Yesterday I pulled the insanely stupid move of publicly committing to reading the whole fershlugginer Twilight Saga (which, unless it's an epic Icelandic poem or a lame '80s metal band, is not a saga) and talking about it on my weblog. I have buyer's remorse. But I'm the kind who will gamely try to live with an impulse buy, so never mind the regret. We forge on.
Chapter 1: First Sight
Not a bad chapter title. You think she's going to fall in love at first sight, don't you? Not so fast. Stephenie Meyer is going to piss around and waste our time for a while. Maybe she would call it irony. I would not.
"My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue... my carry-on item was a parka."
I like this opening. She's just about to make a change, and to all appearances it's a radical one. She's leaving the heat and unblemished perfection of a desert city for somewhere cold. As in the prologue, Meyer is putting her character in a moment of transition.
Where she's headed is a cloud-covered town in the Pacific northwest called Forks. Christ, Meyer, why not send your heroine to a town called Choices? Or the District Of Growing Up Is Tough And You Have To Make Difficult Decisions? But the word is nicely loaded; there's something cruel about it, calling to mind images of teeth and metal edges. It even reminds me of the inspiration for Burrough's Naked Lunch - "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". But given the fogginess of Forks, I'm not sure this book is about ecstatic and apocalyptic visions. I think it's about sublimated adolescent horniness.
"It was to Forks that I now exiled myself - an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks.
"I loved Phoenix. I loved the sun and the blistering heat. I loved the vigorous, sprawling city".
I quote these twinned paragraphs because they kind of stopped me in my tracks. How old is Bella Swan? Presumably she's a minor. I'm already running into a problem, and I'm not sure if the problem lies with me or with with the book. After all, this is a fantasy work aimed at a youth audience, a book with glittering vampires - so why should I find it difficult to accept that a teenage girl is allowed to leave her mother and go live with her father after years apart? I should be ready to accept her exceptional mobility without blinking.
I think the problem may lie with Meyer's vocabulary, and the particular voice she's constructed for Bella Swan. Even in the first chapter, Bella doesn't sound like a teenage girl. She doesn't even sound like a precocious teenage girl, except to the degree that she's often lost in the hormonal paranoia of adolescence. Bella sounds like an adult reading from a series of guide books and trade journals. Who, for example, would describe her hometown as "the vigorous, sprawling city"?
(And who the hell loves Phoenix? It's a dust-caked wasteland of swimming pools and fast food huts and foreclosed properties turning up their cracked dying bellies to the sun. That's not vigor. Sprawl, sure.)
"My mom looks like me, except with short hair and laugh lines. I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes."
It's at page four when I feel my first twinge of dislike for Bella Swan. Describing your mother's eyes as "wide, childlike" kind of verges on disrespect. It's also a vague description that says less than it seems to. Her eyes are wide? How exactly? Are they wide apart? Wide open? Does her mother go around holding her eyes really wide? What for? That's kind of weird.
I also wonder why Bella says that her mother looks like her. I think it's the other way around, since her mother precedes her. This is a small point, but it's indicative of the way Bella looks at the world. I would usually call this 'character,' but I don't think the author is in control of the voice. I think there's Meyer all over this thing, and it won't wash out.
But never mind about her mother. She's already gone by page five, having passed the Torch of Blossoming Womanhood to her daughter. The trip to Forks takes a paragraph, which is pleasingly quick. But the drive from the airport to the house? That takes pages. And pages. While she's stuck in a car with her father, whom she calls Charlie.
"But it was sure to be awkward with Charlie. Neither of us was what anyone would call verbose, and I didn't know what there was to say regardless".
I've picked this sample paragraph to demonstrate why and how this book could profitably be reduced to the size of a hotel brochure. Instead of saying that "it was sure to be awkward with Charlie," why not show the awkwardness with sparse dialogue and awkward, affectionate gestures? Since Meyer does that throughout the scene, we can get rid of that sentence altogether.
