Monday, November 14, 2011

The "Twilight" Challenge: Part 1 - The gauntlet is thrown as I review the first "Twilight" book!

This Friday, the latest film in the Twilight Saga hits theatres: “Breaking Dawn (Part 1).”  I’m sure it will be delightfully terrible.  In ‘celebration,’ we’re spending this week examining the Twilight franchise in depth with my epic five-part investigation of the series: “The Twilight Challenge.”  This was originally published on YourHub in June 2010, but I’ve revised, expanded, and updated it for 2011.  The premise of the article was this: after years of making fun of the series, I decided to put my money where my mouth was, issuing myself a challenge: read one of the books and watch all the currently released films.  Truly terrifying.  “The Twilight Challenge” is a multi-chapter report of my findings, with reviews, analysis, and some guest commentary from Monthly Ten co-host Sean Chapman.

It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.  Today I present the first fifth of the article, including the “Prologue” and “Chapter One,” where I issue myself the challenge and embark on this journey by reading the first novel.  There will be four more parts, one each day Tuesday through Friday.  On Friday afternoon, expect my review of the “Breaking Dawn” movie. 

Read “The Twilight Challenge: Part 1” after the jump….

Dark Moon
In which a young journalist’s big mouth gets him into a sticky situation

‘Twas a wintry day in English class, and our friendly, teacher-led discussion of the Eastern philosophy known as Taoism had descended into a rather heated 26-way debate about pop culture’s relationship to modern patterns of thought, with some students discussing television shows, others movies, a small percentage books, and a far greater number focusing on plans for the lunch period that was still two-and-a-half hours away.  Our teacher, miraculously mustering the collective chaos of the room, made a point about the distinction between low and high art and why low art is more popular with the masses.  The theory goes like this: if one panders to the lowest common denominator, you’ve created a net that collects everyone from the bottom up, thus increasing your profits.  If one creates art that appeals to more thoughtful members of the audience, then the net doesn’t catch the majority of the population, resulting in much lower profits.  This is why “low art” is always more popular than “high art.”  Subsequently, our teacher requested an example of low art to demonstrate his point. 

I should have kept my bloody mouth shut.

“Twilight!” I blurted out, referencing the series of vampire romance novels and films that stormed the pop culture scene a few years ago and has stubbornly refused to leave ever since.  There was laughter, along with murmurs of agreement from, surprisingly enough, both genders.  There was also, of course, the requisite disagreement, or as I should more accurately put it, flaming arrows of verbal hostility (also, surprisingly, from both genders). 

“It is not low art,” said one disgruntled classmate.  “That’s so mean of you!”

“It’s nothing personal!” I retort, my voice going all high and pitchy as I say it, something I am inexplicably wont to do when put in an uncomfortable situation.

“Well, explain your thinking, Jon,” chimes in the teacher.  Looking at him, I know he agrees with me, but he’d rather let me get roasted first.  Coward.

In the kindest, most measured voice I can muster (keeping in mind I meant no insult to anyone in particular), I explain.  “I just think that whole series is lame.  The vampires don’t qualify as real vampires, the story has an overtly emo vibe, and the moral of the story is frighteningly sexist against women.”

The murmurs of agreement are drowned out by the shrill cries of harsh retorts.  “How can you say any of that?  I doubt you’ve even seen the movies, let alone read the books!” one person says.

They were right; my knowledge of the series came only from the fringes of the story’s existence, from Wikipedia and critical reviews.  What little I knew had only taught me one thing: stay away.  Stay far, far away.

I explained this, and even those sympathizing with my thoughts pointed out that it wasn’t quite right to go around making judgments without familiarizing myself with the material.  For all I knew, I could be woefully wrong about the whole ordeal; it could all be a product of my jaded, rebellious mind.  Could I really go around calling myself a critic while simultaneously slandering movies or books I’ve never actually watched or read?  Even being on the debate team, where one can’t win a round without using copious amounts of evidence to back up one’s claims, had taught me that I was in the wrong here.

Rather than just keep my mouth shut from that day forth on the subject, I decided to do the research, to dive head first into the world of Twilight.  It’s time for me to give this frightfully popular franchise a fair trial, and once all is said and done, I’ll see if I can still back up my claim that Twilight is low art.  To do this, I’m going to take The Twilight Challenge. 

What is The Twilight Challenge?  It’s simple, but fearsome.  My time in Forensics has taught me that to come to any conclusion, one must collect as much evidence as possible, and for Twilight, this starts with the books.  I have to read at least one of those, and then view all of the currently released film adaptations.  Contained herein is a comprehensive journal of my research, recounting my experiences and reporting all my findings and conclusions.    

I’m terrified already....

Chapter One:
Waxing Crescent
In which I present my findings on the novel “Twilight,” and why it has permanently turned me off reading

I’m not a particularly religious person, but after reading Twilight I felt compelled to get down on my knees and thank God many times over for granting me the gift of speed reading.  Without that trait, the 500-plus-pages of Twilight may have taken a week or more to finish, but I comfortably sped through the book in three short days.  I think I may have lost my sanity if I’d had to spend any longer reading about the exploits of Bella Swan and her romantic misadventures in Forks, Washington.  The heat in hell is blistering, but the quicker one can escape, the smaller the third-degree burns. 

