Monday, November 22, 2010

Twilight 2: The New Moonening

[My review of the second in Stephenie Meyer's series. Originally published on Facebook on 28 January 2010.]

Here we are, with the second Twilight book, New Moon. Before I start - & I promise this one'll be shorter than its predecessor - big thanks to a fellow Twilight fanatic who wishes to remain anonymous, who sourced this book for me. (And also vol 4 - Breaking Dawn - so we've got that to look forward to as well, assuming I can ever find Eclipse.)

A couple of small matters before I dive into what I thought of the book.
1. In the tradition of credit where it's due, I'd like to acknowledge the unnamed person who designs these books. Little, Brown publishers apparently don't think s/he rates a mention, since nowhere in the book are they named. But, as someone who appreciates a good book design, I repeat what I said in the Twilight review: these books have striking covers, and full credit to whoever does them.

2. Things get a little less estimable once we flick inside the book, and find Stephenie Meyer's Acknowledgements page. These are never easy to write, but hers is particularly silly, primarily because a) she boasts about getting on the New York Times bestseller list, and b) she lists the bands that she listened to & was inspired by during the writing of New Moon. Muse get the biggest props - "there are emotions, scenes and plot threads in this novel that were born from Muse songs and would not exist without their genius". Poor Muse - I don't even like them, and I feel sorry for them. She then lists a bunch of other favourites - some good, some awful, some I've never heard of. And, this is possibly the only list of artists ever that includes Linkin Park and Travis consecutively...

Anyway, those little observations out of the way, let's get on with it, shall we?

1. I Have To Admit It's Getting Better (it can't get no worse)

Yes, I'll say this upfront - New Moon is superior to Twilight. Specifically, it's not as extraordinarily awful as Twilight, so take that judgement as you will. Rather, New Moon settles, for most of its long length into being merely underwhelming, rather than being aggressively and offensively bad. There are still many problems, and I'll get to those, but I would be lying if I said I thought New Moon was as bad as Twilight.

Most particularly, this is because Edward plays such a little role in New Moon. He's off-screen, as it were, for 350 pages through the middle of the book, and is therefore less annoying with his perfect perfection. Possibly Meyer is better able to concentrate on her other characters and her plot when she's not drooling over Edward? I don't know. Whatever the reason, I'm thankful that he's essentially pushed to a supporting character in New Moon, since the focus is instead on Jacob, who's more interesting. Admittedly it's unfair, since Edward's been a vampire for decades when we meet him, but Jacob's struggle with his transformation into a werewolf is more the sort of thing I'd have liked to have seen with Edward in the first book. (And, yeah, I'm going to just ignore that Bella's three best friends are two vampires and a werewolf, okay? That's the world of this story, so that's the way it works, and it's unfair & pointless to criticise the premise.)

Of course, Edward's absence means that Bella spends most of her time mooning over him, trying to get his attention to induce hallucinations of his voice, so we're not totally spared. Some of the stuff here - post-'breakup' - isn't bad, in terms of conveying the emptiness she feels without him. It's not great, and certainly not original, but it's not bad. However, it's a two-edged sword, all this time with Jacob, because we all know that it's not leading where it might in any other book - we know she's not going to settle with Jacob, who makes her happy & protects her - and no matter how many times she has the conversation with herself about moving on from Edward and finding a simpler happiness with Jacob, we know she won't. If Pride and Prejudice was the touchstone of Twilight (by touchstone here, I mean, classic work of literature that people know which can be shamelessly and overtly used as a comparison within the text itself), New Moon's is Romeo & Juliet, with Jacob cast as either Rosalind or Paris, depending on what kind of mood Meyer was in that day, it seems.

{A side note - I've said before that I'm not really interested in getting into the whole mocking-the-fanbase thing, but I'm really curious about the whole Team Jacob phenomenon. As I note above, I find him more interesting than Edward, but we all know he's not going to win. He's the anti-romance in this series. Declaring yourself a member of Team Jacob seems to me like saying that your favourite novel is Pride & Prejudice, and that you're a proud member of Team Wickham or Team Mr Collins. Or, to keep the Romeo & Juliet thing going, Team Paris. I don't get it.}

2. Of Such Is Tragedy Made.

Remember in my Twilight review, where I argued that the key element of a romance story is the longing? The time before our two characters get together? Well, I'm going to make a further definition here - the key element of a tragedy has to be that it makes sense, and isn't laughable. PG Wodehouse books, for instance, often have a romance torn assunder as a key plot driver, but these are always played for laughs, not tragedy, and that's why the cause of the romantic split is always silly - the boy refuses to steal a policeman's helmet; the girl breaks off their engagement. That sort of thing. If you're shooting for tragedy, you need a premise that doesn't make the reader roll their eyes in disbelief - stupid misunderstanding is fine, idiocy is not. And the problem here is that Meyer wanted it this way - when she sat down to figure out how to separate the two for this book, the best she could come up with was this: that the Cullens decide it's best to be away from Bella after she cuts herself and some of them are inflamed by the sight/smell of her blood.

