Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Twilight Saga Saga: Chapter 3

You know, today in the mall a little girl came up to me, her eyes squeezing out tears, and said "Mister? Why are you ruining Twilight and saying bad things about Miss Bella and her immortal man? Why can't you let kids enjoy their kids' stuff? Why do you hate our freedoms to read this crap?"

Because, I told the little girl, today on the bus I saw a grown woman, a woman in her mid-fifties, a woman with a family of her very own, reading a hardcover copy of Breaking Dawn with a gold-tasseled bookmark at the ready, flipping pages and scanning the text as if it were a real book. And that's why I'm doing this.

***

One of the hardest-won lessons of maturity is the realization that the world exists outside your perceptions and despite your desires. The universe does not fold up when you close your eyes and smooth itself out hurriedly as soon as you open them up. When people leave the room, they don't magically disincorporate until, for your pleasure or annoyance, they snap themselves back into place to pass in front of your eyes.

People come to this realization in their own way and in their own time. For me it happened in a Pizza Hut around the age of nineteen or so, when I was told that my uncle's rare cancer might be a genetic condition. For the character of Bella Swan, it hasn't happened at all, and you can tell from the opening paragraph:

When I opened my eyes in the morning, something was different.

Once again, a chapter opens with the opening of Bella's eyes (as I've said, we're not readers - we're prisoners in her head). I have to hand it to Stephenie Meyer here; in just a few words she manages to convey the depths of Bella's paranoia: something was different. Bella apprehends, despite her solipsism, the presence of that external reality, vast, mechanical and malevolent, meshing its gears into patterns aligned against her. It is the feeling of anxiety that is produced, like

The difference turns out to be a change in the quality of the morning light produced by the dissipation of fog and a light snowfall. This doesn't seem so bad to me, but it seems bad for Bella:

I jumped up to look outside, and groaned with horror.

Really. Hey, let's play a game. I call it Being Bella. Try groaning with horror. Go to the window, pretend you're looking at some snow, and then groan with horror. Could you film yourself doing that? I kind of want to see a good horror-groan, because I don't think anyone has actually ever done that in real life.

Anyway, the snow and ice, "coating the needles on the trees in fantastic, gorgeous patterns, and making the driveway a deadly ice slick," have a purpose, which is to arrange a life-threatening accident for Bella in the proximity of Edward, who saves her as only a vampire can do. The accident is the first thing approaching an action sequence, so it's worth quoting at some length to see how Meyer deals with the problem of writing good action, which is incidentally a problem of time, which is the problem and preoccupation of the novel.

I was standing by the back corner of the truck, struggling to fight back the sudden wave of emotion the snow chains had brought on [Bella is easily moved, apparently], when I heard an odd sound.

It was a high-pitched screech, and it was fast becoming painfully loud. I looked up, startled.

I saw several things simultaneously. Nothing was moving in slow motion, the way it does in the movies. Instead, the adrenaline rush seemed to make my brain work much faster, and I was able to absorb in clear detail several things at once.

Let's stop for a moment, because this passage makes no sense at all. One of the most fundamental and mechanically convenient tools for expressing states of consciousness in film is the manipulation of time by the speed of the film. Film moves slow, time speeds up. Film moves fast, time slows down. The entire point of slow motion in film is to highlight and isolate detail in order to let the viewer, I dunno, absorb in clear detail several things at once. It's almost like your brain is working much faster.

Although Bella's description isn't very clear, she may be talking about the other weapon in film's homely arsenal: editing. In this case, a rapid succession of individual shots that establishes a rhythm and performs the dual effect of compressing time while dilating consciousness. But I can't say for sure, because as usual, the text refuses to follow through on its promises. Here's the next paragraph:

Edward Cullen was standing four cars down from me, staring at me in horror. His face stood out from a sea of faces, all frozen in the same mask of shock. But of more immediate importance was the dark blue van that was skidding, tires locked and squealing against the brakes, spinning wildly across the ice of the parking lot. It was going to hit the back corner of my truck, and I was standing between them. I didn't even have time to close my eyes.

Hold on. Didn't Bella say in the previous paragraph that she was able to absorb "in clear detail"? Then why are clear details not forthcoming? With the exception of Edward's face and the colour of the van, this entire passage is coy and attenuated, weakened by Bella's inability to deliver a simple and direct narrative.

It is safe to assume that Bella will survive the blue van skidding towards her, since she's narrating from some future point. The van nonetheless presents an immediate danger; even if Bella survives to tell the tale, maybe she's about to suffer an accident that will leave her paralyzed and wrapped in bandages. Maybe her grand romance with Edward will be played out with her breathing through a straw for twenty years. Who knows?

