breaking dawn

In which Meyer goes “oh shit, it’s time to end this sucker” and spins out close to 750 pages in one volume. At first it’s kind of exciting, because instead of taking 300 pages to work out the obvious Bella does it in maybe 100 and we shift focus entirely to the supernatural shit so that Things Happen. It’s actually almost okay that things go all Rosemary’s Baby for a while, and that Bella looks in real danger of going the way of John Hurt in Alien, until you stop and think about the fact that here we have a situation where the mother knows with almost 100% certainty that she will die in childbirth and she is ignoring everyone begging her to abort. In other words, from one angle Breaking Dawn is one long pro-life fable.

The best part of the book for me was that we get a long section from Jacob’s point of view and in his voice, which is a breath of fresh air and pretty funny to boot (check those chapter titles), and it made me wish once again that he were the hero of the series. It’s interesting that Meyer’s writing is liveliest when she’s writing in a young man’s voice — probably because she has so many brothers she clearly adores. Unfortunately, basically what he does is angst over Bella (who is so not worth it) and then eventually have his romantic thread neatly tied up in a somewhat pervy and unsatisfying way. Its bizarreness is offset by the fact that I think no love triangle has ever been resolved in this fashion, at least not in any book you can buy at Target.

I started writing this right after I finished the book and left it incomplete until now, so I don’t have a lot of ambition left to analyze the flaws of this novel or the series in general. At this moment we’re all watching teenage and “tween” girls everywhere hit puberty from the one-two punch of the fictional Edward and the actor playing him in the movie that’s about to open, and marveling at the mania that’s developed around these wish-fulfillment novels. Because that’s what they are. The pain Bella goes through is described in great detail, but it’s hard to imagine for most lucky readers, and her pleasures quickly take precedence in our fantasies: an inexhaustible demon lover, a brand-new baby who will never need its diaper changed (liquid diet, but also it’s way precocious), a super-mutant-power that saves the day, even a fairytale cottage in the woods (not my cup of tea — I’m more of a Frank Lloyd Wright kinda guy). Harry Potter has this kind of thing too — poor orphan discovers he’s an awesome wizard and goes to an awesome school where every attempt on his life ultimately fails — and it’s more universal in its appeal, but also less horny, so maybe it balances out.

Ultimately I find it hard to respect this series, but not just because of its insidious appeal and startlingly dodgy gender politics. It’s also a problem of missed opportunities. Here are just a few.

1. Edward and Bella “magically” fall in love. Why? She smells good, and he’s gorgeous and saves her life several times. This is so easy and so boring. I’ve never read a Jane Austen novel but I’m pretty sure they don’t work this way; from what I understand her heroines take the whole novel to fall in love, and they do it the way the rest of us do: slowly, making mistakes, building on real chemistry and the things people have in common, not on love-at-first-sight/destiny tropes. Wouldn’t the romance have been that much cooler if the 100-year-old vampire and his 17-year-old girlfriend slowly discovered that they liked doing the same things, reading the same authors, that kind of stuff? We get hints of this, but only later on. Meanwhile in New Moon Bella and Jacob fall in love in exactly this way, the natural human way. It would have been so much more compelling if Bella and Edward had done the same, and her conflict would have seemed so much more real.

2. Edward is over ONE HUNDRED YEARS OLD. He was around for Vietnam, Korea, WW2, WW1, and the conflicts before that. He unlived through the Depression. He probably met Jimi Hendrix, or could have, not to mention Oscar Wilde. This guy has got to have some incredibly interesting stories to tell, even if he couldn’t get too close to humans during these historical events. Hell, other members of his “family” are even older. Yet NOT ONCE DURING THE WHOLE SERIES can I recall any of them actually making reference to history or giving any real indication that they are this old. I’m not even that into history and even I think this would be one of the coolest things about being undead: you don’t have to age and yet you get to watch eras go by and see things change, forever. Bella doesn’t seem to have that many intellectual interests beyond 19th-century fiction, but you would think that she would have some marginal interest in grilling her boyfriend about the times he’s lived through, if only to help her pass Social Studies. But neither she nor Meyer shows the slightest curiosity about this.

3. The great unexplored story of vampires vs. werewolves — as Meyer portrays them — is class conflict. On one side: the rich whiteys sucking the blood of the land and the people, so rich they can afford to throw away designer clothes after one wearing*, no responsibilities other than keeping the casualties discreet so that no one realizes how deadly they are. On the other side: the poor native tribe, scratching out a living on the reservation, barely able to afford clothes (granted, it’s because they keep wolfing out and ripping them, but still), fixing up old cars for their joyrides and doing their best to defend their land and keep the leeches off it. Maybe you’re thinking “who wants to read all this sociopolitical stuff in a teen vampire romance?” but look, it’s right there in black and white — I didn’t make it up. Even if you narrow it down to the rich preppy boyfriend vs. the grungy biker rival, this is classic romance narrative, and the class element is an integral part of it as the heroine decides whether to be true to her roots (or maybe her libido) or strive for upward mobility. At barest minimum, this is something basic and real that Meyer’s readers could probably relate to, but no one talks about it. I suspect one reason why is that Jacob’s side of the argument would sound too good, and poor Jacob is not allowed to win.

