Jul 4, 2009

Critical Monkey entry #1 - Twilight, or, Bella feels chagrined and Edward chuckles.

For my first entry in my personal Critical Monkey list, I thought I'd go big or go home, and tackle a publishing juggernaut of almost unprecedented size:

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer.

Why I might hate it: Let's face it, a near-forty-year-old man is not the target demographic for a tale of high school vampire romance. Also, Stephen King hated it, and while his output may have waned over the years, the man's a born storyteller with a true grasp of the craft of writing, and I'm inclined to follow his lead on this one. And the absolute saturation of the media with any and all things Twilight-related sets my teeth on edge. I mean, c'mon, she's written five books, and she accounted for one in seven books purchased in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2009. No one is that good, and my experience is that the more overblown sales of a book are, the worse the book is (see also: Tuesdays with Morrie) (Better yet, don't).

Why I might like it: The movie version, although I went in preparing to hate it, was actually not that bad. Yes, the special effects outright sucked, and the paleface makeup was laughable, but it was a movie of surprising quiet moments and effective atmosphere. Not a great flick, and nowhere near as good as the Harry Potter films (to make an analogy to another pop-culture landmark), but I was entertained despite myself. And despite my recent rant, I'm really not against re-examining the vampire mythos. I never agreed with the classic "can't be seen in a mirror" bit, and nothing is above a little tweaking now and then.

The book itself: Yee-ouch.

I went in with an open mind, I really did. The movie, as I said, had its moments, and gave me hope that perhaps, just perhaps, there was a reason for the hype beyond, well, hype. But what the movie proved is that gorgeous scenery and charismatic actors can go a long way toward rectifying piss-poor dialogue and repetitive, mundane writing. And what Twilight (the book) proves is that success is not dependent on talent. Because quite frankly, Twilight is one of the most embarrassingly amateurish novels down the pike in a good long while. And while I am aware that this may come across like the crank who can't get into today's music and pines for the olden days, I cannot fathom Meyer's success.

The plot, for those seven people out of the loop, follows Bella Swan, a seventeen-year-old girl come to live with her father in Washington State. At her high school, she becomes instantly attracted to Edward Cullen, a mysterious teen described thusly:
His skin...literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut...A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.
And it goes on like this, again and again, pages of purple. I could excuse a little over-enthusiasm on the part of Bella, but fully half the novel is given over to how perfect Edward looks. Which helps him, I guess, as his actual personality is that of a total ass. He makes a big show of how badly he feels for Bella, as she's in complete danger whenever he's around, but he shows no restraint and therefore dooms her anyway to satisfy his own emotional needs. Actually, he is a monster.

But then again, Bella is a conceited shrew, so that axiom that there is someone for everyone is likely true. Certainly no one else could stand to be around either of them for ten minutes. Bella is one of the least likable characters I can recall, a whiny neurotic who complains endlessly about how no one understands her, likes her, or appreciates her, yet is surrounded by people who understand, like, and appreciate her. I understand it's written from her point of view, but she comes across like a complete narcissist. There's nothing that says your central character must be likable, but somehow I'm not getting the vibe that we're supposed to dislike her.

But luckily for the plot, there's far more to Edward than being a self-centered dimwit. It turns out he's also a 100+-year-old vampire! (Sure, vampires that glow rather than die in sunlight, but, yeah, vampires, sure, let's go with that.) Which strikes one as odd because, for a centenarian, he provides little proof that he's learned anything over the years. Edward may look 18, but he should behave slightly older, I think. When you compare him to, say, Claudia, the 60-year-old vampire in a six-year old body in Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire, Meyer's complete and utter lack of insight into the effects of age and experience on the psyche become even clearer. Edward does not come across as old, or even learned, but rather like a goth emo kid affecting a quasi-arch manner of affected speech that would come across as painfully annoying if it weren't so devastatingly dull.

I won't get into the actually mechanics of vampirism here, as Meyer is well within her rights to alter such mythological creatures to her whim. It would not matter a whit if her tale was in any way interesting. But it's not. It's boring. Utterly mundane and uninspired. And much of that can be ascribed to the fact that absolutely nothing remotely of any interest happens beyond two unlikable people mooning endlessly over each other. If there is a junior Harlequin Romance imprint, consider this a perfect example of the form.

Meyer does her plot no favours with the sort of amateurish hack writing that should make a tenth grader's creative writing homework, not a published author from an established press. Meyer never met an adverb she didn't use, and as every character angrily, hungrily, happily, sarcastically, or leeringly haunts the pages, Meyer's lack of actual talent becomes quite clear. Hardly a page flips by without Edward chuckling, or Bella feeling chagrined. I don't often recommend an author consult a thesaurus, but the advice in this instance is apt.

"But wait a moment, Corey!" I hear you ask (I have very good hearing). "This is a book for young adults! Don't overthink this, it's written more simply for a reason!" Point taken. There is an established (although arguable) tradition of writing with a slightly broader style for novels aimed at the younger set. But I put it to you that there is a wide difference between simple and simple-minded. And after having recently read Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, and Arthur Slade's The Hunchback Assignments, I am more convinced than ever that writing for young adults does not mean writing stupid. And while some have paralleled the ascension of Twilight and its sequels with the Harry Potter phenomenon, it only goes so far as sales, as Potter, while not art, was an entertaining and often gloriously exciting series.

Twilight is a spectacular waste, insipid and vapid. It is insultingly poor, and how anything this incompetent was allowed to pass through an editor's hands and into the public sphere is distressing.


On the next Critical Monkey: Sure, taking on Twilight is like boxing a mountain (doesn't really get you anything), but for my next exercise in self-punishment, I take on the full roundhouse kick of Chuck Norris and The Justice Riders. But not right away, I need to recuperate.


Remi said...

Well, you sure took a bite out of that one.

Andrew said...

"HIs glistening, pale lavender lids were shit..."

Based on this one, lonesome excerpt, I fail to understand Bella's attraction for him. But perhaps it's a typo. ;)

Bella a narcissist? I wonder why thousands of teenaged girls identify with her....

Corey said...

Dutifully noted and corrected, thanks. Damn spellcheck, I get way too lazy sometimes.

And I detect a note of sarcasm in your writing voice, I believe. I think most kids are self-absorbed, and yes, this does come across in the book. However, I've read many books from a teenagers point of view that point at narcissism, yet are not quite so unreadable.

As to why thousands of teenage girls identify with her? I plead the 'old man who doesn't undertand today's kids' card. Now get off my damn lawn!

Monica said...

awesome review, Corey. You are a very critical monkey. i do appreciate that you went in with an open mind.

The Bumbles said...

Kudos to you for giving it a shot. I have avoided it like the plague, fearful that it would be a big fat waste of my time. Or that I would love it and be completely ashamed.

Corey said...

Ooh, tough call. But it also takes courage to admit you like something other people hate. I have often had to argue for certain films I can't help but love despite their acknowledged critical hatred (Alien3, Lifeforce, a few others).

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