tough And You Have To Make Difficult Decisions? But the word is nicely loaded; there's something cruel about it, calling to mind images of teeth and metal edges. It even reminds me of the inspiration for Burrough's Naked Lunch - "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". But given the fogginess of Forks, I'm not sure this book is about ecstatic and apocalyptic visions. I think it's about sublimated adolescent horniness.

"It was to Forks that I now exiled myself - an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks.

"I loved Phoenix. I loved the sun and the blistering heat. I loved the vigorous, sprawling city".

I quote these twinned paragraphs because they kind of stopped me in my tracks. How old is Bella Swan? Presumably she's a minor. I'm already running into a problem, and I'm not sure if the problem lies with me or with with the book. After all, this is a fantasy work aimed at a youth audience, a book with glittering vampires - so why should I find it difficult to accept that a teenage girl is allowed to leave her mother and go live with her father after years apart? I should be ready to accept her exceptional mobility without blinking.

I think the problem may lie with Meyer's vocabulary, and the particular voice she's constructed for Bella Swan. Even in the first chapter, Bella doesn't sound like a teenage girl. She doesn't even sound like a precocious teenage girl, except to the degree that she's often lost in the hormonal paranoia of adolescence. Bella sounds like an adult reading from a series of guide books and trade journals. Who, for example, would describe her hometown as "the vigorous, sprawling city"?

(And who the hell loves Phoenix? It's a dust-caked wasteland of swimming pools and fast food huts and foreclosed properties turning up their cracked dying bellies to the sun. That's not vigor. Sprawl, sure.)

"My mom looks like me, except with short hair and laugh lines. I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes."

It's at page four when I feel my first twinge of dislike for Bella Swan. Describing your mother's eyes as "wide, childlike" kind of verges on disrespect. It's also a vague description that says less than it seems to. Her eyes are wide? How exactly? Are they wide apart? Wide open? Does her mother go around holding her eyes really wide? What for? That's kind of weird.

I also wonder why Bella says that her mother looks like her. I think it's the other way around, since her mother precedes her. This is a small point, but it's indicative of the way Bella looks at the world. I would usually call this 'character,' but I don't think the author is in control of the voice. I think there's Meyer all over this thing, and it won't wash out.

But never mind about her mother. She's already gone by page five, having passed the Torch of Blossoming Womanhood to her daughter. The trip to Forks takes a paragraph, which is pleasingly quick. But the drive from the airport to the house? That takes pages. And pages. While she's stuck in a car with her father, whom she calls Charlie.

"But it was sure to be awkward with Charlie. Neither of us was what anyone would call verbose, and I didn't know what there was to say regardless".

I've picked this sample paragraph to demonstrate why and how this book could profitably be reduced to the size of a hotel brochure. Instead of saying that "it was sure to be awkward with Charlie," why not show the awkwardness with sparse dialogue and awkward, affectionate gestures? Since Meyer does that throughout the scene, we can get rid of that sentence altogether.

Next up. For "Neither of us" subsitute "we". For "was what anyone would call verbose" substitute "were not verbose". Actually, verbose is a clunky, overripe word. Let's try "talkative" in place of "verbose". Wait a second. That's still a bit weak, with a flat copular verb and an adjective just sprawling there like a couple of dead possums on a highway shoulder. I'll turn the adjective into the verb, so "We were not talkative" becomes "We didn't talk much".

How about "I didn't know what there was to say regardless"? It's funny how when you take this phrase out of context it makes no sense. Chop the "regardless" off and let the poor thing regain some dignity. So now Bella "didn't know what there was to say," which means that she "didn't know what to say". Why doesn't she know what to say? Because she and her father haven't seen each other in a long time and she rejected him a few years back. Plus the subject of Bella's mother is emotionally difficult territory. But we know this already because Bella says so. So it's obvious that they don't know what to say to each other. Why have this at all?

So with a few small edits, "But it was sure to be awkward with Charlie. Neither of us was what anyone would call verbose, and I didn't know what there was to say regardless" becomes "We didn't talk much". And you don't even need to say that.

The next few pages is devoted to Charlie and Bella talking about a secondhand truck, which is not what I expected from a teen vampire novel. This better be a haunted truck, Meyer. But it gives us time to explore the relationship between Charlie and Bella, which is mostly him trying to reach out and her shutting him down. Then there's this:

"Do you remember Billy Black down at La Push?" La Push is the tiny Indian reservation on the coast.


