twilight

The Twilight Saga Saga: Chapter Five

Well god's hairy gravy boat, it's been a while since I've looked at Twilight and attempted to come to grips with Meyer's marketing machine in preteen prose, chapter by chapter. I thought it had defeated me in only four chapters, but the curiosity fueled by boredom is more powerful than Stephenie Meyer's prose. Onward!

Chapter 5: Blood Type

In chapter four Bella receives two invitations - one unwanted but unavoidable, the other desired but fraught with danger. Mortal danger. Nookie danger. That's the most dangerous danger of all. "Blood Type" doesn't get to the nookie (spoiler: it takes four whole books to get to the action) but indulges in a kind of literary foreplay. If you're reading along with me, get used to it. This is three books of foreplay and one book of crazy birth horror. Sandwiched in there somewhere is the actual sex, like the thinnest coldcut ever sliced by man or beast. What we're chewing through now is the endless spongy Wonder Bread of Meyer's writing.

Unlike the previous chapters, which tend to jump forward a day or so, "Blood Type" picks up where "Invitations" left off, with Bella so hot and bothered that she shows up late and "in a daze" to English class. The first Learn To Write moment comes depressingly quckly:

I made my way to English in a daze. I didn't even realize when I first walked in that class had already started.
"Good to see you, Miss Swan," said Mr. Mason in a disparaging tone.


Meyer doesn't trust her reading audience, so she pegs adverbs on nearly every line of dialogue, which makes conversations feel overstuffed but vapid at the same time. Here she avoids it by diluting the adverb into an entire phrase ('in a disparaging tone') and the result is even worse.

In fairness, Mason's line is ambiguous - maybe he's so happy to see Bella that he feels the need to announce it in front of the class (After all, everyone in Forks seems to love Bella Swan so much thather teachers are probably carving hearts into their desks and pasting pictures of her into their wedding albums.) Meyer could have avoided this bit of awkwardness by joining a telling piece of action to the dialogue:

"Good to see you, Miss Swan," Mr. Mason said. Laughter rippled through the room.


We don't need to be told that Mason's tone is disparaging in this scenario; the students' laughter gives the readers all the information necessary to determine what kind of a person Mr. Mason is, how the students feel about him, and how the students feel about Bella. The key to making this kind of scene work lies in the action, not in the narrator's judgment.

It's also apparent in "Blood Type" that Stephenie Meyer is not sure what the form and purpose of a chapter should be. Here she treats a chapter like a junk drawer, full of odds and ends related only by virtue of their sequence - a moment in English class, a lunchtime conversation with Edward, a trip to the nurse's office and a scene in a parking lot. It's a bit of a jumble, with individual scenes that feature some flourishes of talent but badly need an edit. You might reasonably object that the chapter's structure is unavoidable because of the sequence of events, but there is no reason for these elements to exist in the configuration that Meyer presents. Let's take a look at the scenes and see how they fit.

1. English class. There is no reason for this scene to exist. It's a transition from the climactic scene  in "Invitations" to the main action of the chapter. In other words, it's filler. Which is only worthwhile when a writer stuffs it with good material that would otherwise go to waste.

2. The conversation at lunch. Bella sits with Edward at lunch and have a long, frustrating conversation. To a large extent it covers the same ground that was done much more effectively in "Invitations" (Edward can't stay away from Bella, but it might be a good idea for Bella to stay from Edward). Even though Meyer's adverb-heavy dialogue and constant references to Edward's face and eyes is grating, Bella and Edward's interaction tells us a good deal more about their characters than Bella's constant monologue does - largely because dialogue is a series of holes punched in the surface of a narrator's consciousness. It's one of the only points in the book when we glimpse Bella from someone else's point of view.

Unfortunately, that point of view is Edward's, and Edward isn't really a character. He's a fantasy lover with "ocher eyes" who adores Bella to the point of wishing to consume her. It would be nice for someone to come up to Bella and tell her that she's a self-centered jerk who shields her emotions behind a front of adolescent precocity - but that's never going to happen, because this is Twilight.