*This, by the way, is why I don’t like Alice as much as I’m supposed to. Not only does her greatest pleasure in life seem to be dressing up Bella like a Barbie doll, she is the chief instigator of this incredibly wasteful consumerist lifestyle the vamps lead. I don’t think you have to be a commie to find that pretty distasteful.

twilight

I was really severely into vampires around the time I was entering college. I’d just discovered Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and at that point she was only three books into them and they were still good. I loved the atmosphere, the melodrama, the imagery, and of course the homoeroticism. But most of all I think I appreciated the idea of an immortal existence free of responsibilities and requirements. Rice’s vampires don’t need to worry about money, they can sleep pretty much anywhere and be relatively safe, they can survive being knifed to ribbons and burned alive, and they have all night every night to explore and learn and create and party. Their main worries are finding a meal that doesn’t trouble their conscience and not getting a permanent tan. This was an attractive enough prospect when I was entering college, and it’s even more attractive now. If Rice were still readable and maybe hadn’t found Jesus, I’d probably still be eating those books up.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight shows us vampires who in some ways have it even better. These cats can go out in the sun anytime they like — as long as nobody’s watching, because their skin sparkles like diamonds in it, which is kind of a giveaway. Like Rice’s Louis, the vampire protagonists have a conscience, and they strenuously avoid killing humans, to the dismay and detriment of the wildlife in the lush Washington forest they live near. Like Rice’s Lestat, they’re rich as Midas and seem to possess additional psychic talents such as telepathy, precognition, and a sort of empathic projection.

But they’re neither antiheroes nor übermensch libertines. They’re socially responsible, staunchly heterosexual, and one of them is in love with Our Heroine.

I love my antiheroes and libertines but that’s no way for a nice Mormon girl to write about vampires. It certainly creates immediate, potent conflict to have vampires struggling with their predatory natures (mostly stoically, unlike whining Louis), and since a vampire is basically a serial killer who does it for food, not pleasure, you have to make them sympathetic somehow. So I’m cool with her take on the subject.

I have to say, though, that it’s the nicer side of a phenomenon that makes me a little queasy these days, which is the savage killer using his or her powers for good. The most prominent example is a show I admit I’ve never watched and might find fairly entertaining: Dexter, the serial killer vigilante on Showtime. He seems partially inspired by what happened to Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’s novels and the films made from them. In Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s helpful but clearly evil, unambiguously ruthless. In Hannibal we’re meant to despise his victims — instead of hapless policemen doing their jobs, they’re out to get him or they’re sexist, nasty FBI agents, so clearly he has no choice, right? And in Hannibal Rising, with one exception, he’s just getting revenge against the evil men who destroyed his childhood and murdered his sister. There’s something about the way we turn killers into heroes — instead of recognizing their villainy even if we take a macabre pleasure in its excess — that seems disturbing to me.

Twilight isn’t really about vampires or murderers so much as high school romance. Here’s how it works. A girl moves to a small town where she discovers to her amazement that she’s relatively hot and desirable. Every guy asks her out but she puts them off, intrigued by the one guy who seems to hate her guts and yet saves her life. Eventually it turns out he only seems to hate her because — I’m really not spoiling this for you — he’s a vampire, and her scent is almost irresistible. It’s not clear whether he loves her because she smells so good or if the two just happen to coincide or what. He is just thoroughly in love with her despite hardly knowing her and yet he’s forbidden to love her because that enticing scent makes him want to kill her.

She loves him, of course, because he is godlike in his beauty (as we are told in so many words several times) and also his nigh-omniscience (he reads minds) and nigh-omnipotence (he runs almost as fast as he drives, can stop a car with one hand, and hunts wild animals without guns). Also he is an older man, around five times her age, though of course he looks seventeen, which is a good deal if you can get it.

This is how a lot of teenage romance works, it’s true: hormones, pheromones, and pretty faces. But I don’t think it would have killed Meyer to give these two a little prosaic chemistry. Our heroine Bella doesn’t seem to have a lot of hobbies or conversation, though she seems to like music, and her undead beau Edward has had decades to master piano composition and performance, so that helps. Still, it’s hard to root for a romance where the two seem to have so little in common, where the magnetic forces are Edward’s preternatural beauty and Bella’s improbably delicious blood.

Fortunately the prose is lively and charming enough to entertain over the course of 500-plus quick-reading pages. The setting is vivid and full of character; I really want to visit the lush Washington forest myself now. Edward’s vampire family is colorful and interesting, and all of them are falling over themselves trying not to lose control and murder Bella, which is weird and fun. There’s even a local native tribe, the Quileute, who know Edward and his family are vampires, which starts to become central to the plot in the second book (I’m 300 pages into that one) and gets very interesting indeed.