"He used to go fishing with us during the summer," Charlie prompted.

That would explain why I didn't remember him. I do a good job of blocking painful, unnecessary things from my memory.

There are two possibilities here. One is that some trauma occurred on one of those fishing trips, and part of the Twilight series will deal with this trauma. The other possibility is that Bella is kind of a bitch.

Actually, the truck turns out be important, because Bella likes it. In fact, it's the first thing we encounter that Bella actually likes, and since this novel could be called What Bella Is Thinking About Everything She Sees, we should examine her reaction:

"It was a faded red color, with big rounded fenders and a bulbous cab. To my intense surprise, I loved it. I didn't know if it would run, but I could see myself in it. Plus, it was one of those solid iron affairs that never gets damaged - the kind you see at the scene of an accident, paint unscratched, surrounded by the pieces of the foreign car it had destroyed".

So now we know a bit of what Bella likes: old handsome things that are destructive by their very nature. Let's remember that. But I get stuck on the phrase "I could see myself in it". That is straight sales language, literally part of a car salesman's patter, a piece of psyops designed to weaken customers' defenses by prompting them to imagine themselves inside the car - 'picture yourself behind the wheel of this baby'. Why is a teenage girl talking like this, as she does when she describes Phoenix as a "sprawling, vigorous city"?

And the truck is not "a faded red color". It is a faded red. A TRUCK IS NOT A COLOR. LEARN TO WRITE.

She's still looking at the truck. Let's skip forward to the part where Bella's looking at herself. Because when she looks at herself in the mirror, it gives her an opportunity to talk about her looks and reflect on her character. Why Meyer is adopting such a literal strategy, I don't know. But if I had to guess, it's because the soil in which the language of Twilight grows is a mulch of soap operas and teen drama. The language of Twilight is images, not words, which explains why so many of Bella's expressions and sentences seem like they've been stored in freezer bags for too long. I think this book was microwaved, not written.

Anyway, as Bella is "facing her pallid reflection in the mirror," which is strange because in the previous paragraph she says her face has turned sallow, she lets us in on the heart of her character. I think this is intended to generate some sympathy for her:

"I didn't relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn't relate well to people, period. Even my mother, who I was closer to than anyone on the planet, was never in harmony with me, never on exactly the same page. Sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that other people were seeing through theirs. Maybe there was a glitch in my brain".

Now there's a possibility. Maybe Bella's upcoming star-crossed love is just the product of a glitch in her brain, and some handsome dude is freaked out because the new girl at school insists he's a glitter-covered vampire and that they're in love forever.

By the way, here's what Bella has to say about her dad's house. The one she has chosen to live in.

"There was only small bathroom at the top of the stairs, which I would have to share with Charlie. I was trying not to dwell on that fact too much".

You suck.

And here's a snip from her first day at Forks High School.

"When the bell rang, a nasal buzzing sound, [Bells are not sounds. Bells make sounds] a gangly boy with skin problems and hair black as an oil slick leaned across the aisle to talk to me.

'You're Isabella Swan, aren't you?' He looked like the overly helpful, chess club type.

'Bella,' I corrected.

Oh, you corrected the guy who was friendly enough to talk to you. You suck.

She talks a bit about her new teachers:

"My Trigonometry teacher, Mr. Varner, who I would have hated anyway just because of the subject he taught..."

God, you suck so much.

"After two classes, I started recognizing several of the faces in each class. There was always someone braver than the others who would introduce themselves and ask me questions about how I was liking Forks. I tried to be diplomatic, but mostly I just lied a lot. At least I never needed the map".

In just three sentences, Bella congratulates herself, subtly compares her classmates to animals, lies to them and finishes off with a snide insult about their town. It's clear why she doesn't relate to other people; she holds them in contempt and has difficulty investing them with the same degree of humanity that she sees in herself. She has more regard for her truck than she does for anyone else in this novel. Why are we caring about her? Why has Stephenie Meyer chosen to make the reader look through the eyes of a glum psychopath? I'm hoping that there will be an answer to this question at some point.

Finally, while she's sitting at lunch with a group of genuinely nice people whom she despises for their friendliness, she spots Teen Vamp Squad. And she likes them, because they are beautiful.

