Sunday, January 31, 2010

The non-specific time period that was #12

Avatar

According to BoxOfficeMojo Avatar recently became the biggest-grossing film (unadjusted) of all time – and it's been nominated for a few Oscars as well, so I guess I should probably get my opinion of it out there.

It took me a while to get around to seeing it; the plan was to wait for the numbers to die down a bit so that I wasn’t in a cinema full of people. This proved to be slightly poor judgement on my part, since the blasted thing is still so popular that even the smaller of the two cinemas showing it at the Norwood complex was nearly full by the time everyone was in. At least I was sensible enough to get there early and get good seats.

No doubt you’ve probably all heard a) that it features spectacular visual effects, the likes of which have not been seen before - particularly if you see it in the 3D like I did; and b) the other aspects of the film (plot, characterisation and dialogue) are somewhat underwhelming compared to the impact provided by a).

So, I’m not going to describe the film any further than that. What I’m interested in is what’s going to happen now. Last week it won a Golden Globe for Best Film – Drama and James Cameron the award for Best Director; the question now is ‘will it win the Best Picture Oscar?’

It might, but I don’t necessarily think it should. Yes, It’s an amazing, astonishing film because of what they’ve been able to do – I know it’s a cliché, but it’s literally going to change how people look at making film – but is that what should determine what the ‘best’ film of a given year is?

Cameron’s previous box-office-record-holding and trophy-ensnaring work Titanic won the best picture Oscar (as well as a sackful of awards in the other categories1) back in 1998. While I found that film to be, simultaneously, an awe-inspiring piece of filmmaking2 and a gag-inducing pile of overly-contrived, emotionally-manipulative tripe3, I still consider it to be a better film in terms of what I think a best picture award should be judged on.

People went to see Titanic because of how it made them feel4 – and the astonishing amount of effort, attention to detail and creativity (in terms of how they came up with mays to make it all work) were appreciated on an unconscious level by the millions of people who saw it, many of them over and over and over again5.

Avatar, on the other hand, is dragging in its huge audiences because people are (as far as I can tell) going to see it for the opposite reason – because they are, consciously, aware of the level of special effects being used, rather than because they are appreciating the overall film experience.

Which – to me – is the opposite of what the response of a film audience should be to a truly great film. Yes, Avatar deserves to take home every technical award there is; it’s far and away the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in that regard – but in ten years time when every second film is in 3D with a similar level of visual effects, Avatar, by virtue of the fact this is its only worthwhile quality, is going to look distinctly run-of-the-mill.

Great films should be great because they transcend the nuts-and-bolts aspects of filmmaking – not simply because they use breakthrough technology. I tweeted this question just after I heard that Avatar had won the Golden Globe:


The answer: very little.

My favourite films aren’t ones where I’ve just gone, ‘damn, that looked awesome; I was really impressed by the technology’ – at least not unless there’ve been other worthwhile elements to them. For example, the first 3D film I saw was Coraline, and I loved the effects - but it would have been a great film sans the extra dimension; I have my doubts Avatar in 2D would have been anywhere near as impressive.

I guess it comes down to this: art should embrace technology, but its greatness shouldn’t be defined by it. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that mantra isn’t going to be the one the Academy voters adhere to the same way I do. Still, I can take some solace in knowing that the awards I tend to take as better indicators of a film’s quality – the acting awards6 and the screenplay awards – are unlikely to wind up in James Cameron’s pool room.

That being said, if you haven’t already seen it, go see it. In 3D. It isn’t going to make you a better person, but you need to see it to understand just what all the fuss is about.

1Including, most disappointingly, the wretched Celine Dion’s feculent, ear-poisoning nightmare
My Heart Will Go On winning over Elliott Smith’s Miss Misery from Good Will Hunting – possibly my favourite song of all time.
2 Which it is. You can despise the content all you like but it’s a well-crafted film in every way. They didn’t just spend 300 million clams on green screens and Billy Zane’s hairpiece. The sets were about as accurate as sets can be.
3 I don’t care if you loved it and saw it 17 times; it was shallow manipulation and sappier than the run-off from the Hallmark factory.
4There isn’t a word – in English at least - to describe the combined effect it had on me – immense respect combined with annoyance at the unsubtle emotional manipulation. There might be one in German.
5A friend of mine was made to see it, IIRC, eight times with his girlfriend. Apparently, she went another few times with others. Insane.
6Not always, though. Gwyneth Paltrow and Marisa Tomei, I’m looking in your direction. Jack Palance - well, you I’ll forgive ‘cause you’re so damn awesome.