3. Biology class. After a standard sexually frustrating lunch with Edward, Bella heads to Biology class and discovers that Mr. Banner is planning on taking everyone's blood and determining their blood type. To no one's surprise, Bella turns out to be hemophobic. This is a glimpse into the symbolic latticework that holds up the Twilight books. Blood, stone, sun and mist (there's no darkness in Twilight - just diffused light). A crude reading would simply equate fear of blood with fear of sex and the body. A more sophisticated reading - wait, there isn't one. The Twilight novels work with a simple substitution cypher: blood for sex, hunger for lust, and so forth.

On a practical level, though, this scene is borked. Mr. Banner brings out the lancets and the other instruments of torture and starts pricking fingers. Then he mentions that anyone under eighteen will need parental permission slips, which he has in his desk. So why is he carrying out the exercise? Are most of the students eighteen? This seems unlikely - unless the students of Forks are slow learners. I'd be willing to buy that, but all of the student characters we've met so far (Mike, Jessica etc.) are bright, fashionable, energetic teens who would fit perfectly into an episode of 90210.

I'm guessing that an editor noted the implausibility of a teacher taking blood samples from children, so Meyer inserted a couple of lines to work around the problem. But this raises a host of other problems. In the real world, permission slips would be issued at least a week or two beforehand - which would give Bella plenty of time to refuse or skip class.

Of course, if she skipped the blood test, then the next scene could never happen -  which means that the entire Biology class scene is simply a bridge into the real stuff, which is Edward and Bella dancing around their mutual attraction. In effect, the permission slip detail reveals just how instrumental the scene is, and how uninterested Meyer is in the world she's writing about.

4. The nurse's office. Once the blood lancets come out, Bella turns to clammy mush and needs to be escorted to the nurse. This occasions one of the first examples of interesting writing in Twilight:

He continued through the room with his water drops. I put my cheek against the cool black tabletop and tried to hold on to my consciousness. All around me I could hear squeals, complaints and giggles as my classmates skewered their fingers. I breathed slowly in and out through my mouth.
"Bella, are you all right?" Mr. Banner asked. His voice was close to my head, and it sounded alarmed.


Note the details that Meyer captures here when Bella shuts off her visual channel. Squeals. Giggles. Skewering. There's a kind of slaughterhouse atmosphere here, a note of terror amplified by the purely auditory input. Meyer keeps the conceit consistent enough that Bella identifies Banner's position and emotional state by his voice alone. Blood and helplessness goose the text and bring it out of its slumber (if the Twilight Saga were a sleeping person, then I picture Meyer as the person who sneaks into the room and places the sleeper's hand in a glass of warm water).

The nurse's office has some genuinely good moments. Edward (yeah, he's there all of a sudden) places Bella down "on the crackly paper that covered the brown vinyl mattress on the one cot". In one well-selected vivid detail, Meyer summons up the entire experience of visiting a school nurse. That damn crackly paper covering. We also get to see the casual power that Edward commands in the school, even as he remains in the background.

5. The parking lot. All this leads up to the real revelation of the chapter: Edward is a violent asshole. And this doesn't turn Bella off.

We were near the parking lot now. I veered left, toward my truck. Something caught my jacket, yanking me back.
"Where do you think you're going?" he asked, outraged. He was gripping a fistful of my jacket in one hand.
I was confused. "I'm going home."
"Didn't you hear me promise to take you safely home? Do you think I'm going to let you drive in your condition?" His voice was still indignant.
....
"Let go!" I insisted. He ignored me. I staggered along sideways across the wet sidewalk until we reached [Edward's] Volvo. Then he finally freed me - I stumbled against the passenger door.
"You are so pushy," I grumbled.
"It's open," was all he responded. He got in the driver's side.


