Sparkle Motion

When I mentioned I was planning to read Stephenie Meyer’s young adult vampire blockbuster Twilight, many people reacted with puzzlement. Why was a reading a book with so many negative reviews, so many articles about the disturbing gender roles and creepy romance? Partly it was curiosity, to see if there’s anything to explain why these books hit such a chord with female readers, much like I read (and enjoyed) Harry Potter to see what all the fuss was about, but mostly it was because I don’t like writing off books without actually reading them just because everyone else says they are rubbish.

Twilight is the story of Bella Swan, who selflessly moves from California to live with her dad, the sheriff of the small, exceptionally damp town of Forks, Washington. There she meets the mysterious and pale Edward Cullen, falls in love, meets his family of equally pale and attractive vampires, and has a run-in with a nasty vampire before the Cullen family rescue her and Edward takes her to the prom. While I was prepared for how much of the book is devoted to the love story, I didn’t realise how lacking in plot it actually is. For 300 pages we follow Bella around as she goes to school, is terrible at gym, makes dinner and does the laundry, and has lots of teenage angst, before she and Edward actually go skipping through the meadows and meet the proper villain. Surely there are better ways of portraying the mundanity of Bella’s life pre-Edward than to tell me every detail.

Bella is clearly an attempt at a character the female readers with empathise with – she worries about fitting in at her new school, she’s bad at gym and worries about her clumsiness. Other than that, her personality is a blank slate, which is why it’s so unbelievable that all the boys she meets are attracted to her, and the clumsiness is so exaggerated that she can barely walk a mile without falling over. It becomes an even bigger problem since the whole plot hinges on Bella being Edward’s one true love, and the only evidence we have for that is Edward’s continual declarations that she smells nice and how intriguing she is, mostly because she’s the one woman whose mind he can’t read.

When James the bad vampire turns up, things get more interesting and more disturbing, at least from a gender angle. The vampires are playing baseball, in an unintentionally hilarious scene as they reveal that they can only play baseball during thunderstorms as they hit the ball so hard it sounds like thunder. (And yet the bats and balls can stand up to this treatment.) The vampires in Meyer’s world draw lightly on traditional vampire mythology, as they do drink blood, and get “turned” by another vampire, but other than that they have superpowers – immortal, exceptionally fast and strong, and a variety of powers which allow them to foresee the future, read minds, control emotions, track humans, and also compose heart-rending piano pieces. In a fight between two groups of superpowered individuals, Bella gets literally picked up and carried about, ordered around, and when she decides to confront the villain herself, it all goes wrong and she has to be rescued, and being a first-person narrative we don’t even get to see the fight as Bella is out cold.

While the relationship between Bella and Edward is undoubtedly creepy and disturbing, with Bella lacking in agency and awareness about how weird it is, I was never sure quite how much was deliberate and how much is Meyer unintentionally robbing Bella of her agency because that’s the only way she can think of to make the plot work. There are occasional nods to Bella having thoughts of her own, as she comes up with a plan, or protests a little at Edward ordering her around, but it is unconvincing against such events as how romantic it is that Edward spends his nights sneaking into her bedroom and watching her sleep. The writing might be an attempt to write like a seventeen-year-old girl in love might write, but it is drowning in adverbs; everything is ‘utterly absurd’ or ‘gloriously intense’, Edward has a ‘sculpted, incandescent chest’ and ‘scintillating arms’, and he even has an alabaster brow, which I hope is a nod to Anne of Green Gables but I’m worried it’s meant to be sincere.

I can see why Twilight does appeal to teenagers, because Edward is the perfect, older boyfriend, one of the cool kids from high school, who takes her out to dinner and wants to know all about her, always the one restraining himself from taking the relationship further while Bella is eager to progress. I don’t worry about teenagers reading it, because I read piles of books with much worse role models and gender issues than this as a teenager. It’s just disappointing that of all the good books out there, so many people are obsessing over it, but if I could predict what book would sell a million copies I’d have a lot more money.

Your Twilight linkapalooza:
Helen-keeble is more forgiving than I am, and has interesting theories on why Bella appeals to teenagers.
The first of Cleolinda’s many Livejournal posts.
Ide Cyan at the Feminist SF blog talks about the cultural positioning of Twilight.
A feminist takes on Twilight’s abstinence message.
Liz Henry is enjoying it so far (it’s true that Bella does think about how she might think about hurting her attempted muggers, but then Edward comes along and rescues her and tells her how she needs a healthy does of fear).
A set of Livejournal posts on Twilight and mormonism.
And just for the funny, Growing Up Cullen, which fills in what Edward was doing for years and years waiting for his true love to turn up.