Avenue Q

Wow, two headings staring with ‘Av’ – what are the chances? Perhaps I should have spent more time doing/learning about things that would have made it an all-‘av’ post: average rainfall, Avagadro's Law7, avoirdupois weight8 or avocados9.

Double alliteration10 aside, I saw Avenue Q at Her Majesty’s Theatre last week. For those who aren’t aware, it’s a recent musical (opened on Broadway in 2003) that draws very heavily on Sesame Street for inspiration – i.e. most of the characters are puppets, but of the glove and arm-controlled variety, i.e. a quite visible person walks around with the puppet character, manipulating them and providing the voice.

In it, Princeton (as the name suggests) has graduated from University and winds up renting an apartment on Avenue Q, where he meets the other residents – the puppet characters Kate Monster, Trekkie Monster (no relation) and Nicky & Rod (two guys who bear more than a passing resemblance to Bert & Ernie); and the human characters Brian, his fiancee Christmas Eve, and the building supervisor Gary Coleman. Technically, it’s the character of Gary Coleman, played by someone who’s not Gary Coleman.

Sorry if that’s confusing. Hey, I didn’t come up with it. I wish I had; it’s an hilarious concept. I’d love to know what the real Gary Coleman thinks of it. He’d probably enjoy any likeness rights money he was getting11.

Though it is, as I mentioned, heavily influenced by Sesame Street, the content is a lot more adult, and that’s the main ‘hook’ to the show – if it didn’t have that it’d just be a musical with puppets. When you throw in songs with titles like It Sucks to be Me, If You Were Gay, Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, The Internet is for Porn, You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love) and (my favourite) Schadenfreude – you know you’ve got something a little bit different. And oh-so-politically incorrect.

It’s exceptionally well-written, and very well-performed – the puppetry isn’t overly complex, but it’s still important, and the cast do a great job of making them move and react. They’re all good singers – singing in character is different from normal singing – and have great comic timing, too. The guy who played Brian (one of the non-puppet characters) looked familiar; it turns out he was in the great ABC satire of government The Hollowmen.

I'd tell you to go see it, but I think the season’s over – sorry I didn’t get this out sooner! Alternatively, if you’re somewhere and it’s on, go see it.

7According to Wikipedia he hypothesised that 'equal volumes of ideal or perfect gases, at the same temperature and pressure, contain the same number of particles, or molecules.' I probably shouldn't have had to look that up.
8A system of weights by which coarser commodities are weighed, such as hay, grain, butter, sugar, tea - apparently.
9I don't really like avocados, unless they're in guacamole form. Just so you know.
10I don’t know if that’s a real thing; I’m using it to mean words where it’s not just the first letter repeated but the first two letters.
11Something else I learned from the movies – Chasing Amy to be specific – though how true it is I’ve no idea. I think Gary Coleman probably deserves something for it, but according to the internet he’s getting nothing.


Fringe 2010

The Fringe festival is nearly upon us, and I’m trying to work out my schedule. I’ve been allocated 16 shows to review – half of those in the first week – but there are a lot of shows I’d like to see on top of that. Cutting into my options is the Soundwave festival on Saturday February 27 and the 2010 Global Atheist Conference in Melbourne March 12-14.

But here’s my ‘hit list’ of shows – so far:

Scaramouche Jones*
Bully
My Name is Rachel Corrie*
Weight
The Event
Nikki Aiken Presents
Amanda Palmer
Cole’s Girls*
Under Milk Wood
Austen’s Women
Open Mic
The Snow Queen
The Rap Guide to Evolution
Lady Carol
Almost an Evening
True West
Axis of Awesome: Infinity Rock Explosion
Sound & Fury’s ‘Private Dick’
The Needle and the Damage Done
Last of the Red Hot Mamas
Chronic Ills

The Event
The Sociable Plover

That’s 23. Those with an asterisk I’m lucky enough to be reviewing; one other (Amanda Palmer) is one night only and so I’ve already got a ticket.

All the rest I’ve got to try and fit in – as I noted, I’ve got 16 reviews to do; only three of those are shows I don’t want to miss. A show makes the cut because a) I know people involved; b) I’ve enjoyed other productions involving the performers, the theatre company or the promoters; c) it sounds awesome based on the description in the Fringe Guide (e.g. Almost an Evening, which is written by Joel Coen – yes, that Joel Coen, i.e. brother of Ethan and half of one of the most talented filmmaking teams of all time); or d) the show has a reputation – e.g. True West, which was on in Adelaide last year (and received enormous acclaim) but which I didn’t get a chance to see, or My Name Is Rachel Corrie, co-adapted by (wait for it) Alan Rickman12.

