Tuesday, December 29, 2009

BLOGGING TWILIGHT, part 3: I Am Bella Swan

For reasons probably passing understanding, I’ve decided to read the entire Twilight Saga, though at this rate it will take me the rest of my life. You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Chapter 2: Open Book
So Bella goes back to school and Edward is MIA. This book being written prior to the H1N1 epidemic, I had to clear from my head the suspicion that it was only a touch of the swine flu. Something more mysterious is going on.

Bella is all nervous wondering if she is going to see him at lunch. She briefly entertains the notion of telling him off, and then confesses she is more a “Cowardly Lion” than “the terminator” (pg. 30). What did the Terminator do to Stephanie Meyer to not deserve capitalization?

So Edward doesn’t show up at lunch or in class. Bella has a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with her, but also realizes this is a very narcissistic conclusion to draw. These sort of details endear Bella to me; it’s too bad that these are also details that are largely un-filmable, which is probably why a lot of film reviews characterize Bella as entirely passive, a cipher through which female audiences can project themselves into Edward Cullen’s arms. For a criticism of the film this is valid; I’m not saying reviewers ought to take the source material into account—that lets directors and screenwriters off the hook. Of course, Twilight fans would probably eat filmmakers alive for trying to introduce a device through which we could see a little more of Bella.

What sort of device? Maybe like an actual FRIEND? After Bella goes home from the first day of Edward’s absentee streak, she checks her e-mail and has a grand total of three messages. This is after several days. Oh, and all three are from her mother.

Which is not to say that I come home every day to deluge of messages from my friends. Mostly I have copious Facebook updates and the occasional missive from the Obama Administration.

Speaking of the F-word, let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that Twilight was published before Facebook went public. I opened my account just before college, in 2006, when I believe you still had to have a "dot-edu" e-mail address to get in. In 2005, when Twilight was published, it may still very well have been Mark Zuckerberg’s personal directory of available Harvard women. (I’m not very well versed in the history; I’m waiting for the Sorkin/Fincher adaptation of Accidental Geniuses.) I am exceedingly grateful we don’t have a chapter about Bella agonizing over the meaning of a “poke” from Edward. I suppose the other books came after Facebook—I may have spoken too soon.

At dinner that night with her father, Bella inquires after the Cullens. We discover Charlie is very much a pro-Cullen partisan. He takes offense at the rumors swirling around town about them, praises their family values and the altruism of Dr. Cullen, who is apparently a very talented surgeon. Charlie Swan even seems to have a little man-crush on the good doctor, but maybe I’m reading too much into that.

So Dr. Cullen is especially good at his job. He should be. I imagine he’s had some years to develop his skills, even if the learning curve on a vampire is as slow as Edward would indicate.

Speaking of Edward being kind of an idiot, he eventually shows up in school again. I guess Forks High doesn’t really care if students disappear for a week at a time?

It’s snowing and as Bella peers at him nervously during lunch, he seems to be in a good mood. It’s his kind of weather. In class a few minutes later, he is suddenly friendly. Over the course of the class, he and Bella have a pleasant conversation while sorting slides into phases of mitosis. At one point she accidentally touches his hand, and it is freezing cold.

Do you have a snowball in your pocket or are you just a vampire to see me?-Bella’s interior monologue

Edward has a bad habit of freaking the fuck out every time Bella notices ANYTHING. In class she notices that his eyes are a butterscotch color when a week previous they’d been black. In response he changes the subject and clenches his fists again. This happens throughout the conversation—he veers suddenly from “laughing and friendly” to “T-minus thirty seconds-to-launch” at the slightest provocation. I think he would LITERALLY do it at the drop of a hat.

Much like Bella I find the literary incarnation of Edward Cullen to be largely more appealing—he can be friendly and funny and charming and basically nothing like Robert Pattinson. Pattinson nails the moody, sullen, crazy Edward, but not the half Bella could conceivably fall for. I don’t think this is Pattinson’s fault—so far Edward is bi-polar in the extreme. He rockets from Jekyll to Hyde and back again with alarming frequency, and how do you play that without it seeming like a joke?

It sort-of works in book form in part because these conversation scenes are very long. They would never be this long outside of a Tarantino film-adaptation of the book. The modern conventions of adapting a popular book to film usually seem to involve reducing key scenes of dialogue down about a minute and a half. This conversation is several pages in the book; it barely registered when I saw the movie.

