Monday, January 04, 2010

the twilight saga saga

So. That Twilight book and its sequels. Everyone has read them now. Elderly people have read the Twilight Saga. Russian men drowning their insensate livers with vodka have read the Twilight Saga. Even babies, who can't read, have read The Twilight Saga.

Up until noon today, I had not read a single word of Stephenie Meyer's wacky vampire opus. Then I opened a mass-market copy of Twilight and looked at a word (I think it was "the"?) and now I am sitting here with a copy of the book, reading all the other words, in order. Daring sorts like to read novels in completely random fashion, jumping from page 22 to 505 to the dust jacket to a road sign. But me, I'm kind of shy when it comes to reading. I take it one word at a time. That's how I'm taking Twilight.

Say, come join me on my epic saga (?) of reading the Twilight Saga.

To guide us on our shared journey of discovery about a miserable pale girl and the freakish monster who expresses his love by hiding in her bedroom, I've gathered the following materials together:

1) The 1926 two-volume Oxford English Dictionary, which comes with a slipcase and a magnifying glass to read the crazy reduced print. The text is nearly 100 years old, but you know what? They talked English better then.

2) The mass-market movie tie-in edition of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, the New York Times bestseller that is now a major motion picture (you can learn a lot from a book cover).

3) The internet, which has Twilight fans, whom I fear.

4) Iron-clad will, because I suspect this is going to get rough before it's over.

The Preface

'Preface' is the first word of the entire Twilight Saga. Before you get to any of the other words, before you can bathe yourself in the grandeur of Edward and Bella's love, you need to get past the word Preface.

What is a preface, exactly? The OED (see, we're using it already) defines a preface as 'the introduction to a literary work, usually containing some explanation of its subject, purpose and scope'. The preface is not part of the literary work, but stands outside it and provides commentary on it. So how does Stephenie Meyer start her commentary on Twilight?

"I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this".

Hold on a moment. Prefaces usually don't start at the moment of the author's death. I'm beginning to think that the words don't belong to Meyer, but to someone else. If I had to guess, I'd say that these are the words of the narrator. What Stephenie Meyer meant to say, instead of 'preface', was 'prologue'.

It is not a good sign when the first word of your novel is wrong.

There is another possibility, but it's even worse than just getting it wrong. A preface is a part of the Christian liturgy, an exhortation of thanks and praise to God just before the Eucharist gets served up. Is that what Meyer is up to? Writing a Christian book disguised as a teen horror novel? And if so, why disguise it? Why hide the structure of the work and leave some exposed pipes and joints for only a chosen few to see? If you're going to be religious, be religious. Own your supernatural belief system. Don't be clever about it or I'll throw your book across the room.

Anwyay, let's take a look at that first sentence again. The narrator is at the cusp of death. She (I admit to cheating here - at this point the narrator could be anyone at all) is caught on a point between life and death. It's an in-between state. It's like standing on a shoreline, or the moment when day blends into night - you know, twilight. Which is the title of the novel. High five on recapitulating your themes, Meyer! Academic types would call this a liminal state, where categories and identities bleed into each other.

But really, if I were about to die, I probably wouldn't think in such careful and cute phrases. I would not reflect in the most tortured way possible that the circumstances of my death were unexpected. I'd be scared. Or ready to fight. Or something. But Meyer is setting up a situation where death is going to be met with - fortitude? Calm? Or maybe numbed passivity.

"I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me".

Okay. First off, I did not know that staring and breathing were so closely related, but whatever. The directness of the phrase negates the strange passivity of the first sentence. Her breathlessness, and the muscular tension that accompanies it, is not exactly fear. So what is it? What else makes you breathless?

Then there's that hunter who looks pleasantly at the narrator. It's hard not to hear the phrase "looked pleasantly" echoing as "pleasant-looking". It's also hard not to conclude that the hunter is in some way intimately connected with the narrator's impending death. Put it together, and there seems to be a deliberate conflation of sexual desire and death.