It’s not, of course, as simple as just picking the shows I want to see. Many of them are on at the same time, or start just after another I want to see is finishing – while being at a venue on the opposite side of town. I’ve also got to factor in the time I’ll need to spend eating, sleeping (on weeknights especially), working, travelling and writing my reviews.

Transport at least, is not such a big deal, since the majority of shows are in and around the city and I live a convenient 15 (or so) minute bike ride from town. This is not only good for getting to shows from home (and back again), but also from those in one part of the city to another – e.g. from the Garden of Unearthly Delights (corner of East Terrace and Rundle Street) to Higher Ground (corner of Morphett and Currie Streets).

If the weather’s good, that is. If it’s not then it’s going to be a little more interesting.

Anyway, I’ll be posting links to the shows I’m reviewing for the ATG, and giving (probably very brief) summaries of the shows I’m seeing for myself – plus any information I come across from other people who’ve seen shows that I haven’t been able to get to.

12I suppose it’s possible there are people who don’t know who Alan Rickman is so I’ll go with the three most well-known film roles: Hans Gruber in Die Hard, The Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films. But he’s a stage actor as well - hence why he’s so good.

Friday, January 15, 2010

...about Twilight

Spoilers ahoy – for Twilight (natch), True Blood and pretty much any other vampire themed story I’ve happened across and felt inclined to reference. You’ve been warned.

This particular entry is about the book, not the film. Yes, that means I’ve read it. For several reasons – 1) I was curious, as I tend to be about any literary phenomenon; and 2) I thought it might make an interesting topic for a blog post.

As you’ll see, I didn’t particularly like it. But I didn’t hate it so much I couldn't continue - though that may be more because I had this blog post in mind; if I'd read it without an opportunity to vent afterwards it may have been a different story.

Anyway, I’ve broken it down into the different areas of analysis that I think are relevant: plot, characters, writing style, vampirisms and themes.

The plot1

Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan moves to Forks, Washington from Phoenix, Arizona and falls in love with an unusual and – at first – distinctly unfriendly boy named Edward Cullen after he saves her from harm a couple of times and who, it is revealed (to anyone who didn’t already know), is a vampire – though a vampire unlike any other in folklore, literature or popular culture. However, it doesn’t go very smoothly for several reasons – she doesn’t think she’s good enough for him, and he’s afraid he’ll lose control and suck her drier than the Gibson Desert on a hot January day2.

Seriously, that’s pretty much it. There’s a somewhat dramatic development late in the book when another vampire decides he wants to drink Bella’s blood and (somewhat oddly considering how events pan out) the vampires concoct a plan to send her back to Phoenix to escape. But that’s really only a minor plot point by comparison – the rest is bland descriptions of uninteresting happenings and overly-long scenes describing how attractive Bella thinks Edward is and/or how bad Bella feels about not being good enough for him.

In and of itself that isn’t a deal-breaker, since I don’t consider the lack of ‘action’ to be an insurmountable obstacle; I read a lot of literary fiction where little happens in terms of plot. But in that kind of book the underemphasis on plot is balanced out by (usually) excellent prose and interesting descriptions of things – e.g. characters, character development and social commentary. But Twilight isn’t literary in that sense, and doesn’t make up for a lack of action with superb prose or profound insights into the human condition. It’s just about a rather uninspiring girl and her adoration for a (from my perspective at least) unlikeable pretty-boy vampire with super powers.

Basically, it’s fluff - with fangs (well, sort of). Oh, and sparkles - but more on that later.

Despite the thinness (and sluggishness) of plot, it did hold me enough to get me through the entire book, so that counts for something. There was some effective building of tension that made me want to find out what was going to happen – though I did (from time to time) kind of wish that it hadn’t taken as long to get to that point. But, as I noted earlier, it was about plot resolution – not any kind of resonance with the characters.

There are, of course, some weird plot holes. The falling in love part in particular. Really, we’re given no reason for why this happens beyond ‘Edward is so beautiful and mysterious and powerful’ and ‘Bella smells nice and I can’t read her mind like I can other humans’. They barely know each other – and what they do know of each other is hardly likeable – and yet we’re somehow meant to believe that they develop strong feelings for each other. It’s really more like two people develop crushes on each other at the same time – and that, sad to say, ain’t love.

Bella’s apparent unattractiveness (physical and in terms of personality) doesn’t make sense either. She goes on and on about how plain and boring she is (and she's right, at least about the latter) yet every guy in town chases after her and the other girls in her school are jealous of her. Again, this is the sort of thing that would be okay to have a character think at the beginning of the story, but which – as part of character development – she would realise isn’t the case and come to terms with it. But she doesn’t, and this is a problem because it’s far easier to identify with characters who behave like actual people at least might.