I’m actually rooting for Quileute boy Jacob Black to become a viable romantic rival to Edward; he’s much sweeter and has a lot more personality. The thing with Edward is that most of his scenes with Bella involve him either struggling to make out with her and not give in to the temptation to kill her (which you can read as: he’s trying not to take her virginity, or his for that matter — yeah, he’s been a vampire for the better part of a century and has never fallen in love before…uh huh), or else being kind of an asshole because he’s worried about killing her or about some other vampire killing her. “I shouldn’t be with you…it’s not safe,” that kind of thing. “You should go live your life — I’m wrong for you.” Blah blah blah. It’s really kind of a drag. Even after we find out that Jacob has some secrets of his own (which of course we see coming from the minute we meet him), he’s still more appealing in my book. The two of them have fun together. They’re best friends, and there’s clearly an attraction. If it weren’t for Vampire Superman, who knows?

Anyway. I’m looking forward to the movie, not because I think it’ll be amazing (doubt it) but because I think it’ll be entertaining, which is the same reason I like the books. The only drawback is that I can skim the romance in the books, and in the movie theater I’ll have to sit through it.

i am legend (richard matheson)

I finished rereading the original novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and now it’s hard not to be a little bitter at how they eviscerated the book for the movie. I don’t remember too well but I almost think the Charlton Heston film was more faithful (so to speak).

Will Smith’s version is still a pretty good zombie movie, but that’s really where it ends. There are a million ways he departed from the far superior novel. Normally I don’t whine about this kind of thing, because who needs to see a scene-for-scene adaptation, really? But in this case they changed so much that they inverted or destroyed the themes of the source material, and that’s the part that’s tough to forgive.

I won’t go through all of the changes; some of them really don’t make that much difference. They didn’t have to have Neville’s neighbors attacking him, for example, as opposed to random faceless strangers. It doesn’t make that much difference that the film Neville is a scientist and soldier from the get-go; it makes his survival more plausible. But there are a few really crucial differences.

  • The plague turns people into semi-intelligent vampires, not mindless zombies. This is vital for two reasons: first of all, it sets up the pessimistic twist ending, which is roughly ten million times more interesting than the ending of the movie. Second of all, vampires have lore, traditional vulnerabilities, which the novel’s Neville spends most of the story studying and sorting out. This brings us to the second crucial difference.
  • The plague is natural, not an accident of scientific research. It’s axiomatic of zombie flicks like Resident Evil and 28 Days Later and now I Am Legend that humanity created the zombies through ill-advised Tampering In God’s Domain. In the novel, no one knows where the plague came from (one speculation is nuclear testing, but later it’s suggested that it’s been around for centuries or longer), and Neville spends a great deal of time just discovering that it’s biological rather than supernatural. It’s Man vs. Nature, not Man vs. Foolish Man, which changes the tone of the book. And of course one of the vulnerabilities he’s studying is aversion to the cross, which brings us to the next difference.
  • God isn’t in the novel. The novel’s Neville never sees signs of God. He concludes that the power of the cross is psychological, since he finds that it’s ineffective against Jewish vampires (who are repelled by the Torah instead) and that it’s totally ineffective against vampires who have accepted their fate.
  • There is a “safe haven” at the end, but it’s not what you think. I won’t spoil the ending of the novel, which you really should read, but ironically it’s more of a twist ending than the one they ripped off from M. Twist Shyamalan’s Signs. It’s so much more thought-provoking and fertile than “oh boy, the good guys might win after all.” I have nothing against happy endings in theory, but when you change the ending of this story you wreck its entire raison d’ĂȘtre. I guess we know by now that Hollywood doesn’t care. Movies don’t have meaning, they have profit, not to be too trite about it.

So: Religious Propaganda 1, Intelligent Mid-20th-Century Science Fiction 0. Except that hopefully a small percentage of people who saw the movie will go read the book.

30 days of night (graphic novel)

Disappointing.

The art is impressionistic, indistinct, rendered in gray, black, and red…strong visual choices, but often confusing to the point where it’s difficult to tell what’s just happened and to whom.

The story has a clever premise — since the town of Barrow, Alaska is so far north that it annually experiences a month without sunlight, it’s the perfect place for vampires to throw a festival of murder and blood-quaffing. Unfortunately, the slaughter makes almost no impression because we only know three of the town’s inhabitants by name (one of whom dies as soon as we meet him). Also, there’s almost no indication of the passage of time, no sense (other than a single “I’m hungry”) of the agony and fear that comes with holing up and hiding from the prowling vampires waiting out the month; the clever premise is useless, since the action could have occurred over the course of a single night. And the townspeople’s final solution to the problem is the sort of thing only a moron would try, and yet the solution is effective, though we are given almost no reason to believe it should be. Meanwhile, a secondary plot thread involving what I assume is an occult enthusiast from New Orleans seems to have no purpose whatsoever aside from setting up a sequel.

What is it with comics and bad vampire stories? I remember a rash of them in the mid-90s, many unashamed ripoffs of Anne Rice or Salem’s Lot or both; at least this one has a smidgen of originality. I’ll rent the movie when I get a chance; it disappeared quickly, so I’m not optimistic, but it’s hard to imagine it being more moribund than this.