What? How are we take a scene in which a man physically overpowers a teenage girl and drags her to his car, all under the guise of 'protecting her' and (even more insidiously) keeping a promise? The movie adaptation skips this entire passage altogether, jumping straight from the lunchtime conversation to the beach at La Push. Meyer should have done the same. As it is, we now know that we're reading an insanely popular teen fantasy novel about an abusive jerk and the girl who just can't get enough of it. Slow clap, Meyer. Slow. Clap.

The chapter continues into a long conversation between Bella and Edward about her family, but the parking lot scene damages "Blood Type" so profoundly that there's not much point in examining it.

***

You Suck, Bella score: 5 (she spends part of the time feeling guilty about mistreating Mike, and the rest of the time she's fainting or being pushed around by Edward)
Learn To Write score: too high to count

The Twilight Saga Saga: Chapter 4

Ah geez, lookit this nonsense. Apparently there are more than three chapters in Twilight. What, I have to go through the rest of them? Okay then.

PREFACE
A week or so ago I found a blog post through the magic of Google Alerts (involution alert: Google Alerts probably has a Google Alert for the phrase "Google Alert") that asked the question: Why is it a bad thing to like Twilight?  The writer had read my last post and assumed that I was criticizing Twilight fans for their audacious enjoyment of a clunky adolescent fantasy written in one-sentence paragraphs.

The truth is that I'm not interested in what's wrong with liking the Twilight novels, because the answer is obvious. The answer is: nothing.  There is nothing wrong with liking this book or anything else in the world.  There's nothing wrong with liking hot dogs or dog fighting either, but eating hot dogs won't turn you into an athlete, and participating in dog fights is a morally reprehensible (and criminal) act.  Similarly, it's cool to see Khandi Alexander pull a human head from a pot of boiling water on CSI, but there's no way I want to spend my days with human heads and tongs.

Pleasure is an impulse that comes from parts of ourselves over which we have little control.  You might view education and socialization as an attempt to access and write over those areas.  Despite society's best efforts, though, we continue to like all manner of things.  The moral issue comes not from the pleasure, but the exercise of that pleasure and the production of materials to gratify it.  Calling Twilight a moral issue is a stretch, but if you regard the production of art as part of a culture's inheritance, then Stephenie Meyer is stealing from us.

So nothing is wrong with liking Twilight. Nor is there anything particularly wrong with reading Twilight, although there are better ways to spend your time.  But there's plenty wrong with writing Twilight.  And that's what this series is about.

CHAPTER 4: INVITATIONS

Chapter 3 was called "Phenomenon," and it was all about Bella's insistence on verifying the truth of what she witnessed.  This one is called "Invitations," so maybe it's about Bella's hatred of being a part of something larger than herself - a school, a community, a family, what have you.  Maybe the purpose of the multiple invitations in this chapter is to further define Bella's boundaries - which is another way of defining the gaps in her boundaries.  An invitation is a promise, after all, and a promise is a deferral with an indefinitely building erotic charge.

The last line of Chapter 3 is "That was the first night I dreamed of Edward Cullen," so chapter 4 obediently begins with a description of the dream.  In it, Edward is a source of light but impossible to make out or apprehend.  He is forever distant from her, despite Bella's efforts to to catch up with him.  Bella appears to be dreaming about the sun, which may be one of the first indications that Meyer's vampires are the conceptual opposite of the traditional vampire - instead of being creatures of the underworld, they appear to belong to some heavenly schema.  Let's keep that thought it mind and see if it doesn't come to fruition around Chapter 13.

Then, in an example of remarkably inept pacing, a month passes in a single line.  Wait, no, it jumps back in the line after that to the week after the dream.  Whatever.  Bella is being plagued by people wishing her well and treating her decently, including the guy who nearly ran her over and is now "obsessed with making amends".  I can only conclude that Bella prefers to be treated like a jerk, maybe by some inaccessible pretty boy who comes to her rescue at one moment and completely ignores her the next.  I'm just guessing.  Let's keep that thought in mind and see if it doesn't come to fruition throughout the rest of the book.