Edward’s big reveal should have more impact than it does. Why doesn’t Bella freak out at least a little once she realises he’s a vampire? She does some research, and almost everything she’d have found would have told her that vampires are, in nearly every folk tale and horror story, dangerous monsters. Surely she’d have to have at least some doubt about him. That would be understandable, even if she only took a couple of minutes to contemplate it.

Other plot developments and contradictions are just as aggravating and a lot of what happens just doesn’t make any sense. Much of this is how the characters act and react to events. Yes, people do do stupid things; that’s a fact – but in Twilight it’s the norm rather than an aberration. Constant stupid and irrational conversations followed by repeated stupid and irrational decisions and actions just annoy me.

1I can’t imagine too many people don’t know what it’s about, but you never know.
2For overseas readers, that’s a desert in Australia – I was feeling patriotic – and for us January is a summer month.


Characters

One of the bigger flaws. I didn’t like either Bella or Edward, even slightly, and I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to them – the little interest I had was in terms of the resolution of the plot; basically, if they’d both died I would have been just as content at the end. Probably more so if it’d involved some interesting writing to describe it.

Bella

Bella is written as exceptionally dull, which is a huge problem because the entire story is told through her eyes (first-person; I’ll talk more about that later) - she doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in anything, including thinking about herself in such a way that the reader is given much insight into who she is – well, other than someone who doesn’t want to live in Forks, Washington. That does change somewhat once she meets Edward, but then all she can do is gush about how perfect he looks and smells and sounds or moan about how wretched she is and that he’s too good for her.

Really, I found it impossible to like Bella, and it was unpleasant to view the world through her eyes. All Meyer needed to do was give this girl some spirit, some backbone, some character - and that alone would have improved things no end. But it seems like having those characteristics would be flaws in Meyer’s eyes so instead we’re left with this unlikeable, simpering dishrag of a person.

While having this kind of character in a story isn’t unusual – in fact, it’s kind of necessary; you can’t describe and develop everyone at length - it is, however, very strange to make someone so one-dimensional and uninspiring the main character and narrator of the story. If done the right way this could be clever and interesting – but it isn’t and therefore doesn’t.

A handy term for analysing Bella as a character is Mary Sue – which, according to Wikipedia, is this: 'Mary Sue, sometimes shortened simply to Sue, is a pejorative term used to describe a fictional character who plays a major role in the plot and is particularly characterized by overly idealized and clichéd mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors.'

That’s a good description of Bella. Meyer attempts to give the character some flaws, but they’re either totally contradictory to the events described (Bella being ‘plain’ in appearance yet every guy in school wants her and many of the girls envy her looks) or aren’t flaws in the sense that they provide her with anything to be overcome – the ridiculous clumsiness, for example. She sure is whiny, though – albeit only how she isn’t good enough for Edward; I don’t , however, believe that disqualifies her from Mary Sue status.

Mary Sues appear more often in fan-fiction than actual fiction – and they tend to be a vessel through which an author can insert themselves into a story. In this case, though, it’s more like the character is more designed in such a way that certain kinds of readers can insert themselves into the story.

And since I’m not really all that interested in fantasising about being a teenage girl in love with an impossibly attractive male vampire, it’s not all that surprising it didn’t exactly work for me.

Edward

Edward isn’t dull like Bella, but he certainly isn’t any more pleasant to dwell upon; he’s domineering, arrogant, controlling and condescending – the last demonstrated, most annoyingly, by the fact he laughs at Bella all the time. Everything she admits to thinking is, to him, laughable. Is that really a likeable quality?

He’s also a creepy stalker. It’s not only the breaking into her house to watch her sleep, it’s the mind-reading of every person around Bella in an attempt to try and find out what she’s thinking. That’s not heroic – it’s disturbing and all kinds of wrong.

As unlikeable as Edward is, I suspect the book would have been much better had it been told through Edward’s eyes3, since he – unlike Bella, actually has something that he has to wrestle with, i.e. resisting the inclination to kill and drink the blood of someone who he cares about (apparently), and what the consequences of that would be for him and his family who wish to live anonymously amongst humans. But it isn’t, so we’re only given insight into Edward’s struggle through Bella’s boring eyes. She isn’t given the capacity to grasp exactly what it is he’s going through and so doesn’t explain it very well beyond telling us that he gets angry about things.