It is dialogue so it reads fast, but it is LONG. Stephanie Meyer gets to use basically every emotional variant on the word “said” in a matter of pages.

I had a writing professor who asserted that you should never use ANY of the words you could theoretically substitute for “said,” the idea being that you should be able to convey the intended emotion through other context. So “‘Look out!’ he yelled,” is sort of redundant, because “look out” is the sort of thing you don’t just say in your indoor-voice, or ask like a question. In fact, her rule extended so far as “ask.” As in, questions in scenes of dialogue ought to be followed by “he said” as well, since a question mark indicates a question already anyway.

Stephanie Meyer does not follow this (admittedly dogmatic) rule. Lines of dialogue between Edward and Bella in this scene are followed by all sorts of verbs. Here’s a few from page 48: “he mused,” “I muttered darkly,” “he pressed,” “I said,” “he disagreed,” “Edward surmised,” “I half-smiled.” That last one is one of those lines where they substitute a normal said-verb for something weird, so you end up reading the line with irregular emphasis, falling on “smiled” like an anapestic foot. It’s a cool trick, but I don’t know if the aforementioned writing professor would allow it.

I suppose the substance of the conversation is sort of important. Edward mentions that he finds Bella difficult to read—usually he’s pretty good at that. Memo to Edward: if you are going to be so paranoid whenever someone remarks on your extraordinary attributes, maybe not so much with the bragging for you! Anyway he can’t resist the chance to psychoanalyze Bella:

“You put on a good show,” he said slowly. “But I’d be willing to bet that you’re suffering more than you let anyone see.” (pg. 49)

I didn’t know Edward wrote the lyrics for Matchbox 20. Bella opens up to Edward, and we finally get the back-story about her mother and the boyfriend we were probably supposed to get on page four. Bella goes to gym again and a guy named Mike talks at her for a while, but she’s distracted. Why DID she open up to this pale, lanky, sometimes black-eyed, sometimes gold-eyed, cold-handed, sometimes fist-clenching boy?

On the way out of the parking lot Bella almost backs into another car. Again—a very relatable moment for me; I once crashed a car into a boat. We are the same person, Bella.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

BLOGGING TWILIGHT, part 2: First Sight

For reasons sort-of already articulated, I am going to read the entire Twilight Saga from beginning to end, and report on my experiences. Naturally, the following entry contains information/spoilers about the first book, Twilight. If you are interested in reading the books and somehow have not done so by now, you are me, so I won’t be telling you anything you don’t already know.


We begin in media res, with a pretty decent first sentence: “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” (pg. 1). Part of me would say you could lose that middle section, since we’re already beginning mid-story, which is apparent enough without referring back to essentially nothing, but I like the pause it forces between the first part and the “but even if I had.” First sentences are important. It’s no best-of-times, worst-of-times, but it’ll do.

Our narrator is apparently in the grips of a “hunter,” and we get the idea that he or she is here for self-sacrificial purposes. The narrator muses that this death might even be a “noble” one. I’m guessing this is Bella Swan, because she talks about how if she’d never gone to Forks in the first place she wouldn’t be about to die, but she doesn’t regret her decision. But I probably shouldn’t know that, right?

So death is coming, and the hunter is apparently a nice guy, or the kind of mean guy who acts nice ironically, because he looks at her “pleasantly” in the second paragraph and then smiles “in a friendly way” as he moves to kill our heroine in the fifth paragraph, and then the preface is over. That was quick.

Chapter 1: First Sight

[Isa]Bella Swan, (who is our narrator after all) begins the chapter en route to an airport, her eventual destination the aforementioned Forks, WA. I’m already beginning to feel like that preface was superfluous, because check out the first sentence of chapter 1: “My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down” (pg. 3). A nice little unadorned sentence. I appreciated it all the more a few lines down, after this: “It was in this Town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen.” Uh, what? That’s like a double-hidden-reverse passive voice or something. I’m not even sure there’s a grammatical classification for it.

Bella is moving to Forks as a bit of a self-destructive gesture. Doing so is “an action I that I took with great horror” (pg. 4). The word “that” shows up with disconcerting regularity in these first few pages. I have a feeling that if you were to make a frequency-distribution chart out of the first few pages of this book “I” and “that” would be the ones most often used. Also there’s this:

“I want to go,” I lied. I’d always been a bad liar, but I’d been saying this lie so frequently lately that it sounded almost convincing now. (pg. 4)

I feel like Stephanie Meyer could have fit the word “lie” in there at least two more times if she was really trying.