Bella is also being plagued by love.  Even though Edward continues to ignore her, all the other males at the school are lining up to ask her out.  It's possible to accept Twilight as adolescent fantasy, but this stretches the boundaries a bit.  Bella is sullen, sharp, rude, inattentive and vaguely insolent towards every single thing in the novel, with the exception of her truck.  Lining up to ask Bella Swan to the spring dance sounds about as fun as a Friday afternoon at the Post Office, if the guy ahead of you in line is crazy and naked and trying to take a dump in your pocket.  And even that scenario presents a better possibility of at least getting laid.

We also discover that Bella may not much enjoy the presence of other human beings and find their goodwill disgusting, but she's perfectly happy to manipulate them in order to get them off her back:

It was Jessica [on the phone], and she was jubilant.  Mike had caught her after school to accept her invitation.... She had to go, she wanted to call Angela and Lauren to tell them.  I suggested - with casual innocence - that maybe Angela, the shy girl who had Biology with me, could ask Eric.  And Lauren, a standoffish girl who had always ignored me at the lunch table could ask Tyler; I'd heard he was still available. Jess though that this was a great idea.
Let no one be surprised in Chapter 5, when Jessica bounces around Bella like a frisky puppy to announce how happy everyone is now that their love lives are running like a finely tuned engine.

Of course, Bella isn't going to the spring dance. Why would an antisocial loner who hates you go to a dance?  Instead she gins up an excuse about going to Seattle.  But what she doesn't count on is a last-minute about face from Edward, who suddenly offers to drive her to the city, even as he lays on repeated warnings about staying away from him.  And does she accept the invitation, despite his warning?

"It would be more... prudent for you not to be my friend," he explained. "But I'm tired of trying to stay away from you, Bella".

His eyes were gloriously intense as he uttered that last sentence, his voice smoldering.  I couldn't remember how to breathe.

"Will you go with me to Seattle?" he asked, still intense.

I couldn't speak yet, so I just nodded.

Boy howdy, does she ever.

***

Bella Sucks score: 26 (average per page 1.5)
Learn To Write score: 37 (average per page 2.47)

The Twilight Saga Saga: Chapter 3

You know, today in the mall a little girl came up to me, her eyes squeezing out tears, and said "Mister? Why are you ruining Twilight and saying bad things about Miss Bella and her immortal man? Why can't you let kids enjoy their kids' stuff? Why do you hate our freedoms to read this crap?"

Because, I told the little girl, today on the bus I saw a grown woman, a woman in her mid-fifties, a woman with a family of her very own, reading a hardcover copy of Breaking Dawn with a gold-tasseled bookmark at the ready, flipping pages and scanning the text as if it were a real book. And that's why I'm doing this.

***

One of the hardest-won lessons of maturity is the realization that the world exists outside your perceptions and despite your desires. The universe does not fold up when you close your eyes and smooth itself out hurriedly as soon as you open them up. When people leave the room, they don't magically disincorporate until, for your pleasure or annoyance, they snap themselves back into place to pass in front of your eyes.

People come to this realization in their own way and in their own time. For me it happened in a Pizza Hut around the age of nineteen or so, when I was told that my uncle's rare cancer might be a genetic condition. For the character of Bella Swan, it hasn't happened at all, and you can tell from the opening paragraph:

When I opened my eyes in the morning, something was different.


Once again, a chapter opens with the opening of Bella's eyes (as I've said, we're not readers - we're prisoners in her head). I have to hand it to Stephenie Meyer here; in just a few words she manages to convey the depths of Bella's paranoia: something was different. Bella apprehends, despite her solipsism, the presence of that external reality, vast, mechanical and malevolent, meshing its gears into patterns aligned against her. It is the feeling of anxiety that is produced, like

The difference turns out to be a change in the quality of the morning light produced by the dissipation of fog and a light snowfall. This doesn't seem so bad to me, but it seems bad for Bella:

I jumped up to look outside, and groaned with horror.