Beauty is hard to describe. You can say that people are beautiful, that their mouths are perfect or their chin is well-defined or their eyes are "liquid topaz," but the truth is that language is always in danger of exhausting itself or falling short of the mark when it attempts to stick a pin through beauty. It's easy to describe what makes someone ugly, because ugliness thrives on detail.

Dante solved the problem by blinding his narrator with God's light at the moment he reaches the summit of Heaven. The nature of beauty in literature is to erase itself even as it is displayed (Satan, by contrast, is described in incredible detail: three heads chewing on humanity's worst betrayers, body locked in ice, and so on.)

The point is, if Dante had trouble encasing beauty in physical form, it's not going to be easy for Stephenie Meyer. After a page of cataloguing the Cullen Clan's body parts and hairstyles, Bella concludes:

"I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel".

That's it. They are images, torn out of some transcendent book and stapled to our lousy, boring reality. Like celebrities, they move on top of our world, somehow exempt from it, and as a consequence make everything else seem flat and unreal. Meyer manages to sell us on the Cullen's beauty by the way it penetrates Bella's contempt and unbalances her.

Of course, Bella also likes her men hostile and potentially threatening - hence the next scene: Biology class, when she sits next to Edward Cullen and is treated to a display that would have anyone else filing a restraining order on the guy:

"I peeked up at him one more time, and regretted it. He was glaring down at me again, his black eyes full of revulsion. As I flinched away from him, shrinking against my chair, the phrase if looks could kill suddenly ran through my mind".

Here's an idle question: if Bella's internal voice speaks almost entirely in clichés, why is she suddenly thinking about what she's thinking? Why comment on the phrase 'if looks could kill' instead of just thinking it? I don't have an answer for that, but it's odd. Or how about this, from a couple of pages on:

"But Edward Cullen's back stiffened, and he turned slowly to glare at me - his face was absurdly handsome - with piercing, hate-filled eyes. For an instant, I felt a thrill of genuine fear, raising the hair on my arms".

Genuine fear. Just as she distanced herself from the clichéd thought in biology class, she now emphasizes the authenticity of the experience and matches it with a specific physical detail. It seems that terror and the body are the way to the truth for Bella, the only fork to take in Forks (see what I did there? Yeah, you saw that)

She drives home, trying not to cry. You know what? I think I like Edward just for that.

Next up, if I can stomach more of this: Chapter Two.


cheesefairy said...

Hilarious, biting, genius.

Thank you for reading this so I never ever EVER have to. You read, that we all might read other things.

When's your birthday? I shall call it Palinodemas and eat shortbread that day to honour your sacrifice.

i am the diva said...

you are my favourite. period.

EarnestGirl said...

Here is my terrible secret: I liked these books despite myself. I was supposed to be culling (cue teen voice: *omg!* cull?? get it?? the Cullens???) them, making sure they were "appropriate" for a grade 7 reading level, so I did my homework & read the first & the second, and then, god help me, the whole series.

The best part was the conversations I got to have in the library with the girls who were devouring these books. Books! Over which they were squealing & crushing and fighting.

Meyers is able to do something admirable: create and people an alternate world. Myth-make. But she has also borrowed (& garbled) a whole lot of plotlines and recycled other, older Joseph Campbellian unconscious star-crossed lovers and stories to do so. It was fun to draw the parallels for the girls, and yes, boys who were discovering the series. Fun to make them think differently about a story. Or a werewolf.

By the end Meyer's morals were showing glaringly through her narrative. Bella is alternately dim and downright idiotic. All that you say about her is true & I am sorry to say, gets worse & more petulant by the book. I only kept the first two on the shelves.

This post however, goes to the front of the class. Can't wait for more.

palinode said...

cheesefairy - You can stick a pin in July 23rd and call it 'Nodemas.

diva - I'm making my Blue Steel face in your honour.

EarnestGirl - This is the thing about books Twilight and Harry Potsherd; even though they read terribly, they're still compelling, and more importantly, they pull kids into reading. Is that a good thing? I wonder if we're so happy that children are enjoying books that we're pretty much shrugging our shoulders over the quality. What I particularly liked is that the ideas in Twilight lend themselves to discussion.

But man, I just cannot get over how relentlessly nasty Bella is. Unless she's drooling over the Cullens, it's nothing but condescension for the rest of the characters. Why?

sweetsalty kate said...

I'm going to have this, and the first one, open for the next week. I've read the first bit and I still think you're shitting us all. This can't be for real.

