Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Trouble with Twilight - A Review

Cross-posted from www.stephendsullivan.com.

(There are SPOILERS below. And hard-hitting opinions. You've been warned.)

Twilight is not a very good book. It has numerous problems that I'll go into below, but there is one part of the book that is really strong: It captures almost perfectly the feeling of what it's like to be a teenager passionately in love -- that obsessive, all-consuming love that's akin to nothing so much as madness. Twilight gets that feeling dead-on right.

Of course, on the other hand, in the book, that emotion is oddly decoupled from any sexual feelings, which is very unlike being a teenager. So, even in its strength, Twilight has a deep flaw; the obsession is right, but the hormones and other things underlying those feelings seem completely absent. I've been told that other reviewers have gone on about the possible reasons behind that choice elsewhere, so I won't speculate. As far as the book's flaws go, I find that to be a minor one -- probably outweighed by the capturing of fiery passion.

Here are the main problems: the book has no plot, and it has no main characters. It also, apparently, had no editor, at least not in the old-fashioned sense of the word: someone who takes raw prose and helps the author craft them into something worth publishing. Because of that severe lack of editorial guidance, Twilight rambles. It took nearly three-quarters of the book for anything interesting to happen (when the rival vampires show up). The rest of the novel was merely set-up, stage dressing that could have been accomplished in a chapter or two. Even listening to the book in pieces while driving, I was amazed at how little happened from chapter to chapter. The first three-quarters of the book could have been drastically condensed, and the whole book would have been better for it.

Twilight is filled with what a wise editor I know called "process." Process is tiny details that don't advance the story or serve any real purpose except to fill out a word count. "Don't do that," she counseled me on one of my first novels. (And, for me, one warning was enough.) Yes details, even tiny ones, can be important to a book -- but it's the choice of those details and how revealing they are that separates a good author from one who is merely in love with his or her own words. Twilight is in love with its own words the same way the two main characters are in love with each other -- madly, obsessively in love. In love enough to be blind to everything else.

Let's talk about those main characters a bit. Who are they? Sure, we know their names, Edward and Bella, and we know that one is a clumsy teenager and the other a vampire, but what else do we know about them? We know that her parents are divorced, and he's part of a vampire family, and we know they're in love. But why are they in love? I don't know. I couldn't tell from the book. Bella seems to be in love with him because he's handsome and mysterious; he's in love with her because she smells good and (spoiler here), he can't read her mind.

But why? What character traits do they have that attracts them to each other? She apparently likes to cook and/or clean (at least, she's always doing those things, like any good vampire's "housewife"); he likes to play baseball in thunderstorms and drive fast. And they're in love. Don't you get it? They're IN LOVE!

Basically, their main character trait is that they're in love with each other, and they're in love with each other because the book needs them to be. The two of them are empty vessels entirely filled up with this obsessive love. That's it. There's no more to it. And while teenage love may feel this way, life is seldom so uncomplicated.

Yet, I have the feeling that very emptiness is one of the things that has made the book (and series) so popular. The characters are empty vessels into which the readers can pour their own experiences and emotions. As near as I can tell, Bella has no special character traits. (I kept hoping her clumsiness would turn out to be CP or some interesting and perhaps-fatal disease; at least in book 1, no such luck.) Edward keeps telling her she's "special," and I think when he says that to a girl who is plainly not very special, the readers may be taking that as "I'm special, too!" After all, if boring old Bella can be special, surely anyone can.

And Edward is a cipher as well. He's the "best boyfriend" who you can fill up with your own hopes and desires -- because he has no personality, aside from his love for you and his "dark secret." (Which is a pretty sparkly dark secret, as it turns out.) Surely a guy who's close to 100 years old could have had something interesting in his background. Nope. He's just been hanging out since 1920, waiting to meet the right girl: Bella, the special one. (Hasn't even gotten laid yet.) So, for readers, Edward gets to be whomever you want him to be in the same way that Bella becomes "everygirl." But that projection on the part of readers shouldn't be mistaken for character or personality.

Oh wait, there are a couple of perhaps-telling character details: Bella likes to complain -- even though, near as I can tell, she has little to complain about. Sure, her parents are divorced, but it doesn't seem to have been a nasty divorce. She doesn't like her dad, though he seems to be a stand-up guy; she does like her mom, who's a worrying narcissistic flake. (I can't make sense of that, either.) She complains about her friends or would-be friends, too, especially when they worry about her.

And Edward? He likes restraining Bella. Picking her up, carrying her, holding her so tight she can't move, and encircling her wrists so she can't escape or "hurt herself." Lots of subtle bondage in the book, I thought. Lots of The Man lording over and protecting The Woman (both from others and herself), too. Very old Testament, but, as I said, I believe others have written more on that. In any case, their relationship doesn't seem very healthy to me. But the book would have been more interesting if it'd gone further down that dark, obsessive road. (Maybe I'll write a goth vampire romance taking that path one day.)

So the main characters have no real character -- substantially less character than the minor characters, in fact. Dad, Mom, Mike, Jacob, Jessica, and Edward's whole family all have more character than Edward and Bella. Heck, the villain -- when he finally shows up -- has more character, too. With all that lack of character, you'd think there'd be some plot to keep things moving. But there isn't. I think I can sum the plot up in just a few sentences:

Bella comes to town, meets Edward, and falls in love. She discovers he's a vampire and meets his family. A bad vampire comes to town, makes a play for Bella, and Edward kills him.

Oh and did I mention THEY'RE IN LOVE!

And because this is a romance, not a fantasy or action thriller, when the big battle between good and evil happens, it all happens off screen. That's right, our POV character, Bella, conveniently passes out (maybe because she's special) and misses all the blood and gore -- all the consequences of obsessive love versus obsessive ... lust? (If we're going to give the book credit for thinking along those themes.) Who made that storytelling choice? It's the old hero trapped in the well filled with deadly gas and no means of escape cliffhanger, where the next chapter begins, "After I got out of the well...."

Not a very satisfying solution, at least not in my book. But someone must have liked it; the book's sold about a squillion copies. (Capitalist dogma not withstanding, good sales do not a good book -- or movie -- make.)

Speaking of squillions of dollars, last night, I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for the second time. Good movie based on a good book, but way more plot than the movie could contain. A trailer for the next Twilight movie played before it, and I had a thought: If Harry had too much plot for a movie, maybe Twilight, which has a plot for the last quarter or so, will have just the right amount. Maybe Twilight will be better on film. (Not better than Harry, just better than the book Twilight is based on.)

I haven't watched the movie yet. But when I do, I'll let you know what I think -- at least on my Twitter account. I'm hoping they won't cut away just as the fight starts.

As to the sequels... I'll check out at least one. I do a lot of driving, and audio books help pass the time. I'm not expecting much, though. Maybe, if I'm lucky, they'll hire an editor for this next book (I doubt it).

But at least, for a few moments, during the long Twilight, I got to feel again what it was like to be a teenager in love.

Glad I've grown up since then.

1 comment:

Lesley said...

I didn't think there could be anything worse than the Twilight movie, but it sounds like the book might be.