Monday, November 22, 2010

On the novel 'Twilight', and why it's not very good

[Friends on Facebook will possibly remember this post, originally published a year ago - almost exactly - but I thought I'd repost here for broader appreciation. Because what the world is crying out for now is another anti-Twilight review...]

I usually miss big pop-culture events - I've still not read any Harry Potter, for instance (though I've seen & enjoyed the first five movies), nor have I read any Dan Brown novel.

And while 'Twilight' - the novel - has probably passed its moment in the sun (so to speak), I've been meaning for a while to read it and see what all the fuss is about. A copy finally appeared at my library, so I picked it up on Sunday and began it yesterday, and have finished it this afternoon.

I did not read it to snigger at the people who have enjoyed/become obsessed with it, but it would be fair to say that I went in expecting to not like it. And, I didn't. But perhaps not for the reasons I was expecting.

In short, I don't think the book works very well, even within the bounds of what it is - and isn't - trying to be. My argument is not that it doesn't stack up to, say, 'Ulysses' as a piece of art pushing the boundaries of what we think of as a novel. That's not fair to either book, and nobody wants everything to be 'Ulysses'. I think, instead, that 'Twilight' is not very good as a vampire-flavoured teen romance. Here's why, sorted into a few themes, I think 'Twilight' doesn't work... If people disagree, I'd love to hear from you in comments!

(I acknowledge from the start that I am far from the target demographic of these books, being neither a teenage girl nor an emo, angsty boy. I also acknowledge that I have read only the first book in a series, and it's possible that some of these criticisms might be undone by later books. However, I still think that these are valid points for this particular book, whatever the next three might change.)

(Also: Spoilers Aplenty!)

1. The Prose Is Awful

Okay, no surprises here. And, to again be honest, I wasn't expecting it to be great. However, I was unprepared for just how poorly written 'Twilight' is. I took it for granted going in that it was going to be overwrought, emo-tastic teenage angst. Putting that aside (for the moment), it has to be said: Stephenie Meyer cannot write. Every page contains sentences that just do not sound right. My personal favourite, from page 59: "None of them, especially Edward, glanced my way anymore."

That, there, is very possibly the worst sentence I've read in a published book. How did a sub-editor not pick up on that? Do I really need to explain that if 'none of them' did something (or, actually, nothing), then it's impossible for Edward to 'especially' do that? I understand what she's trying to say (I think): that Edward's failure to glance her way felt more significant than the others' similar failure, but still.

Granted, that sentence is outstanding, but throughout the book, I was consistently re-reading sentences to try to get them. As I said in my status update, the writing is bizarrely incompetent, in a way that no published book really should be.

2. The Excessive Excess (Part 1 - Emotions! Everywhere We Look!)

Flowing on from the first point, part of what makes 'Twilight' hard to read is the way you're constantly shifting moods. I realise I've already used the tag 'emo' twice in this review, but this is what I really mean: everyone is always changing moods at the drop of a hat. To prove this point to Ngaire last night, I opened the book entirely at random, and listed for her every emotion/description ascribed to Edward in the course of a single page. For convenience's sake, I'll use the same page again (p. 158), and please bear in mind that Edward is driving (fast) throughout this page:
'He laughed... his face tightened... he reminded me softly... he was startled... he rolled his eyes, still not slowing... he turned to smile crookedly at me... he grinned and tapped his forehead... he agreed, with a short, hard laugh... he sighed' (And in the first six lines of the following page, we're told that he muttered, snapped and promised.)

Again, I realise that this is a big teen romance, but that's an awful lot in one page (and I didn't even get to Bella...). Not to mention, to what extent is Edward really a teenager?

Part of the problem here is Meyer's need to stuff her prose with adjectives and adverbs. Almost every line of dialogue tells us exactly how the person (well, character) said it, and worse, that's usually quite different to their previous line of dialogue, and at odds with the described emotion/s of their conversational partner. It all gets very wearisome very quickly, unless you make a game of it, like I did, by trying to imagine what these conversations would actually sound like. (Nothing on earth, is the answer.)

The other part of the problem is that these descriptions of emotion often not only don't match the character's mood a moment ago, they also frequently don't match the actual line they're currently speaking.

3. The Excessive Excess (Part 2 - The Superlatively Superlative)

The second way in which Meyer's fondness for overblown excess grates, and ultimately undermines the story, is the superlative nature of Edward himself. Edward, for those who've missed the finer points of this tale, is a vampire. However, he's not just a vampire, he's The Best Thing Ever. And this is the first of my really serious objections to the book on its own terms. The first two things I've discussed are annoying, sure, but they're also things that (evidently) lots of people can shrug off (though they also disqualify these books from being considered in any way worthy literature). This problem, however, completely invalidates 'Twilight'.

The breathless way in which Bella (who narrates the novel) describes Edward is not actually the problem here. That annoyance falls into the previous theme. No, the problem here is much more basic and fundamental: Edward is brilliant at everything. This isn't just a love-smitten female character telling us this, it's actually his character, as conceived and written by the author.