That, in & of itself, isn't the problem. The problem is the way Meyer contrives (and that's the only word for it) to have Bella cut herself. She's clumsy, right? Should be easy. She's at her birthday party with the Cullens, so you'd think it'd be easy to have her cut herself on the cake knife, right? Obvious, and plausible - which are not necessarily bad things. Or even, to have her drop a glass & it slice her finger or something. We've all cut ourselves in the kitchen before, so there are many ways to do it. Instead, Bella cuts her finger opening a present. Technically possible, I suppose, but I must admit that I read that and just could not believe that this was the best Meyer could do. Anyway, Bella bleeds, Cullens react, Jacob decides to move away for Bella's safety. And herein lies the second problem - I noted above that some of Bella's post-'breakup' grief wasn't awfully conveyed. But, and here's the catch, I threw scare-quotes around 'breakup' for a reason - I, as reader, never thought there was any danger of the two not meeting up by book's end. So, completely ludicrous injury forces a 'breakup' that clearly isn't going to take. As I said of Twilight, you never feel like Bella's in the danger Edward says she is, and nor do you ever think there's even a chance that he doesn't really love her. He is perfectly perfect, after all, and a major part of that perfection is that he loves Bella More Than Anyone Has Ever Loved Anyone In The History Of The World.

Speaking of which...

3. The Reliably-Stupid Narrator.

Anyone with any knowledge of literary theory has come across the concept of the unreliable narrator. One of the best examples in recent years was in the movie The Usual Suspects, wherein Kevin Spacey's character provides us in the audience - through out stand-in, the policeman interviewing him throughout the film - with our knowledge of what's going on and who's who. Except, of course, at the end it's all proved to be his made-up story to cover what really happened. (Um, sorry, spoilers just there.)

For a long time in New Moon, I wondered if that was what was happening here. Bella seemed to so keen to draw the wrong conclusions from everything that happens, that I couldn't help but feel it was all part of the story. By the end, though, I'd come up with a new theory - Bella's mental capacity was severely incapacitated during her climactic fight at the end of the first volume. She seems positively post-lobotomy throughout New Moon. If there's a conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence, Bella goes the opposite way. (Or, goes the right way, but so slowly that I felt like I could almost skip a dozen pages until she caught up with me.) Points in case - her understanding of Jacob's becoming a werewolf; her misapprehension about what that entails, etc. There's an excruitiating scene toward the end where she apparently thinks she's asleep and dreaming for far too many pages while Edward is talking to her. I've simply never previously come across a character less in tune with what's going on around them than Bella - other than, of course, those who are supposed to be that stupid.

4. Why Foreshadow When You Can Forebludgeon?

Foreshadowing is another important literary technique, and one Meyer's not quite got a grasp on at this point. She doesn't subtly let us know when something's going to be important later on, she hits. us. over. the. head. with. it. many,. many. times. The best example of that in New Moon is the whole 'a big bear is attacking hikers in the mountains' theme - the first time it's mentioned, you don't think much of it, but then there are approximately 800 further references to it before it's cleared up - by which point any sentient reader will have figured out what Bella never quite gets to (see above) - that ain't no bear up in them thair mountains.

This one also relates to the next point:

5. Symbolism! Symbolise Me Some Symbols!

In my review of Twilight, I noted how exhausting the constant shifts of emotion were. Much of that is discarded in New Moon - Bella spends a fair chunk of the book in something approaching depression, thankfully - but it's instead replaced by some of the most overt & clunky symbolism in publishing history. Between this & my previous point, it's like someone sat Stephenie Meyer down after she wrote Twilight and explained some 'advanced' literary techniques to her, and then ducked out of the room before Meyer had fully grasped how to apply said techniques.

Bella dreams a lot, but not in the way that you or I dream. All of us sometimes dream things that seem relevant to our lives, I suppose - I'm hardly an expert on the topic - but most of the dreams we have tend to be fairly meaningless. Meeting old school friends in unusual circumstances, or seeing famous people in everyday situtations, or whatever. Not Bella. She dreams, and every single one of her dreams is clearly about Edward & her, or sometimes Jacob. They're astonishingly inept, these dreams - Meyer may as well have just written 'I dreamed about Edward again and again and again, all the while not thinking about him consciously', and pasted that through the book a few times.