I'm going to need snacks.

ozma said...

Here, here. Your sacrifice should be honored somehow. I would never read this book and now I'm going to read every chapter of the book this way...if I'm lucky and you torment yourself by writing on every chapter.

Fun for me, but maybe not for you.

It was such a perfect encapsulation-that Twilight should be called--What Bella Is Thinking About Everything She Sees. Hah! And boiled down into a pamphlet.

And damn I wish I could hire you as my copyeditor.

But then I was thinking--since this writer seems only semi-literate, instead of being outraged that she has written such a horrendous novel, maybe we can be impressed that she wrote one at all?

Judging from what you wrote, this sounds like it was written by a teenager, and not only about a teenager.

Right on, on beauty. I've known there's a built-in futility to attempts to describe beauty but somehow never fully formed the thought.

Now I'm going to spend all this time trying to find some instance where beauty is well-described (obviously in some other way that 'beautiful.')

What the hell is this vampire doing in high school? Why is a vampire going to high school? Perhaps that is explained at some point. Does he get good grades? Is he planning on going to college? Does he show up in his yearbook picture.

Is it statutory rape if a 100 year old vampire has sex with a 16 year old?

Strongly disliked the one Harry Potter book I read for being boring. Not because it is children's lit--I loved The Golden Compass. But then I'm a grouch about most recent fiction.

jezzi said...

I love your detail, and do feel sorry for you, if this first chapter is painful, you are in for some chronic pain.

I would like to point out, that teenagers are naturally self centered. They are at a developmental age where they see things from one perspective theirs. (yes we all know nice teens) Bella by all accounts is acting like most teens would when facing a move to a small town, with their non-custodial parent. It is after all her inner dialougue, not what she is saying outwordly. I know I would not like to share my inner dialougue most of the time.

Can't wait for your next installment, thanks for making morning coffee a little more bearable.

palinode said...

ozma - You should read Elaine Scarry's "On Beauty and Being Wrong". It's a long essay on the topic of literary beauty and its relation to the palinode (not me - the literary form).

palinode said...

jezzi - What you say is true. Teenagers are self-centred and tend to see things through the narrow lens of their own perspective. And I too would not share my inner voice with others, because I would have very very few friends.

I think it's a question of balance when it comes time to sit down and write a character with whom we're supposed to sympathise, especially in a work of genre fiction. A few moments of sarcasm and contempt would have sold me on the flaws in her character, but it's so relentless that I can only think Stephenie Meyer is subjecting us to Bella instead of portraying her to us.

I suspect this is a form of literary mortification. Meyer is whipping herself with her memories of adolescence.

Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah said...

Wow. I read all four books and didn't think about it this much.

You either have some sort of illness or you are a genius.

I'll let you know what I decide when you get to "New Moon".

If you aren't already crazy "Breaking Dawn" will surely push you over the edge.

Mildly Unstable said...

Can't wait 'til you come across the hundreds of times Bella's clumsiness is mentioned. Also, start a count of the number of times Meyers uses the word chagrined.

Amy said...

You. Are. Awesome.

I can't wait to read your thoughts on the movies! I think you should probably be very very drunk when you watch them, otherwise your head might explode.

I'll bet your brain is sparkly!

Lori said...

Genius commentary on the book so far. I fear for your sanity as you continue with them but will gladly continue to read these.

Spoiler alert: it gets worse.

birdykins said...

"Her eyes are wide? How exactly? Are they wide apart? Wide open? Does her mother go around holding her eyes really wide? What for? That's kind of weird."

Hilarious. Perfect. You are amazing.

Laski said...

You so get it: "it's because the soil in which the language of Twilight grows is a mulch of soap operas and teen drama."

Being a high school English teacher, the writing reminds me of a student desperately trying to appear smarter, more literary, by hitting the THESAURUS button one too many times. Thus, the writing is awkward, disjointed, forced, contrived more times than it isn't

Meyer will continue to beat your head in with just how beautiful the Cullens are by . . . well, telling you in every other paragraph--she keeps it up in every book. It is exhausting. She also lacks concision and it appears that brevity it foreign to her.

I say all this yet here I am trudging through the final book.

I guess I take comfort in knowing that students who deigned to pick up one book in my class were often eager to read this series. I cringed at first, but their passion for the story, their ultimate passion for reading gave me a strange hope that a vampire might inspire literacy.