In all seriousness, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight isn’t a horrible book....well, actually, it kind of is, but it’s not quite the literary hack job I was preparing myself for.  Most of it is extraordinarily mediocre, and other parts are more troublesome, but my overall impression is that this is, at best, an airplane novel.  It’s the kind of book you buy when you get to the airport terminal and your flight has been delayed by five hours.  While you mutter a string of increasingly foul swear words, you look in your bag and realize you didn’t bring anything to read.  Thus, you go to the bookstore and, since their selection sucks, buy whatever has an interesting-looking cover.  You read it only because you have nothing else to do, and it’s an acceptable way to pass the time.  Once you touch down at your destination, you throw the book away and never think about it again.  Twilight is the textbook definition of a throwaway airport novel.  There is nothing memorable nor extraordinary about it, save for its loose grasp on reality, logic, feminism, and vampire lore.  I’m still scratching my head wondering how a book like this became a worldwide phenomenon.      

‘When I started reading, the first thing I realized, only a few pages in, was just how much I disliked the main character and narrator, Bella Swan.  The book opens with Bella moving to Forks, Washington, a backwater town hours away from Seattle, to live with her father, and right off the bat she begins complaining about everything.  The weather, her Dad, her life, her school, her house, her room, her bathroom, her friends, her acquaintances, etc.  I get that teenagers have angst but...come on.  Yes, there are people out there like this, but I avoid them for a reason.  They shouldn’t be the protagonist of a novel, especially if the goal is to make the main character likable or relatable.  Bella is the book’s biggest and most fatal flaw.  In fact, she may very well be the single most grating and unlikable protagonist in the history of English Literature, for reasons I’ll explore in more depth in the next chapter.  For now, let’s just say she’s narcissistic, self-centered, unbelievably stupid, often arrogant, and generally unlikable in pretty much every way imaginable. 

I hate Bella Swan.

Anyway, Bella feels out of place and lonely until she meets Edward Cullen, a mysterious boy who goes to her high school.  Edward saves her life in a car accident one day, displaying inexplicable powers of speed and strength, which confuses and intrigues Bella to no end.  From there, I think everyone knows the punch line: After much coaxing, Edward reveals that he’s a vampire, and that he and his family only drink the blood of animals, not humans.  Bella and Edward wind up falling in love, he fights some bad guys while she gets the crap kicked out of her, and they ride off into the sunset, sparkling and content....well, kind of.

The romance is the main focus of the novel, and in that regard it fails miserably.  Edward is a far more interesting character than Bella, and had he been the focus of the novel, I might have enjoyed it.  He’s a fairly likeable and intriguing creation, even if Meyer’s egregious changes to vampire lore are patently unacceptable.  The problem is that, from start to finish, I never saw one good reason why Bella and Edward should be together.  Edward’s behavior is hardly attractive, starting with his snide and sometimes standoffish attitude.  He also makes a hobby of sneaking into Bella’s house and watching her sleep without her knowledge or consent, which in addition to being suitable ground for a sexual harassment lawsuit, would also, I imagine, be a turn off to most women.  That’s not the worst part, though.  Edward himself admits that since he is a vampire, he’s dangerous.  His instinct is to kill Bella and drink her blood, and he explains that he wants Bella’s blood more than any other human he’s ever met.  I would say that’s a pretty big pile of reasons not to hook up with this guy.

Now, if there were things about Edward that were so good, so incredibly compelling that they outweighed the life threatening negatives, I might buy Bella’s attraction.  But from start to finish, keeping in mind that since Bella narrates the novel we can hear all of her uncensored thoughts, Bella only talks about how supernaturally attractive Edward is, describing his perfect body, skin, and scent over and over again.  Now, let me get this straight, Bella: you want to spend your entire life with a guy who stalks you without permission, is often rude and condescending, is a century older than you are, avoids the sunlight, doesn’t eat food (you can rule out dinner dates) and instead slaughters small animals, and whose base instinct is to maim and kill you, and you want to ignore all of that just because he’s hot? 

Did I mention I hate Bella?

The lack of logic in the romance works both ways.  When Edward tells his origin story, we learn that he’s never felt a romantic attraction to anyone in one hundred years of life until the day he met Bella.  Okay, that’s sufficiently sappy and maudlin and what not, but...why?  What’s so special about this angst-ridden, annoying, plain-looking teenager that makes her better than every other girl on the planet over many generations?  Hell, I too am a guy, and I know I wouldn’t go near Bella with a ten foot pole, even if she was literally the last female alive and I was the last male and it was up to us to repopulate the Earth.  I’d let humanity die.  It wouldn’t be worth the sacrifice.