The term Byronic hero gets thrown around to describe Edward, but I tend to disagree – based on Twilight at least – mostly because we really aren’t given enough insight into his character. Really, apart from his bloodlust, Edward’s very ‘straight’ – and Byronic heroes tend to be more reckless and disregarding of authority. Edward’s just kind of moody and filled with self-loathing and scorn for Bella; the danger in him comes from him being a vampire, not from the choices he makes in his life.

At least we’re not encouraged to believe that Edward’s fascination with Bella is because of her wonderful personality – suspension of disbelief would never stretch that far. It’s explained away by the uniqueness of her smell and the fact that he can’t read her mind like he can that of everyone else4.

Other characters

There’s not really much to say. As drab as the two main characters are they’re glorious Technicolor compared to the others. Much of this, of course, is due to the story being through Bella’s eyes; as a result, anyone who’s not Edward is only given minimal consideration. Really, they’re only there to drive the plot forward – particularly in the case of vampire James, who only appears so there’s something for them to actually do rather than sit around and gaze at each other while not giving in to lust.

3Apparently, Meyer has written (or is writing) a retelling of the story from Edward’s perspective, which may make slightly more interesting reading.
4
Interestingly enough, this is also a major factor in one of the relationships in True Blood – though the situations are reversed; it’s the otherwise-psychic human who likes that the vampire’s mind can’t be read.

Writing Style

There is a writer’s mantra: ‘Show, don’t tell'. Meyer has either never heard this, or has heard it and chosen to ignore it. And that’s a problem because it has a huge impact on how enjoyable stories are.

An example: you could have a character come into a room and say to another character ‘it’s raining’ and you’d know it was raining. Or you could have a character describe hearing the soft beat of the rain on the roof, the smell of rain in the air or how they can see the droplets as they slid down the window-glass. I know I’d rather read the latter because it puts me there. The former is what I’d expect to hear from a witness in a courtroom.

We’re constantly told things – Bella is smart, Edward loves Bella and so forth – but we’re never actually shown anything to indicate that this is true. In fact, more than occasionally we’re told things that are then contradicted by what we’re shown – mainly Bella’s supposed unattractiveness, which doesn’t fit with how everyone around her acts.

Her descriptions of the events taking place around her are often effective in moving the thin-on-the-ground plot forward, but that’s not enough – we need to be taken into her world, and the best way to do that is via that mantra of writing: show, don’t tell. As it is it’s written far more like the treatment of a film script – where it’d be up to the director and the cinematographers to fill the gaps. But that’s not what I want from a novel.

Related to this – or possibly the heart of it - is that it’s written in first person. But this can work – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which I raved about in a recent blog post, is in first person; so are both The Virgin Suicides and (much of) Middlesex, two of my all-time favourites – but it’s got to be done right. In Twilight we see everything through the eyes of Bella; however, Bella is so insipid and clueless that what is can be a positive feature of first-person writing – indepth description of the world and other people through the lens of a narrator’s unique perspective – is completely lacking.

What may be more frustrating is that there are times when she gets it right – describing Charlie’s kitchen early in the book, for one – but these are few and far between. It’s a pity the editor – if there was one – didn’t get that point through to Meyer.

Paucity of description aside, there’s also the issue of the word choice – and it’s a big one. Stephen King somewhat famously chided (gently) Harry Potter author JK Rowling for her overuse of adverbs – ‘...hasn’t met an adverb she doesn’t like’ was the quote
but JK’s got nothing on Stephenie Meyer. Like King (one of my early literary heroes5), I also dislike the overuse of adverbs – and also like King I define ‘overuse’ as ‘anything more than the absolute bare minimum’. There are times when you can’t do anything but use an adverb, but if you use them at any time other than when you’ve no other option then you’re beginning to tell rather than show.

An example:

He touched the corner of my eye, trapping one I missed. He lifted his finger, examining the drop of moisture broodingly.

Broodingly? Good grief. There are ways to show (not tell) that someone might be brooding: a furrowed brow, distant eyes, a set to the mouth – any number of facial expressions. But no, we get ‘broodingly’. Ick.

Of course, King also said that Stephenie Meyer ‘can’t write worth a damn’ – which I think is a bit harsh. But only a bit.

Then there are the adjectives. If there’s a synonym for attractive then Meyer has used it at some point, over and over again. Since everything’s told through Bella it may be Meyer’s way of indicating that Bella has a fondness for saying the same things over and over again – but that doesn’t help the reader much. So, we’re exposed to the frequent use of words such as ‘glorious’, ‘seraphic’, ‘incandescent’, and ‘scintillating’.

Oy.

