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The beautiful undead

Okay, one more post about Twilight and then I’m done for now, I promise. I wanted to link to the best article about the books I’ve read so far, Jenny Turner’s piece at the London Review of Books, “The Beautiful Undead.” Turner hits many of the same notes that other journalists and bloggers have: there’s the lament for the lost complexities of Buffy, the mention of Meyer’s Mormonism, the raised eyebrow at the book’s not-so-subliminal argument for chastity.

But Turner’s essay is more complicated than that, and lovelier. Witness her response to Meyer’s introduction of the beautiful undead as they sit at lunch in the Forks High School cafeteria:

I defy the reader at this point not to be ‘gawking’ along with Bella, and to be gasping, as she is to her dowdier companions: ‘Who are they?’ ‘They’, Bella is informed, are an adoptive family of orphans, now cared for by Dr Carlisle Cullen — himself ‘really young, in his twenties or early thirties’, and his equally youthful wife. The dark boy is Emmett, the bronze one Edward; the pixie girl is Alice, and the blond boy and girl are Rosalie and Jasper, twins. Oh, and ‘They’re all together though — Emmett and Rosalie, and Jasper and Alice, I mean. And they live together,’ the voice of Bella’s geeky informant holding ‘all the shock and condemnation of the small town’. And here you have it, the essence of what Lev Grossman, in Time magazine, called ‘the power of the Twilight books: they’re squeaky, geeky clean on the surface, but right below it, they are absolutely, deliciously filthy.’ Their situation seems lawful and proper and harmless even though a little odd — a household of teens, like the Waltons or the Partridge Family — but it hints at the limitlessly libidinous, as an image already supercharged with fantasies of caste, sex and pro-ana gorgeousness (that unbitten apple! that unopened soda!) is given a decidedly incestuous Flowers in the Attic frisson.

Turner recognizes Edward, whose “flesh [is] so cold and hard and ‘perfected’ — like the dead body in Sylvia Plath’s final poem, ‘Edge,’” as a “cunning piece of fictional engineering … never designed to work on mocking readers in the first place.” (That Sylvia Plath reference!) It’s the “fictional engineering” that’s making me think I ought to read the rest of the series. When I told my students I’d read the first book, I asked first how many of them had read the book. Every single girl in my all-girl class raised her hand. Fourteen out of fourteen. I won’t pretend that I think Meyer’s a great stylist, but her engineering skills are worth studying.

Speaking of engineering skills, I also wanted to pass on this list of classic short crime stories, and specifically the recommended story “A Jury of Her Peers,” which borrows elements of the mystery-story format for feminist ends. I think I’d read it once before, but so long ago that I could feel little tickles of familiarity. I’d forgotten how hard it punches, and how precisely.

4 Comments

  1. I can feel my resolve weakening, because if there’s anyone who can convince me to read Twilight, it’s probably you.

  2. Hey, Katherine, I know this comes late. Interesting point on vampires not being monstrous in your other post. I found a neat Meyers comment in an interview:

    Q: There’s a very critical moment in the film when Bella said, “I’m thinking radioactive plasma and Kryptonite.” Did you sort of think it would be tough to switch the teen pop culture away from the superhero and back towards the supernatural or did it feel like something kids were going to be into?

    Stephenie Meyer: “You know, I never worried about that for a second. I was into it and I am much more drawn to superheroes than I am to vampires. And I really think there’s a closer connection with my vampires, between superheroes and them than traditional vampires and who they are. So I really, with my writing, what it comes down to was I getting a kick out of this? Then, ‘Okay, we’ll go with it.’ And if somebody else is not clicking for them, you know, that’s why there’s 40 billion books in the world, because there’s something for everybody.”

    On the engineering skills, I remember once looking through a catalogue of creative writing courses and a course emphasized the importance of making a reader want to know what happens next. I think that is one of the things Meyers does well for a lot of readers. If you remember the Washington Post article, one repeated trend was women being unable to put down the books in the series. As for how Meyers does it, I would say Bella’s “everygirl” characterization helps in this end. I wish there was more depth and development to Bella, but it’s easy to see how a lot of readers would get attached to her. The strength of Bella’s emotions feel ridiculous, on the one hand. On the other, her willingness to give up anything makes adds to the investment that readers feel to what eventually happens to her.

    I think that one point to take away as far as crafting a story go: give characters compelling motivations. That can keeps readers want to keep on through a novel.

  3. DarkHeart, thank you for posting that excerpt from the Meyer interview — it is really interesting! I’m intrigued to see that Meyer is as aware of the non-monstrousness of her monsters as she seems to be — and yet, at the same time, she’s arguing for an enjoyment of the text that doesn’t embrace that kind of analyis. Hmm.

    You’re definitely right about character motivation. I think that’s one of the reasons that book-Edward bores me; he doesn’t have any motivation except loving Bella, and if I-as-reader am not willing to buy into that, then he ceases to be very compelling, especially given his lack of other definable character traits besides “loves Bella.” For some reason, movie-Edward has a kind of presence that made his lack of other motivation less bothersome to me. Maybe it’s the hair.

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