BTW, have you see this? http://theoatmeal.com/story/twilight

A reluctant lemming

Dreadmouse said...

Bah. You're shooting fish in a barrel. You've done your time in teenage angstland and now you're an adult with a developed literary palate; Twilight wasn't written for you. I don't see the merit in trashing something just for the sake of trashing it, no matter how well you take a verbal brickbat to it all. If "the kids" are reading something and enjoying it, then they will continue to read more, and grow, just like we "old folks" did. Sure it's shlock, but did you really expect greatness from pop culture?

palinode said...

Dreadmouse - I guess you're the ... backlash? I was worried I'd get a hardcore Twilight fan with a caps lock problem, but you make some good points, which is infinitely better.

But the truth is that I'm not seeking to trash the book, even though I'm kicking pretty hard at its weaknesses. The point is to work out my response to the book and see where it takes me. If I end up enjoying it, then so be it. I will say this - it gets better as you go along.

Even though Twilight may not have been written with me in mind, plenty of adults love it - many of them people with taste as seasoned as mine. I'd like to know why. So I'm reading it with as much care and attention as possible.

And while I may not expect greatness from Twilight, I do expect a certain level of skill at the basics of putting a work of fiction together. I don't care if it's written for five year olds or English profs.

Lots of people declare that Twilight is a bad book. But if it's a bad book, then how is it bad? Why? What makes it bad? Where do you look? What happens when you identify its flaws? What happens to the way you read? These questions matter, because we have been given a book by an author with a degree in English literature who cannot identify the subject in a sentence with one clause.

jezzi said...

I did some re-reading of my own last night thinking maybe there is something to all the "error" in Ms. Meyer's writing. I have to be honest, I get what your saying, but I also know that if you took away those errors, I would not like it. I think what you see as awful writing is what "beats" you into loving them. I hope you do more then pick the books apart based on the writing, but also look at at the books as a whole and explore the why. Why do people including many educated adults enjoy it. It is in that exploration more than the structural exploration that will turn up some interesting things about people as a whole.

Meanwhile I am continuing my quest as to why this series brings up an equal amount of hate from people.

JustLinda said...

I soldiered through those books. I kept thinking there MUST be something redeeming. The plot would carry it, maybe. Something.

But no. It doesn't get any better. I'm such a glutton I even read the 2nd book. SAVE YOURSELF!! GO NO FURTHER.

I agree with all your criticism. Well, except the smart parts about Dante and stuff. And it's not that I DISAGREE with those; I'm just not smart enough to agree with any authority because, dude, I was reading TWILIGHT. I should have read Danta, huh?

JustLinda said...

Or even Dante. (See? I told you I wasn't too bright.)

sweetney said...

You know I love you, right?

Superjules said...

Oh my god. THANK YOU for finally putting into words my reasoning for disliking Bella from the beginning. I kept wondering why she was such a bitch when she talked about her classmates-- who are all SUPER NICE TO HER when she's the new kid. When does that ever happen??? And then there was some sentence where she "was marinating a fish" and I'm like NO YOU WEREN'T, YOU'RE SEVENTEEN.

erin said...

I can not believe I didn't notice the 'Forks' meaning when I read the books. Yes, I read them of my own volition...but I complained a lot through the week it took me to finish the series.

I complained ALOT to EVERYONE...

Awesome post though. Excellent and shit.

LisaUnfiltered said...

Who says a 100+ year old vampire has sex with a 16 year old girl? 1st of all, she's 17. 2nd... they don't have sex until she's 18.... Not to mention some other morality issues that are addressed in these books.

IMHO.... Yes, they are terribly written, but I was compelled by the story. (I also have to say that Bella was NOT my favorite character in this book. She is bitchy, petty, and very self-absorbed until the very last book, when she has someone more important to worry about.) However, I will say that I agree with the Palinode here and say that it does raise interesting discussions. (And Potsherd had better-written novels that had less flowery vocabulary, which made him slightly less pretentious.)

My favorite characters are the least liked characters, and they are the werewolves, Jacob, in particular.... However, what everyone sees in the bitchy Bella is beyond me.

LisaUnfiltered said...

And for those who don't know... Forks is a real town in Washington. The Indian tribe (can't remember now) is a real tribe with a real legend on shapeshifters/werewolves. And La Push is where their reservation is.

Cuz' I like to research shit. (Actually, I looked it up to learn how to pronounce the word.)