Monday, December 7, 2009

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Much of the first book in Meyer's vampire romance series, strangely enough, is concerned with images of imprisonment and living up to expectations. From the very beginning of "Twilight," Bella Swan is happy "to be left alone, not to have to smile and look pleased" around her father. Later on, she remarks about her new hometown of Forks, "You could never see the sky here; it was a like a cage."

There are several reasons for this, of course - Bella is a teenager, the new kid in a sleepy, dreary town who feels abandoned by her mother, and misplaced with her father, who never has recovered from his broken marriage. But as we will soon find, Bella is the hunted, the prey "staring into the dark eyes of the hunter," her love, the 100-year-old vampire Edward Cullen, forever sentenced to be a teenager.

I was suspicious of "Twilight" for several reasons, not the least of which its omnipresent nature in the national consciousness. Every trip to the bookstore means passing a massive table with all four of the Twilight novels as well as their movie spawn, Meyer's "The Host," and teen picture magazines with Robert Pattinson. But also, the book's premise made me slightly suspicious. The vampire in literature- Dracula, obviously - represents evil. Not merely in the creature's bloodlust, since that equates the vampire with the animal outside of human morality, killing for survival. But the vampire represents a perversion of nature - the undead, apart from salvation. The idea of a teenage romance with a vampire, on its face, made me think on our culture in general, shaking hands with evil and attempting to "understand" it, even excuse it. We live in a world where Hitler's self-serving stories of beatings as a child are sometimes used to illustrate the dangers of child abuse, as Ron Rosenbaum remarked. Such easy explanations not only seem to wish for an understanding of evil, but offer it an excuse.

But "Twilight" is closer to romance than the supernatural; a redressing of the standard teenage narrative of the girl who tries to "save" her dangerous boyfriend. The characters are sometimes obvious but just edgy enough to be interesting. Bella is a snarky but basically good girl with a few cynical observations thrown in for depth. Edward is a vampire, but he's a "good" vampire who lives off the blood of animals rather than humans. He's environmentally conscious. He tells Bella she is better off staying away from him, yet saves her life. His warning - "What if I'm not the super hero? What if I'm the bad guy?" - points to something else. All of these qualities are sometimes ludicrous and amusing but necessary for the story to work.

I could have done without the multiple reminders of how "beautiful" Edward is, but Edward Cullen is a close cousin to Milton's Lucifer, with a little of Anne Rice's poet vampires mixed in. But whereas Lucifer is a beautiful being who chooses rebellion against God, Edward awakens during the influenza epidemic of the 1910s to find his life transformed into something immortal and infernal. There is an absurdist quality to it, since Edward feels he should have died nearly a century earlier; The vampire who asks, "Why am I still here?" is also a prisoner, though of something much worse than teenage angst. This self-loathing makes Edward tragic and interesting enough to keep our attention as he and Bella go through the usual steps of teenage infatuation, even as they threaten to bring the book's narrative momentum to a standstill.

But toward the book's close, when Edward is forced to drink Bella's blood, he arrives at the moment he has dreaded - since he is drawing out the venom that would turn her into a vampire. He loves her but does not want her to join him among the world of the undead. Sacrifice? On many levels - in love, in consciousness, in existence. The dangerous guy narrative usually exists with the girl attempting to save her man with her love. Salvation, through love, a Christian idea but one which replaces Christ with the redemptive quality of passion. But the dangerous guy narrative usually ends when he lures the girlfriend, against her will and sometimes his, into destruction. Only Christ can redeem with love, because danger is stronger than passion.

This story, which seems absurd on the surface, could only succeed with a vampire who sees the absurdity of life. An immortal character, who strangely enough, longs for something enduring. "Twilight" succeeds because of this.

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