Really. Hey, let's play a game. I call it Being Bella. Try groaning with horror. Go to the window, pretend you're looking at some snow, and then groan with horror. Could you film yourself doing that? I kind of want to see a good horror-groan, because I don't think anyone has actually ever done that in real life.

Anyway, the snow and ice, "coating the needles on the trees in fantastic, gorgeous patterns, and making the driveway a deadly ice slick," have a purpose, which is to arrange a life-threatening accident for Bella in the proximity of Edward, who saves her as only a vampire can do. The accident is the first thing approaching an action sequence, so it's worth quoting at some length to see how Meyer deals with the problem of writing good action, which is incidentally a problem of time, which is the problem and preoccupation of the novel.

I was standing by the back corner of the truck, struggling to fight back the sudden wave of emotion the snow chains had brought on [Bella is easily moved, apparently], when I heard an odd sound.

It was a high-pitched screech, and it was fast becoming painfully loud. I looked up, startled.

I saw several things simultaneously. Nothing was moving in slow motion, the way it does in the movies. Instead, the adrenaline rush seemed to make my brain work much faster, and I was able to absorb in clear detail several things at once.


Let's stop for a moment, because this passage makes no sense at all. One of the most fundamental and mechanically convenient tools for expressing states of consciousness in film is the manipulation of time by the speed of the film. Film moves slow, time speeds up. Film moves fast, time slows down. The entire point of slow motion in film is to highlight and isolate detail in order to let the viewer, I dunno, absorb in clear detail several things at once. It's almost like your brain is working much faster.

Although Bella's description isn't very clear, she may be talking about the other weapon in film's homely arsenal: editing. In this case, a rapid succession of individual shots that establishes a rhythm and performs the dual effect of compressing time while dilating consciousness. But I can't say for sure, because as usual, the text refuses to follow through on its promises. Here's the next paragraph:

Edward Cullen was standing four cars down from me, staring at me in horror. His face stood out from a sea of faces, all frozen in the same mask of shock. But of more immediate importance was the dark blue van that was skidding, tires locked and squealing against the brakes, spinning wildly across the ice of the parking lot. It was going to hit the back corner of my truck, and I was standing between them. I didn't even have time to close my eyes.


Hold on. Didn't Bella say in the previous paragraph that she was able to absorb "in clear detail"? Then why are clear details not forthcoming? With the exception of Edward's face and the colour of the van, this entire passage is coy and attenuated, weakened by Bella's inability to deliver a simple and direct narrative.

It is safe to assume that Bella will survive the blue van skidding towards her, since she's narrating from some future point. The van nonetheless presents an immediate danger; even if Bella survives to tell the tale, maybe she's about to suffer an accident that will leave her paralyzed and wrapped in bandages. Maybe her grand romance with Edward will be played out with her breathing through a straw for twenty years. Who knows?

As a reader, I have no cues to go by except for Bella's words. And Bella's words tell me that this van is going to be no big deal. Edward stands out from the crowd because he's there to save her. The phrase "But of more immediate importance" is like a big dull needle haphazardly puncturing the scene and letting the tension out in one long squeaky rubbery fart. I don't need to read the rest of the page to know that Edward is going to zoom over with inhuman speed and save Bella from dark blue death.

Part of the pleasure of seeing heroes in danger is the knowledge that they'll survive, even though they may lose something valuable in the process (a trusted friend, a piece of treasure, childlike innocence, Kate Capshaw etc.). But the pleasure depends on the writer allowing you to forget the hero's basic invulnerability, often by deflecting that danger onto something the hero loves (Kate Capshaw etc.). There is no sense here that Bella is about to lose anything, because she describes danger in the same lazy, rambling way that she describes everything else: like it's beneath her.