I know this entry is getting long, but can we have fewer books and songs and movies that like to jam sex and death together into one necro-schtuppy ball? Get a little older and you see that death is about collapse and decrepitude, and sex is a way to keep the lights on in the house even as the power fails throughout the city. But I'm old and grumpy, and this is what I get for reading a book for the young folks.

"Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved".

Okay, enough with the fucking adverbs already. Three adverbs in three clunky, clause-heavy sentences? In a work of fiction, adverbs are what you use when you don't know the right verb. For example: instead of 'eating quickly', you can gobble your food. Instead of 'moving down really quickly,' you can fall. And 'surely' is probably the worst adverb out there. The only one worse than surely is sheepishly. I hate it when people smile, look, or do anything sheepishly.

"Noble, even. That ought to count for something".

I don't know how noble it is, considering her breathless staring into the dark eyes of some pleasantly looking hunter who's about to kill her. How about we substitute 'hott' for 'noble' and call it a day?

"I knew that if I'd never gone to Forks, I wouldn't be facing death now".

But a few pages later, the narrator says that she spent her earliest years in Forks when her parents lived there. So if her death is conditional on any appearance she makes in Forks, then her death is predetermined and entirely out of control. Which, as we've already clarified, makes her kind of horny.

It's more likely that she means to say "I knew that if I hadn't gone back to Forks this last time, and not all the other times that I went there, I wouldn't be facing death now", but that's not as catchy. But she could always say "I wouldn't be facing death now if I hadn't moved to Forks". That would have been a clearer, more direct sentence with greater expository density. Meyer didn't write it this way because clumsy phrasing is part of the way the narrator thinks. Her narrator can't think or speak properly. The flame of my ardor is cooling.

"But, terrified as I was, I couldn't bring myself to regret the decision".

At this point I have to point my finger at Stephenie Meyer and say "Write better now please". First: if you were in Forks as an infant, this moment has nothing to do with your decision, because the conditions of your premise preclude your ability to make a decision. Second: who, on the brink of death, brings him- or herself to thing or feel anything? This kind of circumlocution is coy. I want to empathise with this speaker about to die, but instead I feel as if she's trying to be clever with me. And since the narrator is futzing the logic of her statements, I don't think she's being clever at all.

"When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it's not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end".

At this point it's as if Meyer is standing next to a giant boiler, and the boiler has a plaque with the words "ANY DRAMATIC TENSION AT ALL" engraved on it, and Meyer is just opening the valves and letting all that tension bleed away. It suggests to me that Meyer is either inept, or her narrator is not a character with the kinds of motivations that human beings can relate to. Combined with the words 'noble' and 'sacrifice' and 'count for something', it seems that the narrator is not so much a character as religious archetype: the martyr, who balances cosmic accounts with her willing death.

So which is it? Bad writing or a religious tract?

Can't it be both?

Finally, the last sentence of the prologue preface.

"The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me".

Saunter. That's a good word. A very specific but conversational verb that expresses the ease and confidence of the hunter character. He's sauntering because he knows he's in complete control, and he wants the narrator to see that he knows it. I'd saunter too if I were that hunter.

I like that word so much it's almost enough to make me forget the phrase "smiled in a friendly way". Holy crap, Meyer. What is wrong with you? You know what's more effective than saying 'smiled in a friendly way'? SMILED. Smiles are already friendly - but they're also implicitly hostile. You're greeting somebody by showing them what is essentially part of your skeleton. Let language do some of your work for you. You don't need that adverbial phrase to tart up your prose.

Meyer: trust your verbs. Write about people, not horny martyrs.

That's the preface.

Next up: Chapter 1. In less detail than this.


Kelly (conversemomma) said...

You know? Sources tell me that God came down on a thunderbolt and whispered this entire book into Meyer's ear as she slept. So....really you are spitting on God with these comments here, my friend. You might want to cower under your bed because I've also heard that God is vengeful. You might be next on the, bound to get smote list.

Susan said...


Please remind me to never ever ever let you read anything I write, especially if it has to do with the afterlife.

Oh. Crap.

Colleen said...

Hi. This is my first visit but won't be my last. Great read. The nearest I will come to reading Twilight will be with you in your blog. Carry on!