There's also, as mentioned above, no shortage of Meyer hanging her tale on Shakespeare's coat-tails, with Bella reading/watching Romeo & Juliet at the beginning of the book, and continually returning to that story as a way of explaining/thinking about her own life. Again, not an unheard of scenario, but Meyer is about has ham-fisted as is possible. Also, good thing they weren't doing Macbeth in Bella's class that term, right? She'd have been in all sorts of trouble.

6. The Rules of the Game.

Somebody ought to sit Stephenie Meyer down and get her to explain what the rules of her vampire & werewolf world are. I think she just makes stuff up as she goes along, without regard for anything else, and as if she just invented the idea of vampires. If you're going to work in a genre with widely-known rules - vampire fiction, to take a random example - you need to either go along with the rules that everyone knows, or explain why those don't apply in your world. A very common rule is that vampires burn & die when they're hit by direct sunlight, but Meyer's instead glow. Very, very brightly, admittedly, but more in a sparkling sort of way than in a combustion sort of way. But she never addresses this - I suspect that she wasn't aware of that trope. And right at the end of New Moon, Meyer all of a sudden introduces a new aspect of the vampire-werewolf relationship, clearly to raise the stakes (as it were) for the rest of the series. She suddenly had a great way to leave on a bit of a cliff-hanger, and who cares if that thing had never previously been mentioned?

7. Details Are For Suckers.

Another thing I criticised in passing regarding Twilight was Meyer's apparent aversion to details ('I opened my favourite search engine', indeed!). After reading New Moon, I sort of longed for those days to return, since now she applies them in a typically clumsy way. Let's start with Bella's new after-school job. We all know that she's the clumsiest, least sporty person in fiction, so where should she work? Why, at the local sporting good store, of course. I know most school students take what work they can get, and that it doesn't necessarily reflect their personality or career plans, but really? A sporting goods store? Why, Meyer?

Meyer also loves Edward so much that she wants all her characters to love him too. So, Mike, Bella's main admirer at school, is described as imitating Edward in his appearance. Specifically - "his face had lost some of its roundness, making his cheekbones more prominent, and he was wearing his pale blond hair a new way; instead of bristly, it was longer and gelled into a carefully casual disarray. It was easy to see where his inspiration came from - but Edward's look wasn't something that could be achieved through imitation".

Yes, apparently Edward is responsible for teenage boys losing fat from their faces, and pioneered the whole 'carefully casual disarray' hairstyle. No teenage boy had ever thought of that before! (Also, apparently Josh Thomas is imitating Edward Cullen...)

This was an early example of me thinking Bella was so in love with Edward that she thought others were too, unreliable narrator style, but I really think this was Meyer, not Bella.

Other examples of Meyer's inability to deal with details are all over the place. My favourite was whenever movies were mentioned - never any real ones, but people watching a movie always had two choices - a monster one, or a romantic comedy (Shaun of the Dead would've blown Bella's/Meyer's mind...). We first see this when Bella goes to the movies with her friend, who literally describes their options - apparently only two movies can ever show at once - as 'that romantic comedy' and 'this monster one'. And then, a few chapters later, Bella goes to the movies again, and there's a new romantic comedy and a new monster film as her choices. Finally, late in the book, she's on a plane, and sees that someone else is watching a movie on their screen, but can't tell if it's a horror movie or a romantic comedy. Again, at first I thought it was Meyer's little joke, a tiny satire of the formulaic nature of contemporary mainstream cinema, but I think she just thinks that's all there is. It's not a very good satire, anyway, you'd be better off always presenting people with a choice between an idiotic action movie and a self-serious middlebrow literary adaptation.)

And finally, just because it annoyed me so much, Meyer combined OVERT SYMBOLISM with crappiness at details in one spectacular flame-out. One Monday, and it's made very, very clear that it's a Monday, from the fact that Bella goes to bed on Sunday night & wakes up thinking about the previous day's events, to the fact that everyone is at school and talking about their weekends, Bella realises that it's exactly one year since she started at that school. The exact date of the exact month. Stephenie Meyer has apparently never noticed that dates shift forward one day each year (two in a leap year, from March on), and therefore the date on a Monday this year was a Sunday last year. Bella started at her new school on a Sunday. Meyer just couldn't help herself with that bit of spooky symbolism, and for some unknown reason, no sub-editor thought to mention it.

8. Conclusion.

No bad book is complete without a wince-inducing final paragraph, so that's what I'll leave you with. See you at Eclipse!

[context - Bella just realises how many exciting adventures she'll have in the next installment of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling series, available soon at a bookstore near you. It's almost that overt. Oh, and line-breaks here are all as they are in the book.]

Edward squeezed me gently. "I'm here."
I drew in a deep breath.
That was true. Edward was here, with his arms around me.
I could face anything as long as that was true.
I squared my shoulders and walked forward to meet my fate, with my destiny at my side.

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