I’ll get off of page 4 soon, but there is something really problematic here. Bella’s mother says to her “You can come back whenever you want—I’ll come right back as soon as you need me.” Bella says that she could see “the sacrifice in her eyes behind the promise.” When Bella’s mother says she (Bella) can come back, she presumably means to Phoenix, where we are told she lives. But from where is Bella’s mother coming back? What sacrifice are we talking about here? I know from the film Twilight that Bella’s mother goes on the road with her boyfriend—as I recall he is some kind of athlete. The details have yet to be provided to the reader here, though. We don’t know about her mother’s plans, or even that her mother has any plans regarding her boyfriend or anything else. Bella’s only mention of the boyfriend comes a paragraph or so earlier when Bella reassures herself that her “harebrained” mother will be okay without her: “there would be food in the refrigerator, gas in her car…” etc., which doesn’t make it sound like they are about to live out of hotel rooms for a few months. So this detail, that presumably her mother would regret coming back (from somewhere?) if need be, is entirely lost on the reader, and not drilled home to the extent that we would remember it later. In other words, it doesn’t come across as deliberately mysterious, a puzzle piece that we’ll figure out how to use later. It’s just an awkward allusion to nothing, as if an explanation existed in an earlier draft and was later deleted or moved.

Bella gets picked up by her father Charlie at the airport and they share an awkward drive home. We learn that Bella is getting a truck from her father’s wheelchair-bound friend who lives on an Indian reservation. She complains about Forks while describing its physical beauty. I can relate to this. I come from an ostensibly beautiful tourist town in New Hampshire from which I could not wait to escape as a teenager. From what I know about Phoenix, it sounds like it sucks. So really Bella is trading one awful place to live for another. But people don’t like going home, for totally irrational and totally understandable reasons.

It turns out the truck is pretty cool and retro and Bella kicks the tires and all that, but she’s still in a bad mood. She looks out the window of her new/old bedroom and lets “just a few tears escape” (pg. 9). “I wasn’t in the mood to go on a real crying jag,” she says. First of all, I dig the hell out of that line. It’s like Bella got a flash of inspiration on account of the retro truck. Could it be that the sub-average prose so far was meant to reflect Bella’s dead-inside mood? Are we going to get rocking when the vampires show up? I doubt it, but I would be over-the-moon if that was the case. It would really be quite the trick. Second of all, I am completely relating to this. Bella is horrified that Forks High has three hundred fifty seven students. She is later annoyed by the small-town gossipy nature of the place. I am totally with you, Bella.

So she cries herself to lousy sleep and goes to school the next day. Page thirteen and we’re already there; we’re moving right along. Bella gives herself a pep-talk in the truck before she goes to her first class. "I can do this, I lied to myself feebly. No one was going to bite me" (pg. 14).

Something tells me that’s a little bit of irony right there.

Bella goes through her first few classes, meets a few boys who already seem to be jockeying for position, and has a generally awkward first day. In her English class Bella goes over the reading list for the semester: “Bronte, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner. I’d already read everything”(pg. 15). Maybe it’s me but isn’t this sort of like when politicians compare themselves to Lincoln or FDR? I think you’re better off not name-checking these guys.

Also, after a guy starts hitting on her and she jokes that her mother is part Albino and the joke falls flat, Bella says “A few months of this and I’d forget how to use sarcasm” (pg. 16). Phrases like “use sarcasm” really bother me, but when I was trying to figure out why I realized it’s because that’s how people talk in high school.

Then comes lunch, and Bella notices a gang of weirdos huddled in the corner, not eating. Uh, is she looking at me and my friends, circa 2004? Nope. It’s the vampires.

There’s five of them, and we learn that they are the Cullens and the Hales, a group of adopted kids who have been taken in by a young doctor and his wife. They are all incredibly good-looking. This point is driven home hard. One boy is “muscled,” one is “leaner, but still muscular” and one is “lanky” and “boyish.” One girl is “statuesque,” the other “pixielike” (pg. 18). Oh, and their faces are all “devastatingly, inhumanely beautiful” (pg. 19). They are all just sitting there, moody and silent and not making eye contact, like a magazine ad for Ralph Lauren, basically, except they are vampires. I guess Bella doesn’t know they are vampires yet, so we shouldn't either. Anyway a girl at her table fills in the backstory (although not the part about how they are undead) in a hushed voice, while Bella and the lanky one make fleeting eye contact.