There is one possible explanation for why Edward falls for Bella.  Edward can read minds (don’t’s a vampire thing...well, a Twilight vampire thing anyway...), which gets on his nerves when he’s in a crowd, but for some reason he can’t hear Bella’s thoughts.  The connection is never explicitly made, but I think this is the reason he was interested in Bella in the first place.  Her closeted mind is the thing that makes her, in his eyes, better than every other human.  Alright, fair enough, though Meyer could have clarified this in the text rather than leaving it to reader interpretation.  Plus, if that is the impetus behind Edward’s attraction to Bella, then Meyer is a plagiarist in addition to being a poor writer.  In the book Dead Until Dark, the first of the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris (better known through the HBO adaptation, True Blood) the main character, Sookie Stackhouse, is a telepath tortured by mind-reading she can’t control, until she meets Bill, a vampire, and realizes she can’t hear his thoughts, leading to attraction and then romance.  It’s the same scenario, but with the genders reversed.  When was Dead Until Dark published?  2001, four years before Twilight hit the scene.

The romance is the main focus of the novel, until the last third or so, when an evil vampire, James, appears, and becomes obsessed with killing Bella.  You’d think the book would start to pick up here, but it doesn’t.  The appearance of James is too little too late: there’s not enough build-up to make him a threatening antagonist.  He just appears, declares himself the bad guy, and the hunt begins.  For a story to work, it needs conflict, something to drive the plot forward, and the romance doesn’t provide that conflict.  Thus, Twilight has horrible pacing problems that plague it from start to finish.  The book moves so slowly that by the time James appears, I, for one, had stopped caring (actually I was rooting for James to eat Bella but...same difference).  If the story had been tweaked to introduce an antagonistic threat earlier, and the novel trimmed down by a hundred pages or so, the book might be decent, but that’s not the case.  Twilight was rejected by 14 publishers before finally being picked up, and while reasons for rejection have never been made public, I would bet money that the rejections were based on the unjustified length and poor pacing. 

It’s not all bad, though.  I did find some of the characters to be interesting, particularly Edward’s adoptive relatives, the Cullen family of vampires.  Their leader, Dr. Cullen, made it his mission in (after)life to use his vampire curse for good, and therefore he saved Edward and the others in his family from death by turning them into vampires.  Some of Edward’s siblings, like Alice, who can predict the future, and Dr. Cullen himself, are intriguing background characters, far more likable than Bella or even Edward.        

The Cullens are, however, a small glimmer of hope in a book riddled with problems.  The story rarely works on a logical level, there’s no conflict until late in the game, and Bella doesn’t function well as a protagonist.  That’s only scraping the surface.  Thankfully, in terms of the actual writing, Stephenie Meyer’s prose isn’t as painful as expected.  It’s not good by any stretch of the imagination, but nor is it technically awful, per se; the main flaw is that there’s nothing special about her writing, no unique or original voice to distinguish her work from other third-rate novelists.  It gets the job done, though Meyer has a habit of using very large words frequently, probably in an attempt to make her writing sound big and impressive.  Instead, it comes off as pretentious, especially in the three or four instances I counted where the word was simply used in the wrong way.  Rarer still, there are places where the verbiage becomes downright silly, such as a usage of the word “chatterer,” which I was shocked to learn actually is a word.  Real or not, as a writer myself I wouldn’t be caught dead using such an awkward word.  Let me put it this way: there’s a reason I call girls ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘pulchritudinous.’  They technically mean the exact same thing, but that wouldn’t stop me from getting slapped across the face. 

Reading Twilight was, to me, an experience akin to the ancient Chinese form of torture where they lay you on your back while drops of water constantly hit your forehead in a steady progression.  At first, it’s just a nuisance, but it eventually becomes painful, and after long enough those little drops of water can actually make a hole in your head and kill you.  That’s the perfect analogy to describe reading Twilight.  It starts out as mildly annoying, then gets worse and worse until I seriously started wondering whether or not learning to read was worth the trouble.  In fact, Twilight gets exponentially worse as it goes along, a phenomenon I’ve illustrated in graph format below:

Yep.  It’s pretty bad.  Perhaps I’m overthinking it, though.  To be fair, I’m not the target audience, but I’ve done my best to make my complaints objective.  For instance, I don’t have a problem with the love story existing, I just can’t see the motivations behind the romance.  I can see how one might find some minute level of enjoyment from Twilight if they can get past the gaps in logic, ignore how horrible a character Bella is, and be content with the lack of any conflict for the majority of the book.  Even then, though, I don’t see how Twilight could possibly be more than a simple airplane novel.  I cannot comprehend the appeal.  There’s nothing special, groundbreaking, original, or extraordinary about it.  How did Twilight become so popular?

We’ll analyze that question, and go in depth with other flaws in the book, as the article continues.  For now, Twilight the book gets a D.  I certainly didn’t enjoy it enough to even consider reading subsequent installments in the series.

Tomorrow on “The Twilight Challenge:”

Three “Twilight” Topics are Tackled:
Bella, Feminism, and Vampiric Inaccuracies,
Courtesy of special guest writer Sean Chapman!

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