Fraulein said...

This was basically amazing. I can't wait to read more!

ozma said...

Not all smiles are friendly.

I am puzzled by your exhortation to all people whose writing is influenced by religion to write 'religious books.' So Graham Greene or C.S. Lewis or whoever should only have written religious books? What exactly are you requiring authors to do here? And why?

I'm softer on bad writing--maybe it is being a teacher and fearing that I'd start killing people if I got too worked up by it since my exposure to it is constant. (I fail them, the bad writers. So I guess I'm not all that soft. But I also try to teach them to write. If Stephanie Myers had taken your advice in the past, she'd probably be much less rich than she is.)

I am fairly sure that if I were on a desert island and Twilight was the only book I had, as much as I love to read, I would not read Twilight. It would be better to fast than eat a Twinkie as your last meal. But I do wonder why garbage novels depress me--is it the paper that is wasted? Maybe they bother me in the way that extremely ugly sweaters bother me--pure aesthetics--it's preferable to have fewer ugly things in the world.

palinode said...

ozma - True, not all smiles are friendly. That's why there are different words for different kinds of smiles. There's grinning, there's baring of teeth, etcetera. The point is that writing "smiled in a friendly way" is inexcusably bad.

On writing religious books versus books with religious themes. I should clarify. If you look again at what I wrote, I did not ask religious writers to write explicitly religious books: I said "own you supernatural belief system". Setting aside the bit of glibness in that phrase, what I meant is to be upfront about it. There is a really obnoxious strain of contemporary writing and music that I call crypto-Christian. Bands like Sixpence None The Richer, or the speeches of George Bush, are examples of this. You think you're hearing a secular message, and then an out-of-place line reveals that there's another signal being broadcast on a hidden frequency. The result is a degradation of both messages.

There is a difference between writing novels that have religious concerns or are informed by a religious framework, such as Graham Green's work, and Twilight's wink-nudge style of hiding religion under a brightly decorated genre story (if that's what it's doing - I don't really know yet). It's patronizing and dishonest. Books like that are written with more than one audience in mind - the great unwashed and the elect.

i am the diva said...

i wish i had "The Palinode's Companion Guide to Reading the Twilight Saga" when i read it...
did i just admit to reading the Twilight Saga? yes. yes i did. in my humble opinion... Harlequinn Romance Novels for eleven year old girls. Anyone looking for more than that will be disappointed.

Colleen said...

Palinode, I do believe this post may have made me fall in love with you - in an entirely cerebral, distant, and totally non-stalkerish sort of way, of course.

Lori said...

You may be in for some fun (and by fun I mean not fun) if you wanted Meyer to write better in the prologue/preface. It doesn't get better. It gets much worse.

I want to be able to un-read these books. But I am glad for your commentary! It makes them almost literature. Or something.

notquiteawake said...

Are you going to write more posts on the books? Because I think I would enjoy your posts on the books more than I would enjoy the actual books and then I could just pretend that I've read them.

Annie said...

I had already decided I was not going to read it (or see the damn sparkly movies). You've sealed it for me.

I'd much rather read this. Cheers!

amy von hawkins said...

After you finish reading the portion of the series that you can handle, you may want to reward yourself - or perhaps provide further commentary on? - The Harvard Lampoon's parody novella of Twilight, Nightlight.

birdykins said...

Finally! Someone writes what I've been thinking for so long. Kudos for you for getting past the first page without throwing it across the room. I love this.

Emma said...

This just made my life.

You sir, are a hero.

Katie said...

I very much decided not to read Twilight after just reading the back of one of the other books. It was horrible and hideous. You reading it, however, makes for fantastic reading for me. Can't wait for you to read more.

daysgoby said...

I am enjoying this so, sir, write well, and READ well, which is often most of the battle.

(I didn't read Twilight. I tried to read one of her OTHER books (yes, there are MORE! Whee!) and couldn't do it.

Kudos to you.

Tyler said...

Sadly, I'm a bit worried for your mental health. Surely you will go mad before completing your task. Sheepishly, I will admit to continuing to read your Twilight posts until that happens.