And then it turns out she and the lanky boy are lab partners in her next class! Eye-flirting chickens are coming home to roost! But he’s not a very nice lab partner, this lanky one, who at some point we find out is named Edward. When she walks in he gives her a “hostile, furious” stare (23). I remember Robert Pattinson’s take on that one from the movie. I couldn't find a screenshot but this one will do:

(You get the idea)

He sits next to her silently, his fists all balled up and his body tensing with rage. Bella doesn’t get what she did to deserve this. “He didn’t know me from Eve,” she protests (pg. 24). If you’re keeping score at home, that’s Biblical Allusion #2. If this were you, and the kid one seat away looked like he was going to go Columbine at any second like this, wouldn’t it bother you more than intrigue you?

Oh, and while we’re keeping score, Bella first bites her lip two pages earlier: “I bit my lip to hide my smile.” We’ll try to keep track of both as we go, and see if there is some kind of causal relationship between the two.

So then gym class, and then school is over. On the way out Bella has to check in at the front office, and guess who is there? Edward. You probably guessed that, but I led you all the way to the water’s edge. He’s trying to switch into a time-slot for science class. He is unsuccessful. I could have told him that would happen.

By my count Bella had like four classes. This school has like 300 students. I find it hard to believe that another science class even exists. If Edward knew how to work the system, he’d lobby for an independent study. I did a lot of those in high school, and “independent study” is code for “do nothing and have no teacher be responsible for you for several hours a day.” Presumably this not Edward’s first rodeo, in terms of going to high school, since I remember that line from the movie about he’s been 17 for “a long time.” He doesn’t know how to work the system yet? What’s the learning curve on a vampire?

Bella goes home, fighting tears the whole way. What is the deal with this mean, pale, lanky boy? I guess you’ll have to wait until next time to find out because that’s where chapter one ends! It’s not exactly a cliffhanger, but I have a feeling we’ll get some of those later.

3,000 words into this series, and we’ve finally made it through the first chapter. I would say that I am mildly intrigued so far. I have yet to contract Twilight Fever, but I have a mild Twilight Sinus Infection. Or maybe just an actual sinus infection.

BLOGGING TWILIGHT, part 1.5: Original Sin

It occurs to me that my interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in part 1 could be seen as less-than-generous. I would contend that the standard reading of the story is far too generous. It emphasizes the “blind” part of faith—the idea that you should mindlessly obey God, even when His orders are irrational. (Ditto for the story of Abraham, in which God pulls the same stunt of asking for something unreasonable to test faith but pulls his punch at the end.) Is there ever a reason given as to why God doesn’t want Adam and Eve to eat the fruit? It doesn’t kill them like He says it will. They lose their innocence, but is losing your innocence necessarily a bad thing or something inevitable about human nature we should accept and not fear? This story incentivizes the wrong elements of faith.

The story of Adam and Eve and Original Sin is read too often as the story of the fall of man from God’s good grace. But were his good graces even something we wanted, at that high a price? I’m reminded of the Bush Administration, and the idea that we had to sacrifice some of our privacy to ensure our safety. We didn’t.

So I’m troubled by this epigraph, and not sure what it is supposed to mean, if it is supposed to mean anything.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BLOGGING TWILIGHT, part 1: Seriously, I am going to read Twilight

I’m a person who is interested in culture. High culture, low culture, the distinction is really unimportant. I’m also very much a dilettante, and I know that in part because I had to look up how to spell dilettante. I skirt over the surface of most current events, because I don’t have the time to sit down and read a newspaper. Most people don’t, which is why we will all secretly be relieved when print journalism dies. We’ll be off the hook!

But I’m of the opinion that sometimes a man just has to sit down and do something. Something big. Therefore I am going to read the Twilight Saga, all four books, from beginning to end. I am going to find out what all the fuss is about, and I am going to share my thoughts with you, the reader. Feel free to read along with me, like all those people who read Infinite Jest this summer. I don’t envy those people, because endnotes? In a thousand-plus page book? Footnotes would have been easier, right? I love footnotes. Some of my favorite books have footnotes. I wish Heart of Darkness had footnotes, because then probably all of them would. I plan on reading Infinite Jest soon as well (although I have planned on that for a while) and I have spent more time that I’d prefer to admit thinking about how I’m going to deal with those endnotes. I’m thinking a multiple-bookmark scenario, but I might change my mind.