Next up. For "Neither of us" subsitute "we". For "was what anyone would call verbose" substitute "were not verbose". Actually, verbose is a clunky, overripe word. Let's try "talkative" in place of "verbose". Wait a second. That's still a bit weak, with a flat copular verb and an adjective just sprawling there like a couple of dead possums on a highway shoulder. I'll turn the adjective into the verb, so "We were not talkative" becomes "We didn't talk much".
How about "I didn't know what there was to say regardless"? It's funny how when you take this phrase out of context it makes no sense. Chop the "regardless" off and let the poor thing regain some dignity. So now Bella "didn't know what there was to say," which means that she "didn't know what to say". Why doesn't she know what to say? Because she and her father haven't seen each other in a long time and she rejected him a few years back. Plus the subject of Bella's mother is emotionally difficult territory. But we know this already because Bella says so. So it's obvious that they don't know what to say to each other. Why have this at all?
So with a few small edits, "But it was sure to be awkward with Charlie. Neither of us was what anyone would call verbose, and I didn't know what there was to say regardless" becomes "We didn't talk much". And you don't even need to say that.
The next few pages is devoted to Charlie and Bella talking about a secondhand truck, which is not what I expected from a teen vampire novel. This better be a haunted truck, Meyer. But it gives us time to explore the relationship between Charlie and Bella, which is mostly him trying to reach out and her shutting him down. Then there's this:
"Do you remember Billy Black down at La Push?" La Push is the tiny Indian reservation on the coast.
"He used to go fishing with us during the summer," Charlie prompted.
That would explain why I didn't remember him. I do a good job of blocking painful, unnecessary things from my memory.
There are two possibilities here. One is that some trauma occurred on one of those fishing trips, and part of the Twilight series will deal with this trauma. The other possibility is that Bella is kind of a bitch.
Actually, the truck turns out be important, because Bella likes it. In fact, it's the first thing we encounter that Bella actually likes, and since this novel could be called What Bella Is Thinking About Everything She Sees, we should examine her reaction:
"It was a faded red color, with big rounded fenders and a bulbous cab. To my intense surprise, I loved it. I didn't know if it would run, but I could see myself in it. Plus, it was one of those solid iron affairs that never gets damaged - the kind you see at the scene of an accident, paint unscratched, surrounded by the pieces of the foreign car it had destroyed".
So now we know a bit of what Bella likes: old handsome things that are destructive by their very nature. Let's remember that. But I get stuck on the phrase "I could see myself in it". That is straight sales language, literally part of a car salesman's patter, a piece of psyops designed to weaken customers' defenses by prompting them to imagine themselves inside the car - 'picture yourself behind the wheel of this baby'. Why is a teenage girl talking like this, as she does when she describes Phoenix as a "sprawling, vigorous city"?
And the truck is not "a faded red color". It is a faded red. A TRUCK IS NOT A COLOR. LEARN TO WRITE.
She's still looking at the truck. Let's skip forward to the part where Bella's looking at herself. Because when she looks at herself in the mirror, it gives her an opportunity to talk about her looks and reflect on her character. Why Meyer is adopting such a literal strategy, I don't know. But if I had to guess, it's because the soil in which the language of Twilight grows is a mulch of soap operas and teen drama. The language of Twilight is images, not words, which explains why so many of Bella's expressions and sentences seem like they've been stored in freezer bags for too long. I think this book was microwaved, not written.
Anyway, as Bella is "facing her pallid reflection in the mirror," which is strange because in the previous paragraph she says her face has turned sallow, she lets us in on the heart of her character. I think this is intended to generate some sympathy for her:
"I didn't relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn't relate well to people, period. Even my mother, who I was closer to than anyone on the planet, was never in harmony with me, never on exactly the same page. Sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that other people were seeing through theirs. Maybe there was a glitch in my brain".
Now there's a possibility. Maybe Bella's upcoming star-crossed love is just the product of a glitch in her brain, and some handsome dude is freaked out because the new girl at school insists he's a glitter-covered vampire and that they're in love forever.