I have seen many fans of this series swoon over the Edward character over the past few months - certainly since the movie was released - and to an extent I can see where they're coming from - Edward is The Best Thing Ever, after all. But, for those of us looking for something in a book other than a character to wish our partner was like (whether or not we currently have a partner), this is a fatal flaw. Edward is a thoroughly uninteresting character by halfway through this book, because by that point we know that:
a) if there's an ability you can name, or an activity you can think of, Edward will be able to do it brilliantly
b) he is completely devoted to Bella (we'll return to this later).

Superman has long been the most boring of all superheroes, because he's so immensely good, and because of the predictablity of his one weakness, kryptonite. Edward's like that, minus the kryptonite. He's superstrong, can run superfast, drive superwell, play baseball supergood, do chemistry superwell, dance and play the piano (including writing songs for his girlfriend!) superbrilliantly. It becomes a joke, actually, just how perfect he is. And his supposed darkness - that he's a vampire who could theoretically kill Bella at any moment - is neutered by the fact that we never really think that he will. You know why? Because he's also super(emotionally)strong.


4. Bella, The Unlovable Loser Outsider (Whom Everyone Loves)

One of the few things I really knew about 'Twilight' before I started reading it was that the novel's narrator, Bella, was something of an absent centre. Indeed, the book itself is eager to remind us of this, with most of the first few chapters being Bella telling us what an outsider she is. Sure, there could be a bit of the old unreliable narrator trick going on here, or perhaps Meyer's making a point about how Bella views herself as these things, but in reality isn't.

However, that doesn't really seem supported by the book - throughout, it seems as if Bella is supposed to be an awkward, introverted outsider. Yet, after moving to the small town in the first chapter, she quickly makes friends of almost all the girls in her class. And, despite never having had a boy interested in her back in Phoenix, here she has four boys (excluding Edward!) fall for her within the first 100 pages! The only girls who don't like her, in fact, are those who are jealous of all the boys chasing her.

For a little while, this is sorta interesting, for the potential reason I suggested above - that she thinks of herself as a loser, but in fact isn't. That, of course, is a pretty standard trope of teenage characters in fiction, largely because it's a pretty standard emotion for teenage people in real life. But, as I said, that doesn't seem to be the answer here. I think Bella was genuinely supposed to be that outsider character, but then it suited the plot for her to have lots of friends. So, she did.

Also, this seems to be part of a larger problem with Bella's character, which is that she's a collection of tics, rather than an actual person. For instance, early in book, she faints when one of her classmates, on the other side of the room, pricks his thumb for a blood test exercise in Biology. She's awfully sensitive to blood, obviously, a neat device for someone about to date a vampire. In the novel's climax, an evil vampire cuts her head with glass, and thus blood "spread crimison across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floor". Her own blood. From glass cuts. To her head. Inflicted by a vampire. Who's about to kill her. Her reaction? It gives her hope, as she formulates a plan to defeat this vampire.

Honestly, I read this section about five times, trying to figure out if what was going on was what seemed to be going on. She eventually faints, yes, but it's from the massive loss of blood from her head. In other words: tiny amount of blood from someone else in a science experiement = swooning, fainting. Significant loss of own blood from head wound sustained in fight with evil vampire = helps clear the mind for thinking. This is incredibly stupid.

She's also idiotically clumsy - as in, slapstick comedy clumsy, not clumsy in the way that, you know, real people in the real world are. So much so that, in a single game of basketball, in which she manages to not touch the ball once (I don't understand how that's possible, frankly - there's only five on a team, usually), she falls over three times. How? I played basketball for years, and it's almost impossible to fall over unless you're doing something. (Even then, not easy, but I'll grant that she's clumsy by nature.) To fall over three times in a game in which you don't touch the ball isn't just unlikely, it's straightforward idiotic - as in, is something that could only be written as a character trait, as opposed to plausible actions.

Speaking of all her friends, as we just were...

5. The School Plot

Hey, this book's sure got a lot of characters, as we approach the halfway mark. Oh, look, no it doesn't. All the characters from the first 200 pages suddenly disappear from the story as it becomes all about Bella & Edward and his family. And then, there they all are, waving to Bella in the last ten pages. Supremely odd. This is just a minor point, but it's strange.

6. Vampires?! Impossible! (Oh, all right then.)

These last couple of points I'm going to make are the real problems I think cripple 'Twilight', along with the character of Edward, as already covered. The first is, I admit, something that might sound a little silly in a book about vampires, but bear with me: 'Twilight' is simply not plausible. Bella finds out that Edward is a vampire one night, and by lunch the next day, she's accepted that and loves him, glad that he is one of the good sort.

There are a couple of token 'impossibles!', but really, Bella accepts the reality of vampires way too fast for it to make sense. Think about it - imagine that there's a person of your preferred gender who acts moodily towards you, including disappearing for a few days, but also often knows exactly where you are and jumps in at the right moment to save you from various dangers. I, for one, would be seriously freaked out by that. That seems like someone slightly unhinged (aside from issues of taste, I mean...), and very possibly a stalker. Bella never thinks of that. Imagine then that they explained it away by telling you that they're a vampire. Wouldn't your first, second and third (etc, etc) reactions be, 'Well, vampires don't exist'? Someone telling you that they're a vampire would seem to require more convincing than Bella needs - she more or less just accepts it immediately, and wants to get the inside scoop on what it's like to be a vampire these days.