One of the other qualities the writing lacks is humour. Good writing should be witty and entertaining6 even when describing something mundane. But there’s none of that in Twilight; the descriptions are dull, perfunctory. Again, if this was a deliberate effect to convey Bella’s personality as a wretched, unlikeable character then it would be clever; as it isn’t, the result is uninspiring prose of a very bland kind.

5Like or dislike what he writes about, he is a very proficient crafter of prose. He’s also a former English teacher and his book On Writing is one of the most insightful and useful books about writing that I’ve read.
6‘Wry’ is a good word to describe how I think writing should be. But I wasn’t feeling alliterative so I didn’t use them both.


Vampirisms7

Different writers give their vampires different qualities; however, beyond the need to drink blood, vampires across different fictional universes may have almost nothing else in common - and what vampires are (or aren't) capable of can make a massive difference to the story. But with the sheer number and variation of vampire stories it’s almost impossible to say what is ‘typical’ of vampires anymore.

Wikipedia has a handy table outlining the abilities of the more well-known kinds of vampires here.

One of the criticisms of Twilight that I’ve come across is that the vampires are ‘wrong’ – which is something I disagree with. 'Your universe, your rules,' I say. Really, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ vampires because they don’t actually exist – though I’d say that to not have them drink blood would be a deal-breaker; you’d really have to call your creatures something else if that was the case. Though I'm not going to be surprised if someone's done that, too.

Twilight vampires, then, have almost nothing in common with any other vampires beyond the standard superpowers – effective immortality, strength, speed, healing and so forth. They are (apparently) unaffected by any of the standard quasi-religious artifacts and items (crosses, holy water and so forth); garlic and stakes don’t bother them; super-strength and invulnerability would make being decapitated simply impossible; and silver has no particular effect on them In fact, Twilight vampires are probably the hardest to kill of any fictional vampire; they appear to only be susceptible to fire – and for that to be effective they have to be incapacitated to such a state that they can’t escape from its effects, i.e. for it to work they have to have been torn into pieces – something we only hear about happening as a result of several other vampires working together.

Twilight vampires don’t seem to need to breathe or have heartbeats; this is, for me, another black mark against them – though that applies to any writer whose vampires do that, because it’s just silly. If they’ve got blood in them (which they do), if it isn’t pumped around by their heart it’s just going to collect in their feet – and it certainly isn’t going to gush out of any wounds on its own. And in terms of male vampires being able to, er, perform certain acts, a beating heart would be essential. Breathing is less problematic, but only slightly – if for no other reason that breathing is necessary for speech. And I don’t think ever I’ve read about/seen any mute vampires.

One of the big ones you’re probably already aware of is that Twilight vampires are not harmed by sunlight, which tends to be one of the most common weaknesses. They do avoid sunlight, but not because they dislike it – it’s because they sparkle in sunlight. I don’t think much of that. Enough is made about how unbelievably attractive the vampires (particularly Edward) are; making him also sparkle in sunlight is just going overboard – not to mention being so lame as to trigger my gag reflex.

Twilight vampires don’t have fangs – retractable or otherwise – and the ‘turning’ of people into vampires is a bit different as well; vampires have venom which, if left unchecked (i.e. the vampire bites you but doesn’t kill you) in the human body will eventually turn the human into a vampire – albeit after a really unpleasant couple of days – see here for a full description. I do kind of like this because it’s a deliberate move away from the drain-your-blood/suck-my-blood formula – and also because it reminds me of one of my all-time favourite creatures, the Komodo Dragon.

However, this otherwise interesting variation on traditional vampirism is not elaborated on (in terms of mechanics) and, as a result, creates what can be considered a plot hole when Edward sucks another vampire’s venom out of Bella – if the venom doesn’t come from the bite itself (which it can’t, because vampire teeth aren’t any different) then is it just present in the mouth? If so, why then doesn’t Edward’s venom poison Bella the same way?

Overall, the vampirisms are kind of a mixed bag. The sparkly crap makes me want to hurl, but many of the other qualities Meyer has dropped include the head-bangingly irritating ones such as the ‘no reflection’ – more irritating in film and tv, because they tend to somehow have magically invisible clothes as well – and the ‘cannot enter uninvited’ nonsense, which I’ve never liked. How, exactly, is that supposed to work anyway? I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but it should still maintain a certain logic no matter what; ‘magic’ still has to make some sense as far as I’m concerned.

Their nigh-on invulnerability is a bit of a problem, too – one of the things I like about Buffy and True Blood is that, while vampires are über-powerful, they can be brought down by normal humans if they’re well-organised and determined enough. Characters that are too powerful become hard to care about (since you know nothing can really hurt them); it’s what turned me off Anne Rice’s vampire stories and something I find problematic with a lot of fantasy fiction8.