The Host

The Host coverThe most depressing thing about Stephenie Meyer’s first science fiction novel, set in a future in which billions of humans have had parasitical aliens who call themselves “souls” implanted into their brains, is how throughly an interesting premise has had its body stolen by the mind of an emotionally stunted fairytale. Two choices on Meyer’s part prop up the story. The first is to begin after humanity has well and truly lost. Doing that skips over most of the familiar antecedents and suggests a story that will be as much about accomodation — about coming to terms — as it will be about resistance. The second choice sets up exactly that: the narrator is one of the souls, Wanderer, who discovers that the consciousness of her host, Melanie, is lurking in the back corridors of their shared mind. Although Mel begins to assert herself fairly quickly, the initial stages of the novel are successfully alienating, and some aspects of Wanderer’s coming to terms with her new humanity (such as her initial assessment of human language as “choppy, boxy, blind and linear”, compared to what she had access to in her previous life as an underwater sentient tree) are vividly done. So much of the book is good medicine: sadly, it comes with much more than a spoonful of sugar.

The Host, you see, is a novel in which everything is special. It is not enough, for example, that humans be sufficiently willful that they are hard to subdue, and sufficiently emotionally intense that occupation be disorientating for the souls; they must be the most willful species the souls have ever encountered, and their emotional reactions must be the most emotionally intense the souls have ever encountered, such that Wanderer (the narrator) is driven to wonder how any soul could survive in a human host. (And this is not to mention humanity’s “physical drives”, the like of which the souls have never seen, although in fact Meyer does a very good job of not mentioning them for most of her book’s six hundred-plus pages.) Nor can the narrative simply be the story of a soul and a host wrestling for control of a body: it must be the story of an extraordinary soul, who has lived many lives on many worlds, and an equally extraordinary host, so secure in her identity that, one soul asserts, she would have “crushed” any soul other than Wanderer in days.

To an extent, the snowflake-ness of all this can be justified. Melanie is only 17, and has just experienced her first love, while for Wanderer’s species altruistic urges are as powerful as the base physical ones that afflict humans. A better recipe for rose-tintedly seeing the best in everything is hard to imagine, and in fact the novel’s very last move could be read as an acknowledgement that nothing about the book’s story is as special as Wanderer tells us it is. But long before you reach that point, the sheer density of exceptionality becomes suffocating, and leaves you with the feeling that some of the most interesting implications of the novel’s premise are never being drilled to any great depth. The division between Melanie and Wanderer eschews anything resembling a reflection of the real complexity of memory, for instance; Melanie’s remembrances are simply a collection of home movies.

The true target of the novel is revealed in a conversation between Wanderer and her therapist who, in a nice touch, turns out to have been a front-line soldier during the initial colonization period. Describing why she kept a human name, and how she ended up bonding strongly enough with her assigned partner to maintain the relationship after the war, she says:

“At first, of course, it was random chance, and assignment. We bonded, naturally, from spending so much time together, sharing the danger of our mission. […] We lived every day with the knowledge that we could meet a final end at any moment. There was constant excitement and frequent fear.

“All very good reasons why Curt and I might have formed an attachment and decided to stay together when secrecy was no longer necessary. And I could lie to you, assuage your fears, by telling you that these were the reasons. But …” She shook her head and then seemed to settle deeper into her chair, her eyes boring into me. “In so many millennia, the humans never did figure love out. How much is physical, how much in the mind? How much accident and how much fate? Why did perfect matches crumble and impossible couples thrive? I don’t know the answers any better than they did. Love simply is where it is. My host loved Curt’s host, and that love did not die when the ownership of the minds changed.” (41-2)

As noted above, we already know by this point that Melanie was travelling with a man she truly loved, name of Jared. Actually, that’s being too kind: we have been bludgeoned over the head with the fact. The first time Wanderer gets caught up in Melanie’s memories of Jared, she says that despite the intimidating similarity of human faces (only “tiny variations in color and shape” to tell them apart by), “This face I would have known among millions” (10). Another memory recalls Melanie’s first meeting with Jared, after months of trying to survive with her younger brother, Jamie, during which, despite thinking he’s soul-possessed and out to get her, she has time to note his iron-hard abs and prominent cheekbones. Nor does Melanie object too strenuously when Jared’s his first action on realising she is also a free human is to kiss her, with only “I’ve just been alone so long!” (33) as an excuse. She focuses rather on his gentle voice, and how “He seems to realize how brittle I am, how close to breaking” (34). And this is only the beginning: originality of phrasing is not Meyer’s strong point, and once the relationship gets going, there’s really a lot of talk about how Jared’s touch sets Melanie aflame, and similar cliches of burning passion. Again, some of this — and some of the (for Wanderer) terrifying intensity of Melanie’s memories in general — can be attributed to the excitement of youth. But a lot of it seems to just be trying too hard. Jared says things like, “Neither heaven nor hell can keep me apart from you, Melanie” (84), after only a month of acquaintance, and without any detectable irony; never is the necessity of the relationship seriously questioned.