So I read farther down the page, even though I didn't need to, and guess what? Edward saves her. I guess he just couldn't help himself, what with Bella being such an awesome human being and all. Wait, maybe I spoke too soon, because she resents the crowd of concerned townspeople, her concerned schoolmates, and the EMTs who take her to the hospital. She even finds time to throw some scorn on the guy who nearly ran her down, who suffered much more severe injuries than she and apologizes to her out of a healthy sense of guilt. I'm not even going to quote any of it, because - and this just floors me - I feel bad for Bella.

Horrified pity is probably the best response to Bella Swan by this point. She's such a spoiled brat that finally, maybe after the third time she sneers at the guy in the bloody bandages, I suddenly felt protective of her. It's like dealing with drunk friends who make incredibly bad decisions - you put aside your impatience and call them a cab, because otherwise their night is going to end up in a dumpster on the other side of town. And so it is with Bella: surely someone so snotty is eventually bound for a bare knuckle blindfold fight with Bob the Comeuppance Boxer.

Don't make me draw a stick figure of Bob the Comeuppance Boxer. Because a stick arm won't show his bulging Bella-pummeling biceps.

Anyway, she meets Edward's father Dr. Cullen, who, like the rest of the Cullens, is ridiculously hot and probably wears a fancy white hospital coat that subtly hints at designer origins. And when she goes home she finds herself "consumed by the mystery Edward presented". I will read the rest of the book as if she and Edward are playing the world's creepiest, LARPiest edition of Clue ever dreamed up by the money-soaked bastards at Hasbro.

The Twilight Saga saga: chapter 2

This installment of The Twilight Saga saga is dedicated to Jill, who gave me jello shooters to help me through this thing.

Chapter Two starts with the start of the next day. Those are the words that Meyer wrote: "The next day". Normally I would roll up this kind of writing and beat the author over the head with it, but in this case, it's too late; Meyer is published now and free of all the people who could have stopped this kind of thing from happening.

At any rate, this next day is "better... and worse". How is it better?


"It was better because it wasn't raining yet, although the clouds were dense and opaque".

Would it kill Meyer to pull off a sentence that wasn't tripping over itself? Have you ever seen a dense cloud that wasn't opaque? The day is also better because boys are still following her around and behaving like rival lapdogs.

Faithful boys aside, the day is worse for an entire paragraph's worth of reasons - Bella is never at a loss for things that make her miserable and angry. But the biggest reason for her unhappiness is the absence of the guy who clearly acts as if he wants to harm her. She even feels the desire to confront him and call him on his behaviour, but then she makes what I think might be the only pop culture reference in the entire book:

"But I knew myself too well to think I would really have the guts to do it. I made the Cowardly Lion look like the terminator".


For a book narrated by and aimed at a teen audience, it's curious that there should be so few pop culture references. I don't read young adult fiction, so maybe this is the norm. Also, I can understand Meyer's desire to avoid throwing in names that won't make sense in five years (imagine if a whole chapter were dedicated to James Blunt or The Bloodhound Gang) but both the cowardly lion and the terminator predate Bella's seventeen years. Couldn't Meyer come up with something from the nineties or the 2000s?

This goes some way to confirming what I suspect - that the line between Bella and Meyer is vanishingly thin, and that Bella has no up-to-date teen pop references because Meyer doesn't. Bella is Meyer's half-remembered teenage consciousness, a dying voice hopelessly compromised by the writer's adult perspective. That's why Bella manages to combine a world-weariness with a helpless, paranoid naivete.

Once Bella's day is done, and she's dealt with the indignities of having a fellow student following her around and "taking on the qualities of a golden retriever", she spots the Cullen family (minus Edward) in the parking lot. And here Bella's greatest obsession is revealed: clothes. Or maybe it's not clothes. Maybe it's canned descriptions of clothes.