But my research has led me to conclude in the later books that the vampire characters end up under threat – from other vampires and werewolves – so the issue seems to be limited to the first book alone.

7It took me a long time to find the right word, so I’m now very fond of this one – both for its elusiveness, and for just how damn apt it is.
8It’s one my many criticisms of David Eddings.

Themes

This is where it gets a bit more problematic, and where much of the criticism of the book stems from.

I find the Edward/Bella relationship to be disturbing, for want of a better word – creepy paedophile older relative disturbing. I’ve heard this argued away with ‘but he only looks seventeen!’, which is missing the damn point completely. He’s very much an adult and she’s very much a child, certainly emotionally younger than her physical age of seventeen. It’s not a relationship between equals, or even near-equals, and it runs through the whole story.

To illustrate: we’re led to believe that Edward loves Bella, but treats her with unabashed contempt – talks down to her, laughs at her constantly (laughs at, not laughs with) and almost never lets her make decisions for herself. To me it sounds more like a (bad) parent with a not-especially-bright child. Or a person with a pet. Not only is he aware of how one-sided the whole thing is, he seems to enjoy reminding her of how weak and useless she is compared to him.

There are ways this could have worked. Bella could have actually called him out on his assholish behaviour, and refused to have anything to do with him until he stopped being such a prick; he could have actually taken this on board and tried to act differently – and maybe stopped telling her everything she thinks and does is stupid and wrong and that she’s a puny human while he’s a vampire. It’s hardly far-fetched and would make it a lot less baffling to read about. But no, Edward remains the same asshat who treats her like crap; the difference is that he now spends time with her and tells her that he cares for her. Even though it doesn’t come through in how he treats her. We’re told that he cares for her - not shown.

This is another reason show, don’t tell is such an important rule to remember when writing – it makes characters and situations more believable. And that’s important, even when you’re writing about unbelievable characters and situations. It’s the suspension of disbelief, not the removal of it altogether.

What are we shown he does that could pass as being an actual demonstration of his feelings? He saves her life from time to time despite the fact doing so could expose him as a vampire (which, to be fair is not unreasonable) and, despite the fact that he really likes the idea of drinking her blood, he chooses not to kill her. There’s a scene in the forest where Edward rips the branch from a tree and smashes it against another tree to demonstrate just how easy it would be for him to kill her – but says that he never would. And there are other scenes that go along these lines.

That part again: not killing her. Yeah, that sounds like a good reason for loving someone: because they don’t kill you when they so easily could.

Some of it can be explained away by the fact that he’s a vampire, and is obviously somewhat removed from typical human emotional behaviour. But it’s something that the other vampire/human romances in fiction – e.g. Buffy/Angel and Bill/Sookie (in True Blood) - deal with a lot better by virtue of the fact that the human in both those stories has something to ‘bring to the table’ so to speak, e.g. being a sassy superpowered vampire slayer or a sassy southern psychic.

Bella, sadly, is not sassy. She’s as limp as five-day-old lettuce in an inefficient refrigerator. She has nothing to bring to the table; in fact, she’s so far away from the table that she can probably only barely make it out on the horizon. With binoculars. As a result, Edward's relationship with her comes across as totally creepy – and her acceptance of it implies that she thinks it’s okay for a female to be completely dominated by the male on almost every level.

Apart from the ‘not valuing you as a person is totally okay’ message there’s also the ‘sex is bad and abstinence is good’ message. While I personally disagree with this it’s not, in and of itself, as objectionable – or, more importantly, all that surprising; Meyer is a Mormon, and Mormons aren’t keen on premarital sex. As a theme alone this is irritating; combine it with page after page of scenes packed with scenes which are metaphors for struggling to resist giving in to their lust (because sex is wrong!) and it gets very annoying. You’ve made your misguided point; don’t harp on it.

Of course, related to that is the idea that men struggle to control themselves around women. It isn’t too flattering to women, either; since it implies that women are powerless and shouldn’t do anything that might lead to a man being overwhelmed by his lust and doing something they’ll both regret. it’s a pretty sickening (and, as a man, personally insulting) concept no matter what the context.

As a role model, Bella is a poor heroine, since she’s completely dependent on Edward for everything – making her decisions, saving her life, catching her whenever her gosh-darned inconvenient clumsiness causes her to fall over. And, as a result, it doesn’t provide much of an incentive for guys to be anything other than domineering and condescending; the male classmates who attempt to treat Bella like normal high school boys would are shunned as inferior – is the message that they should be more like Edward with the stalking and the mocking and the dismissals?