By the way, here's what Bella has to say about her dad's house. The one she has chosen to live in.
"There was only small bathroom at the top of the stairs, which I would have to share with Charlie. I was trying not to dwell on that fact too much".
And here's a snip from her first day at Forks High School.
"When the bell rang, a nasal buzzing sound, [Bells are not sounds. Bells make sounds] a gangly boy with skin problems and hair black as an oil slick leaned across the aisle to talk to me.
'You're Isabella Swan, aren't you?' He looked like the overly helpful, chess club type.
'Bella,' I corrected.
Oh, you corrected the guy who was friendly enough to talk to you. You suck.
She talks a bit about her new teachers:
"My Trigonometry teacher, Mr. Varner, who I would have hated anyway just because of the subject he taught..."
God, you suck so much.
"After two classes, I started recognizing several of the faces in each class. There was always someone braver than the others who would introduce themselves and ask me questions about how I was liking Forks. I tried to be diplomatic, but mostly I just lied a lot. At least I never needed the map".
In just three sentences, Bella congratulates herself, subtly compares her classmates to animals, lies to them and finishes off with a snide insult about their town. It's clear why she doesn't relate to other people; she holds them in contempt and has difficulty investing them with the same degree of humanity that she sees in herself. She has more regard for her truck than she does for anyone else in this novel. Why are we caring about her? Why has Stephenie Meyer chosen to make the reader look through the eyes of a glum psychopath? I'm hoping that there will be an answer to this question at some point.
Finally, while she's sitting at lunch with a group of genuinely nice people whom she despises for their friendliness, she spots Teen Vamp Squad. And she likes them, because they are beautiful.
Beauty is hard to describe. You can say that people are beautiful, that their mouths are perfect or their chin is well-defined or their eyes are "liquid topaz," but the truth is that language is always in danger of exhausting itself or falling short of the mark when it attempts to stick a pin through beauty. It's easy to describe what makes someone ugly, because ugliness thrives on detail.
Dante solved the problem by blinding his narrator with God's light at the moment he reaches the summit of Heaven. The nature of beauty in literature is to erase itself even as it is displayed (Satan, by contrast, is described in incredible detail: three heads chewing on humanity's worst betrayers, body locked in ice, and so on.)
The point is, if Dante had trouble encasing beauty in physical form, it's not going to be easy for Stephenie Meyer. After a page of cataloguing the Cullen Clan's body parts and hairstyles, Bella concludes:
"I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel".
That's it. They are images, torn out of some transcendent book and stapled to our lousy, boring reality. Like celebrities, they move on top of our world, somehow exempt from it, and as a consequence make everything else seem flat and unreal. Meyer manages to sell us on the Cullen's beauty by the way it penetrates Bella's contempt and unbalances her.
Of course, Bella also likes her men hostile and potentially threatening - hence the next scene: Biology class, when she sits next to Edward Cullen and is treated to a display that would have anyone else filing a restraining order on the guy:
"I peeked up at him one more time, and regretted it. He was glaring down at me again, his black eyes full of revulsion. As I flinched away from him, shrinking against my chair, the phrase if looks could kill suddenly ran through my mind".
Here's an idle question: if Bella's internal voice speaks almost entirely in clichés, why is she suddenly thinking about what she's thinking? Why comment on the phrase 'if looks could kill' instead of just thinking it? I don't have an answer for that, but it's odd. Or how about this, from a couple of pages on:
"But Edward Cullen's back stiffened, and he turned slowly to glare at me - his face was absurdly handsome - with piercing, hate-filled eyes. For an instant, I felt a thrill of genuine fear, raising the hair on my arms".
Genuine fear. Just as she distanced herself from the clichéd thought in biology class, she now emphasizes the authenticity of the experience and matches it with a specific physical detail. It seems that terror and the body are the way to the truth for Bella, the only fork to take in Forks (see what I did there? Yeah, you saw that)
She drives home, trying not to cry. You know what? I think I like Edward just for that.
Next up, if I can stomach more of this: Chapter Two.