"I saw the two Cullens and the Hale twins getting into their car... I hadn't noticed their clothes before - I'd been too mesmerized by their faces. Now that I looked, it was obvious that they were all dressed exceptionally well; simply, but in clothes that subtly hinted at designer origins".


That line pretty much drop kicked me out of the story. My head filled up with images of vampires at an outlet store, holding up a pair of khakis and saying 'Hey, does this subtly hint at designer origins?' What the hell does that phrase mean, anyway? Like so much of the rest of this book, it sounds meaningful until you turn a light on it, and then the meaning gets spooked, scurries under the dishwasher and won't come out again. Is it the good fit, the texture of the fabric, the stitching, an unusual but distinctive feature that points to its pedigree? Bella doesn't say, and since we're looking through her eyes, we have no other way of approaching this book. It's like we're being held prisoner in a room in her head, and we're allowed no more than a few glances through a little window to see what's going on outside.

From this point onward I'm going to start using two measures for these reviews. Every time Bella says or thinks something that comes off as pouty, miserable, insensitive or excruciatingly condescending, this book gets one Bella Sucks point. Every time a sentence strikes me as particularly inept, this book gets one Learn To Write point. Then I average the scores out over the number of pages in the chapter. That way we can all keep track and I won't feel as if I'm shortchanging anyone. Skip ahead if you want to cut out my cogent maundering in favour of the tally.

The highlight of the chapter, aside from an email exchange between Bella and her mother that basically ranks Bella as the least respectful daughter since Lizzie Borden, is the first actual conversation between her and Edward... in Biology class. Get it? Biology? Because Bella is having biological urges? Think if they'd met in Sociology class.

Stephenie Meyer has clearly given some thought to the Meet Cute scenario between high school girl and vampire. The giant rock in the stream, I suppose, is Buffy's violent dark alley beatdown of Angel from the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Whedon took the standard victimization cliché in every monster movie and pulled it inside-out, into the beginnings of a romance. Meyer has a similar inversion in mind, but instead of granting the girl unearthly powers, she domesticates the monster by pulling it into a classroom.

And that's where the great lovers of Twilight get their class assignment on.

Yup, a class assignment: Bella and Edward get to know each other over a microscope and a set of slides with the phases of mitosis frozen and dyed for their identification. There's a nice light irony here, as Meyer punctuates their conversation with the scientific language of cell division (see: Bella's biological urges). A high school English teacher would take a moment to point out that we are seeing an example of dramatic irony as well, because we know something that Bella doesn't know. What doesn't she know? That the entire city of Phoenix is glad she left.

What else do we know that Bella and Edward don't know? Well, we know exactly what they mean when they speak. We know this because Meyer rarely resorts to "he said" or "she said" when Bella and Edward talk. Instead, she throws every conversational verb in her pocket Webster's at us:

"Did you get contacts?" I blurted out unthinkingly.
He seemed puzzled by my unexpected outburst. "No".
"Oh," I mumbled.

*

"Forks must be a difficult place for you to live," he mused.
"You have no idea," I muttered darkly.

*

"I think I can keep up," he pressed.

*

"That doesn't sound so complex," he disagreed, but he was suddenly sympathetic.

*

"And you don't like him," Edward surmised, his tone still kind.

*

His eyebrows knit together. "I don't understand," he admitted, and he seemed unnecessarily frustrated by that fact.

*

"But now you're unhappy," he pointed out.

*

"I believe I have heard that somewhere before," he agreed dryly.


Elsewhere in the scene, Edward murmurs smugly, Bella smiles sheepishly, and twice she grimaces.

Official scores for Chapter 2, "Open Book"

Bella Sucks: 25 in 22 pages (1.08)
Learn To Write: 44 in 22 pages (2)

the twilight saga saga: chapter 1

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.

"No".

"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".

You suck.

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.

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.