Then there’s the creepy mind-reading that Edward does, which I noted in his character analysis. He can’t read Bella’s mind, so he reads the minds of everyone around her so he can work out what’s going on. In our would that’d be like hacking into someone’s emails or reading their diaries to get information; it’s the kind of thing that only stalkers and other weirdos would do – why is it okay when Edward does it?

More creepiness: he broke into her house to watch her while she slept. Is that not just made of wrong? He’s done any number of things now that would lead almost every sane person on the world to get a restraining order (or its equivalent9) against the person – not consider it sweet and endearing.

As far as I’m concerned there aren’t a lot of positive themes in the book - not that I believe that themes are required, mind you; pure, unadulterated escapism has its place – but I have vague concerns over whether people who are reading the books are somehow incorporating what they’ve read into their ideas of what constitutes a healthy relationship.

Interestingly, the majority of women I’ve spoken to who’ve read the books have loved them. Whether or not the fact that they were enjoying what is essentially the colossally unequal relationship between a creepy, controlling, barely-controlled murderous, paedophile stalker and his infatuated, naïve, fangirl puppet was obvious to them I don’t know.

Oh, and if you think this is judging it harshly in terms of themes then you need to browse the internet some more.

9It’s called something else in Australia, but I don’t know what; I wasn’t paying that much attention on that particular day in court...now I’ve said too much.

Overall

As I mentioned at the beginning, I did not hate this book – but nor did I like it. It’s poorly-written (somewhat of an understatement) with unlikeable characters, a wafer-thin plot and myriad themes I find distasteful and depressing.

The story is written about a character who is only the barest outline of an actual person, and therefore someone that readers can insert themselves into and feel as if the events described are happening to them – and that’s not (in my mind) what fiction writing is about. We’re meant to be enjoying the experience of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, not simply cutting-and-pasting ourselves into a set of events. It’s one thing to empathise with, be inspired by and learn from a character; to be given a scenario through which we can live out our own personal romantic daydreams is something else entirely.

However, at least some of this has to come down to the fact that everything is written with an audience in mind, and for Twilight I am most definitely not it.

There’s also the fact that I’m a bit of a literary snob10, and I’m aware that such a standard is going to mean a great deal of what is published isn’t going to impress me – an attitude that has by no means been ameliorated by the fact that I’ve spent the last week or so reading what I consider to be one of the best books – if not the best book – I’ve ever read, the aforementioned Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Having that as a yardstick ensures that almost everything else is going to fall short.

About the only real positive I can conceive of is that people will read this and move beyond it to well-written works - since I know from bitter, bitter personal experience that a person can start out on low-quality books11 and work their way up to worthwhile reading material.

As an exercise, though, reading and critiquing the book has been interesting – mostly because of the polarising effect the book has had. People are insanely defensive of this book, like nearly nothing else I’ve seen – except maybe the series featuring a bespectacled young wizard. But, on the other side, the hatred and loathing for it (and its fans) is far more intense than that inspired by Harry Potter.

Librarians, feminists, linguists, educators, writers and filmmakers and – very significantly - people who don’t otherwise even appear to read books have come out of the woodwork to express how much they despise it. Some it is purely reactionary, but much of it is the result of genuine analysis.

Facebook groups exist to do nothing more than illustrate distaste. Blog posts, websites, and even a Wiki are devoted to this purpose and this purpose alone. One even goes through it chapter by chapter (starts with the preface/chapter one here) to detail exactly what the author was annoyed by. It’s hilarious and chock-full of snark; I'll happily admit I enjoyed reading his analysis far more than the book itself.

But it has had an impact, and that's important. Heck, even I’ve churned out something like five thousand words on the topic. And I’m stopping right now – even though I could go on if I had to. The more I think about it, the more I’m coming up with things to rant about. There are other things I need to be writing about, so I’m pulling the plug right now.

Don’t expect anything on any of the sequels, though. I got about 40 pages into New Moon and just couldn’t go any further. Funnily enough I’m now reading a Sookie Stackhouse omnibus – the books that True Blood is based on - and even though I’m not that far into it I already like it a lot more than I liked Twilight.

Argh! Enough. Goodbye, Bella and Edward. It’s been...painful.

10I’m not an out-and-out elitist; I enjoy reading genre fiction from time to time – but I’m still critical of it when it falls short of what I consider reasonable literary standards. Let’s just say Dan Brown isn’t amongst my favourites.
11Let’s just say if it was published before 1990 and it had a picture of a dragon or an overly-muscled dude with a sword (or an axe or a flail or a freaking morning star) on the cover then I’ve probably read it.