The questions the novel is interested in, clearly, are those identified by Wanderer’s therapist: whether Melanie’s love will transfer to Wanderer as completely as Wanderer’s therapist’s host’s love transferred and what such a transfer might mean. So it’s no surprise at all that Melanie’s yearning persuades Wanderer to go AWOL in an attempt to find Jared and Jamie (“I could not separate myself from this body’s wants”, 88), nor a surprise that she succeeds (thanks to directions to a secret hide-out in the Arizona desert memorized by Melanie); nor is it even a surprise that Jared, Jamie, and the plucky band they’ve hooked up with in Melanie’s absence are not best pleased to see Wanderer.

Nevertheless, what follows — when Meyer has moved all her pieces into place, and can just let them bounce off one another for a few hundred pages, with Wanderer’s struggles to fit in among a small community of survivors and deal with human emotions as the notional centre of gravity — is when the novel is at its most successful. The relationships that Wanderer (with Melanie as the devil on her shoulder, a dynamic that becomes increasingly appealing) builds up with various members of the community are largely well-handled, from the surrogate-mother role she adopts with Jamie to a genuine, if tentative, friendship that develops with the group’s pragmatic-yet-secretly-kind leader, Jeb. (Sometimes it seems as though Meyer is being cheerfully blatant about her use of central casting extras: the community’s Doc is exactly as crotchety yet honourable as you’d expect a character called Doc to be.) Wanderer’s relationship with Jared is, as you’d expect, fraught, recalling the reactions of human crew on Battlestar Galactica on learning that a close friend is a cylon (or, perhaps more aptly, recalling the reaction of Buffyverse humans to vamped friends). Wanderer is gradually accepted as a sort of teacher, giving the community (and, of course, us) the chance to learn things about her people that were heretofore unknown. We get more detail on the evolution and biology of souls, explaining why it is they were so horrified by the brutal violence of normal human affairs (indeed, it was a dramatic decrease in crime and unpleasantness that led to humans noticing the arrival of the souls in the first place). We get glimpses of a possible future in which humans and souls co-exist, such as an apparently loving family in which two souled parents are raising an unensouled child. There’s a lovely conversation about television at one point, in which it is revealed that all human shows up to and including The Brady Bunch have been censored due to their sexual and violent content. The new ones all have happy endings: “you have to consider the intended audience” (477).

That the novel stays readable right up to the end is something of an accomplishment, because the further into her story she gets, the more Meyer seems determined to undermine its integrity. (Maybe she thinks she’s considering her audience.) There is an odd inconsistency, for example, between the emphasis on Melanie-as-Melanie’s athleticism, on Wanderer-in-previous-life’s adventuresome feats, and the way in which Wanderer-in-Melanie’s-body turns into a weakling girl whenever the plot requires it: she is rendered helpless by the sight of a gun, and finds digging a hole in the ground an impossibly intimidating physical feat. Such a retreat to traditional gender roles — because of course Jared is a powerful leader of men — can’t be entirely unselfconscious on Meyer’s part, given the discussions elsewhere in the novel about alien societies with different constructions of gender; but it does seem odd. Similarly, there are moments in which the sf elements of the story are betrayed to lend a frisson of sensationalism to the relationship between Wanderer and Jared: at one point, Wanderer is forced — forced! — to kiss Jared, hoping the intensity of the contact will re-awake Melanie’s personality within her; at another point, Jared is forced — forced! — to scar Wanderer’s face, to provide her with a convincing alibi. Of course, the souls’ medicine can heal said scar right up.

But these are passing moments, and to be kind, you could argue that one way of parsing the novel’s trajectory is that it’s about Wanderer learning to escape from the neutered narratives of her kind. Sadly, she never quite does, and even with a six-hundred-page run-up the novel’s closing stages, which lean heavily on Wanderer’s propensity for selflessness, become tedious, not least because Wanderer’s final choice is rigged so as to make everyone else believe in it, too. In the last fifteen pages, Wanderer is put on a pedestal that threatens to burst out of the stratosphere; as I mentioned earlier, the book’s final move undercuts this somewhat, but it’s too little, too late. If Melanie is the devil on Wanderer’s shoulder, then Wanderer is an angel; and angels are even harder to believe in than souls.