Sunday, June 7, 2009

That Teenage Feeling

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,
"I don't care if forever never comes
'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

Neko Case

"O Edward, Edward, wherefore art thou a vampire?" So seventeen-year-old Bella, already an old maid next to fourteen-year-old Juliet, should have exclaimed in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. I am usually pretty insensitive to literary fads (I have yet to encounter Harry Potter on page or screen, and no Da Vinci Code graces my shelves), but this time a friend of mine had recommended it to me, which I am sensitive to, and then my daughter asked to read it. As she is, alas, not usually a bibliophile, but is approaching that most peculiar phenomenon of female adolescence, I thought it worth looking into. And whatever its literary merits, any book that sells over 50 million copies is of anthropological interest if nothing else. I have not had the pleasure of the sequels or the movie.

I do have the consolation of at least one other adult heterosexual male who has at least willingly made his way through the book, as Brad Meltzer acknowledges in his "Guilty Pleasures" entry at NPR. And Caitlin Flanagan took Twilight both quite seriously and favorably in her review in The Atlantic Monthly. Flanagan unsurprisingly views the latent menace of Edward's vampirism as symbolic of the sexuality that threatens to overwhelm adolescent affection. This may be (vampires have had strong sexual overtones at least since Bram Stoker), but I don't know that it accounts for the book's popularity any more than the carnal undercurrents of "Little Red Riding Hood" account for that fairy tale's enduring interest. There is a risk, in literary criticism as in psychology, of explaining phenomena by appeal to other, supposedly more fundamental factors. But sometimes what you see is what you get.

What I see in Twilight is a contemporary fairy tale, combining a well-paced plot, the clever use of a mythological entity, and an intense love story. Bella is something of a young Everywoman, the girl next door: sensible, down-to-earth, self-doubting but capable, awkward but winning (a nerd's perfect date, in other words). Her appeal is left deliberately ambiguous--in Phoenix, where she grew up, she was apparently something of an outsider, and yet when she moves to the small town of Forks, she is embraced by male and female peers alike. So she manages to be in the group and yet not of the group, which is every teenager's (perhaps every adult's) fantasy.

One does not look to Twilight for stylistic artistry; even in a book apparently intended for the young adult market, its prose seems almost willfully flat. Even the editing leaves something to be desired, as shown by this sample that, believe it or not, my eyes landed on the first time I re-opened it at random to look for a representative passage:

I ate breakfast cheerily, watching the dust moats (sic) stirring in the sunlight that streamed in the back window...By dint of much elbow grease, I was able to get both windows in the truck almost completely rolled down.

Enough said (as a rejection letter of an adolescent story of mine read, "Read The Elements of Style, over and over." Eventually, I did). But the heart of the story for me is the extraordinarily close tie between Bella and Edward, which conveys fairly convincingly the experience of erotic love: the blind adoration of the other, who for a time seems to have no faults; the feeling of an arbitrary yet unique bond; the sheer pleasure of the other's company; the agonizing insecurity should the attachment seem threatened. It is the ecstasy of first love, the echoes of which we can only hope to faintly recapture later in life; it may be inane and stupid, but if so, intelligence may be overrated.

If Twilight's audience is predominantly female, it may be less because it is chick-lit than because the figure of Edward is nauseatingly familiar to some male readers, thanks to the rather different experience of male adolescence. Ironically given Edward's famous actual restraint with Bella, to the male gaze he is the ultimate player: he has the perfect looks, the preternatural power, the money, the smarts, the smug superiority, the ineffable cool. He even drives slick cars (fast) and has a great sound system in his room. He is a brief for evolutionary psychological accounts of female attraction: he is the alpha male.

What I would like to ask perfect Edward is why, as a 105-year-old vampire, he is angling for a 17-year-old girl (okay, I know the answer: evolutionary psychology). And yet the ambiguity of Bella's attraction for him may make the story particularly powerful for female readers, for every girl or woman who reads the book can see herself as Bella. After all, while Bella's character is appealing enough, she exhibits neither spectacular wit nor stupendous beauty so far as we know, and her background is ordinary enough. Edward himself is puzzled by her pull (which seems related to his inability to read her mind as he does most humans'). The encounter with the virtuous vampire is much like the quasi-supernatural experience of love, the thunderclap on a calm day that comes unbidden and unexplained.


LP said...

Great Neko Case song BTW.

I'm not sure evolutionary psychology adequately explains Edward's attraction to Bella. Though he was once human, Edward remains--like any vampire--the undead, the not-human. A vampire's drive towards concerns of fitness and survival seem moot here. Is survival rooted in the ego, then?

Analytical psychology--eg, anima archetype--doesn't quite work here given that Edward lacks a soul. How could he project his anima onto her, given that he can't individuate?

Nice post about 'anthropological' issues. ;-)

leigh said...

Nice essay. I have a 13 year old daughter who is a Twilight fanatic. She has the novels on a perpetual loop. Her 16 year old sister is disgusted, but I don't think she has read the books, as I have not.

Oh, and I hate Caitlin Flanagan with a fiery hot passion. I passionately hate her and the piece I just read. I feel dirty now.

Retriever said...

My daughters have been obsessed with the modern vampire stories for years (there are a couple of movies where the female vampire or werwolf or whatever she is, is quite cool, sort of a Bond girl with her own life, doesn't get killed after kissing the guy. Also zombies, to the point where, when the dog barks in our field up north, we all nervously joke "she's trying to tell us the zombies are coming, and she is upset we don't pay attention..."

As to the rel of Edward and Bella, yes, the whole feel of first love is irreplaceable, can't be replicated. Some drug addicts talk about their first crack in the same way: and they were always chasing it, trying to feel again what they did that first encounter....

As I observe my kids and the young people I know around here, I sometimes think the thing is just that they are young, and more alive than us old fuddy duddies. All that hormonal upheaval, enrgy. No wonder she is attractive to the older vampire: it's like bein near a fire on a cold day. BY comparison we are rational, dull, sensible, confined, tired. Not very exuberant, not very affectionate, not very passionate. At least by comparison with tempestuous kids!

Anonymous said...

Young love dressed up in blood - it almost makes we want to be a teenager again...(ALMOST, but not quite...)

I'm not guilty of reading Twilight, but I can see the obvious archetypal appeal.

105 yr old vampire and 17 yr old girl? Maybe the 7 ages of man repeat ad infinitum in the vampire species of man; so a 105 yr old male vamp is the psychic equivalent of a 17 yr old boy. You see, vampires don't mature infinitely, gathering wisdom, but rather go through the motions of beingness eternally, kind of like in the idea of 'eternal recurrence' - but only with repetition of emotional/psychological/social/moral stages.

....or maybe it is what it is: male fantasy of luring the much younger trophy chick = prime player; ergo, ego boost & social esteem among less 'successful' older male peerage.

When I grow up, I want to be a vampire.

Unknown said...

You may (or may not) enjoy this commentary on Twilight: Sparkledammerung.

neuronarrative said...

I'm wrestling with whether to watch the movie version or not (I most assuredly won't make time for the book). A friend of mine did the special effects for it, so I feel sort of obligated. Your review helps flesh the story out a bit and it doesn't seem too painful. By the way, on the writing, Stephen King evidently said that it was horrible and "the author can't write worth a nickle" or something along those lines. I couldn't figure out if he was reacting out of jealousy or being genuine. Maybe both, I take it.