So anyway, TWILIGHT. Let’s do this thing.


So first of all, Twilight has an epigraph. I’m a little impressed. Of the series, only the seventh Harry Potter book has an epigraph, and let me tell you, when I saw it I was monumentally pumped for what I was about to read.

I bought Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows the Sunday after it came out, because I had actually only started the series earlier that summer. I read them all while I was living in Philadelphia in a month or so, during which I was very much underemployed. I moved to Boston a week or so prior to the book’s release, and went with a group of friends to the release-night celebration in Harvard Square. There were hundreds of people there, including Potter-themed bands playing in Harvard Yard and some kind of caroling Quaker sect by the train station presumably on hand to persuade us from our pagan ways. It was of no use. People were already lined up at every bookstore we passed, casting spells and being otherwise blasphemous. Those lines were part of the reason I waited a few days. Both the length of said lines and the people contained therein were a little off-putting. I mean, I loved the books and all, but my affection for JK Rowling doesn’t extend to Harry and the Potters.

But mostly I just didn’t feel the need to read the book right away, rushing through it in a night or so. I wanted to take it slow and try to enjoy the reading experience. It might have been easier for me; I was new to whole scene. I didn’t have to wait years between installments. It must be hell to do that, actually.

Twilight feels like a recent phenomenon, but presumably at least some people have been interested in the series since this book was published in 2005. Breaking Dawn was only four years later, but there must have been some anticipation in the run-up, right? Did people line up at bookstores on the night before? I never heard about parties in the streets or anything. I have enough of a grip on the zeitgeist to know that when Breaking Dawn was published, fans were underwhelmed. I suppose we’ll see how I feel eventually (if I can get past the epigraph of the first book).

I don’t know if people felt that way about Harry Potter VII, because absence of urgency aside, I nonetheless went on media blackout for the week I was reading.

There was some talk when Michael Jackson died about the death of the monoculture; as our media markets fracture and splinter off into ever smaller pieces, people just aren’t experiencing media en masse anymore. Cass Sunstein was one of the first scholars to warn about the filtering effect of the internet—with so many options for what we can read and watch we eventually start closing ourselves off from information we disagree with until our media experience is self-congratulatory feedback loop. This is how birthers happen.

So the notion goes that Michael Jackson’s death was one of the last things we would all experience together. This might be upsetting for people, but there’s a silver lining. I had to ignore virtually all passing conversation for the week I was reading Harry Potter. I heard more details about The Dark Knight than I would have liked to hear by the time I finally got the money together to do see it. If we all close ourselves off and only experience what we want to experience, at least we won’t have to deal with spoilers. I guess that’s too high a price for some people, but I rarely have unadulterated experiences with narrative forms of media.

That’s true for Twilight, too. I’ve seen the first film, and I’ve read enough review-wise about the New Moon film adaptation that I have an idea of where it is going. I even feel like I may know what happens in the fourth book, but it was long enough ago that I can’t be sure. The blank spot is Eclipse, but obviously we’ll be getting to that.

I’m still stuck on the epigraph, 800 words into this post. It quotes the Bible. Genesis 2:17, in fact. It’s a pretty fucking bland sentiment. Eat of the tree of knowledge, and die. Is this supposed to be ominous? I never understood original sin. What riles me up is the idea that God would say “Hey there’s this knowledge over here, but I don’t want you to have it." (It's not like Adam fucked a goat or something - what's the big deal?) Why do you have to be stupid to love God?

The epigraph feels tossed away. Part of the reason the Harry Potter 7 epigraph was gratifying is because it was the only one, at the conclusion of the series. The books were sneered at in some circles as children’s books, which was one of those things that was ostensibly true but not really true. 5 year-old kids lugging around copies of The Order of the Phoenix were maybe identifying the words on the page, but they’re not seeing the Orwellian parallels. So that epigraph was a signal to the older generations of Potter fans—this book is for you. Shit is getting real.

So what does the Twilight epigraph signify? Those of us who have eaten at the tree of knowledge aren’t welcome? Only the stupid need apply?

Next Time: I deal with the Preface and Chapter 1 of Twilight.