As a reader, I have no cues to go by except for Bella's words. And Bella's words tell me that this van is going to be no big deal. Edward stands out from the crowd because he's there to save her. The phrase "But of more immediate importance" is like a big dull needle haphazardly puncturing the scene and letting the tension out in one long squeaky rubbery fart. I don't need to read the rest of the page to know that Edward is going to zoom over with inhuman speed and save Bella from dark blue death.

Part of the pleasure of seeing heroes in danger is the knowledge that they'll survive, even though they may lose something valuable in the process (a trusted friend, a piece of treasure, childlike innocence, Kate Capshaw etc.). But the pleasure depends on the writer allowing you to forget the hero's basic invulnerability, often by deflecting that danger onto something the hero loves (Kate Capshaw etc.). There is no sense here that Bella is about to lose anything, because she describes danger in the same lazy, rambling way that she describes everything else: like it's beneath her.

So I read farther down the page, even though I didn't need to, and guess what? Edward saves her. I guess he just couldn't help himself, what with Bella being such an awesome human being and all. Wait, maybe I spoke too soon, because she resents the crowd of concerned townspeople, her concerned schoolmates, and the EMTs who take her to the hospital. She even finds time to throw some scorn on the guy who nearly ran her down, who suffered much more severe injuries than she and apologizes to her out of a healthy sense of guilt. I'm not even going to quote any of it, because - and this just floors me - I feel bad for Bella.

Horrified pity is probably the best response to Bella Swan by this point. She's such a spoiled brat that finally, maybe after the third time she sneers at the guy in the bloody bandages, I suddenly felt protective of her. It's like dealing with drunk friends who make incredibly bad decisions - you put aside your impatience and call them a cab, because otherwise their night is going to end up in a dumpster on the other side of town. And so it is with Bella: surely someone so snotty is eventually bound for a bare knuckle blindfold fight with Bob the Comeuppance Boxer.

Don't make me draw a stick figure of Bob the Comeuppance Boxer. Because a stick arm won't show his bulging Bella-pummeling biceps.

Anyway, she meets Edward's father Dr. Cullen, who, like the rest of the Cullens, is ridiculously hot and probably wears a fancy white hospital coat that subtly hints at designer origins. And when she goes home she finds herself "consumed by the mystery Edward presented". I will read the rest of the book as if she and Edward are playing the world's creepiest, LARPiest edition of Clue ever dreamed up by the money-soaked bastards at Hasbro.

10 comments:

sweetsalty kate said...

I think *you're* going to groan in horror before too long. I think you already have. I think you're a closeted horror-groaner.

Please register my presence as Clamourer #1 for the next installment.

toquegirl said...

I'll take the #2 spot!

Kudos for making it this far, by the way. I hope you're at least reading something excellent to balance it out.

Jett Superior said...

Look, it's very late and my husband is sleeping soundly beside me (while insomnia shakes me by the scruff of the neck, natch), so I don't need things like your (VERY AWESOME) last sentence up there making me be a Disturber of the Nocturnal Peace.

What I'm trying to say is that while I can shove a pillow down my throat to combat the braying, I cannot help all the bed-shaking that such a sentence elicits.

i am the diva said...

ah, bella swan. you never cease to amaze

Keely said...

Can you please critique my upcoming teen vampire romance? I think it's going to be a blockbuster and I need to be sure it has the right crappy elements.

Adam P. Knave said...

I love each of these more than the last, man. This is seriously a wonderful bit of work you're doing.

Adam P. Knave said...

Also I think you should have a contest for readers to record "groans in horror" for you and you can judge who comes closest.

kelly (formerly luva) said...

do you have a "bella sucks" and "learn to write" count for this chapter? i admit, i read all the books, frequently groaning in horror, and justifying it by saying, "i read good stuff, too!"

one of the biggest mysteries the series presented was why anyone even LIKED the completely humorless bella; never mind why people would turn their lives upside down for her.

Jezzella said...

Brilliant. Of course I still think you hold unrealistic expectations of Miss Bella's teenage behavior. I also find myself giggling randomly throughout the day wondering how you will deal with the hot mess that is the final book. May I suggest Guinness??

LadyAeneas said...

Depsite many MANY exhoratations (and from colleagues l respect, although now a little less) l refuse to pick up these books, or see the films, or swoon over the mention of Mr Pattinson. Much to the disgust of my female students. However, l am very much enjoying your analysis and interpretation. i feel vindicated.