It really is mind-boggling how quickly she accepts not just that Edward is a good vampire who will protect her, but that vampires exist at all. I'm not saying that books with vampires can't exist, of course, only saying that, if you're going to set a book in a notionally real world, you need to start by having characters who don't instantly assume that vampires exist. (Or, alternatively, lay some groundwork by having Bella be the sort of person who would be pre-disposed to believe that immediately.)

Instead, she googles (sorta, like many other details here, Meyer avoids naming things - she uses her 'favourite search engine'; elsewhere, there's multiple long discussions of a particular cd, without us ever being told what it is, for no apparent reason other than that Meyer didn't want to offend people by naming something other than their favourite band) vampires, doesn't find much (!), thinks it's all a bit silly, walks outside, thinks it's not so silly. I wish I were exaggerating.

7. 'Twilight' Is Not A Romance Story

This is my most serious objection to this story, since it strikes at the root of its appeal. 'Twilight' is regarded - by fans and critics alike - as a teen romance, with vampires. I've heard several people describe it as one of the great romances, drawing comparisons (inevitably) with books like 'Pride & Prejudice'.

They're all wrong. 'Twilight' is not, by any standard definition, a romance. Or, at least, it's not a competent one.

I have a massive problem with this novel being considered a romance, or an interesting love story, for a simple reason. And I have an even larger problem with it being considered the equal of Jane Austen's shopping list for the same reason.

Think about great romances in fiction (books or tv more than movies, where it's all a bit compressed), and what do they all have in common? That the build-up, the chase, is interesting, and (within the constraints of the medium) prolonged. Think how long Lizzie and Darcy (Pride & Prejudice) are not together before they are. Look at how long Tim & Dawn or Jim & Pam (the UK & US versions of The Office, and two of the finest modern romances) had to wait, and the obstacles they had to overcome to get together. That time, and those obstacles, are why we keep reading, or tuning in.

Further, none of those people are perfect. Darcy is rich as hell, and (after you get to know him) a stand-up bloke, but he's also a bit of a prick. He is offensive, unnecessarily so, towards Lizzie and her family in the early parts of the story. She, in turn, is quick to judge everyone she meets. Tim/Jim is unambitious, constantly thinking that he might do something interesting with his life, but never actually doing so. Dawn/Pam has clearly been in a rut, personally and professionally, for years by the time the documentary crew arrives, and lacks the qualities necessary to change that (at least initially). These people are interesting - even someone like Darcy is someone you could imagine knowing (minus the wealth, presumably). Edward? Not so much, even aside from the whole vampire thing. He is, as the book reminds us too many times, perfect. And a romance wherein one person is 'perfect' is not only unbalanced and implausible, but uninteresting.

In 'Twilight', allegedly a great romance story, the couple get together within the first 150 pages of the first book. Sure, some people make dark comments about him before that happens, and no doubt there will be problems to come (from what I briefly know of the remaining three volumes).

And that is also fundamentally uninteresting, in a different way to the way in which I've already described this 'romance' as uninteresting. I realise there's some darkness to come, but it seems to me that Meyer has created a not-very-interesting romance here, for one simple reason: there's no longing. No period in which she thinks, 'I love him, but he's out of my league, or he hates my family, or others are conspiring to keep him away from me, or he's already engaged to some moron in the warehouse'. The most moving part of most romances is the period between when the character (or /s, depending on the POV) realises they're in love with the other, but doesn't see how it can work, for whatever reason. In 'Twilight', it's not until they're already together that this obstruction comes along, it seems.

I don't precisely know what's to come in the rest of the series, but there's no 'will they get together or not?' tension in this first book, because it all happens so damn quickly. And that strikes me as a massive flaw. Sure, by the end of this book he's talking about how they can't be together forever, but that's only because he's refusing to convert her into a vampire. He's quite open about loving her and never leaving her while she's alive. (Again, I realise that some of this changes in 'New Moon', but my criticism remains valid, I think.) So, what we seem to have, at this point in the saga, is something more akin to a couple who get together, and then he gets shipped off overseas to fight the Nazis. Sad, yes. But the stuff of great romances? No. Great romances, in art at least, requires a period of yearning, of uncertainty.

For that reason, the great love story that 'Twilight' promises does not exist, at least between the covers of this book.

And for all of these reasons, 'Twilight' fails on almost every level. (It does have a well-designed cover, I'll grant that.)

1 comment:

  1. As chance would have it I spontaneously borrowed Twilight from the library a couple of days ago. I too was curious about all the fuss. Honestly I have been unable to get passed the first few pages as the quality of the writing was shockingly poor. Thanks for the review as I now know that I'm not alone in thinking that it is a stylishly packaged pile of crap.