I die a little inside when I read the back of the cover. It says, “An Amazon ‘Best Book of the Decade…so far’” and, “A Teen People ‘HOT LIST’ pick” (emphasis sure as shit not mine). The misplaced exuberance continues with, “A Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year” and finally “A New York Times Editor’s Choice.” It’s shocking to think that Twilight came out 10 years ago. It really confuses me deeply that this collection of prosaic glitter monsters didn’t quietly shuffle off into some dark forgotten corner like it deserves. Yet Twilight has somehow managed to remain in the collective consciousness for a decade in spite of all everything wrong with it. So for its anniversary I got it this shiny new Takedown.
Be sure to bring your whip. This week we’re going to go full Belmont and hunt us some vampires and prove that sometimes critics are just making shit up.
In 200X, 17 year old Bella Swan moves from her home in Phoenix, Arizona to live with her Dad in Forks, Washington. She decides to do this because her Mom married a baseball player. Also, her mom is really terrible at being a parent. But digression. Even though she misses Phoenix, for reasons that are unfathomable for anybody who has been there, Bella finds that she fits in well at Forks.
Little Ms. Author Surrogate quickly collects a cadre of male admirers and girl besties before she meets the curious Cullens and the enigmatic Edward.. It’s all very mysterious. At first he seems like he is openly hostile towards Bella, but slowly comes around to tolerating her, before using his vampire super strength to save her from a van. That’s how you win a girl over by the way – fend off rogue vans. It worked for Captain Hammer after all.
Anyway, she meets a whole bunch of people that are totally irrelevant in this book. They’re apparently useful in subsequent novels, but this one makes me want to hang out with my car while it’s running in the garage, so screw that. My self loathing isn’t deep enough to subject myself to more of these. So for now we can safely ignore that any of these people exist. Instead just imagine 200 pages of the most insipid high school bullshit that you can. After which it’s mentioned that there are werewolves too, because why not double down on dumb?
Eventually at about the midway point Edward tells Bella that he is a vampire, and shows her that he sparkles in the sun like the world’s most boring disco ball. There’s a scene where he shows her his powers and explains how everything works while also trying to frighten Bella off. Much to my chagrin she decides against it, and the book continues. Once the secret is let out, Eddie Money takes Bella to meet his family, which are just more characters that have no input into the plot.
During a thunderstorm the Cullens decide to go play vampire baseball, which unfortunately is nothing like Frog Baseball. Somehow while they are playing they attract the attention of some other vampires passing through the area. It turns out that Bella is like some kind of vampire catnip proving once again that if you drop a Mary Sue into a book, the universe will revolve around her. In an effort to save Bella from these new, hungry vampires, the Cullens hatch a plan that involves taking Bella back to Phoenix and a chase scene involving jeeps for some reason.
Once back in Phoenix, Bella is tricked by the Hungry Hungry Vampires into ditching her vampire bodyguards. Afterwards she is attacked at a ballet studio because action packed climaxes really do need to happen where little girls learn to pirouette. In the ensuing struggle, Bella gets bitten and has her leg broken. But before the girl can pay for her poor life choices, the Cullens show up and kill the other vampires. Why they didn’t do that back in Washington is anyone’s guess. But, oh Noes, there is vampire poison inside of Bella. But now the only one who can suck out the poison is Edward because apparently nobody else in that family has any goddamn self control. Bad vampires dead, good vampires win and Bella gets a cast. The story ends at the prom, where Bella asks Edward to make her a vampire, you know for the giggles.
Let’s try that again, but only keep the plot relevant elements shall we?
Bella moves to Forks. Baseball is played. Bad Vampires attack. Bella rescued. End.
That’s just 5 things, and I included the end because that was my favorite part of the book. Let’s use this moment to talk about something that is very important in books – character agency. Consider that a plot is a series of choices made by the characters. You can have a plot that is dictated by the needs of the story. Michael Bay does this all the time, but examples are coming soon to this very column.
Instead the character driven method works the best because that is how real people do things. The tension in a narrative ought to be driven when the wants and needs of a character run into the desires of another. But the plot ought to revolve around when those conflicting needs force interesting choices. These choices lead to actions which change the narrative. Well developed characters can then exist within that new narrative space and make more choices based on their needs at that time. That’s organic storytelling, and when good writers talk about the story evolving as they go, that is what they mean.
That’s what good writers do, but Twilight was written by Stephenie Meyer. So if you’re looking for meaningful choices that the protagonist Bella Swan makes the only options are the move to Forks, Washington and ditching her vampire friends. That’s exactly it, and this colonic endurance test is 500 pages long. Since those pages sure aren’t filled to the brim with interesting plot developments, they are instead filled with pointless minutia and the aforementioned high school shenanigans. Somebody who is a hell of a lot more forgiving than myself would say that the mystery of Edward and the Cullens is supposed to be the hook, but it says right on the cover, “First, Edward was a vampire.” If you stick it on the cover it’s not a mystery anymore, it’s a marketing bullet to sell this to people with more money than taste.
Instead, the plot is rendered from a bunch of things that happen at Bella Swan. Except for the outliers above, she doesn’t do anything of note. She encounters Edward, and he likes her for reasons that nobody understands, least of all me. As a character Bella is only slightly more well defined than any of the Cars. When Edward decides that he likes her, it doesn’t make any sense because Bella Swan has no interesting qualities. This is another example of the writer forcing something for the sake of plot. Why does he love her? Because he does that’s why. Don’t ask so many cynical questions. True Love. Shut up. The problem of course is that basic premise is what the narrative is built on top of and it doesn’t work.
What we’re left with is just page after page of nothing. It’s just a wasteland of plotting. Eventually, the weary suckers that are reading this get all excited for Vampire Baseball because it’s the first actual event to happen in 250+ pages. But it’s just a mirage, because in Twilight nothing ever comes from any of it. The only thing that happens is that one of Vonnegut’s Rules of Writing is violated. He said, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” 500 pages for 5 relevant points of action is time wasted literally writ large.
So here’s the thing – maybe I’m still traumatized by Grey, but the writing in Twilight doesn’t cause me physical pain. It’s told in first person and in the past tense, but by a character I want only the worst things to happen to. I started typing “least interesting character” but then remembered that all of the characters hope to one day be as well rendered as cardboard cut outs left in the rain. In any case it’s deeply sad that Bella Swan is the most interesting character in this book, and according to the rules of first person narratives, we’re stuck with her. I can’t find fault with doing it correctly, even if it’s still stupefying. Then again, using first person past tense and having your protagonist relate what happened tends to toss any sense of suspense into a hobo toilet.
What does cause me acute mental anguish is the character voicing being, in critical terms, absolute ass. Let’s get the facts right. Bella is a 17 year old girl, and the story is written from her perspective. When you’re writing anything in first person, every line in the story gets the opportunity to flesh out the characters. Coincidentally, when the first person narration sounds like a 30 year old writer trying to be clever it kills the momentum.
Here’s a random line I pulled, with the notes, “Who the hell talks like this?” It’s, “…he smiles in reaction before launching into more cross-examination.” There is no 17 year old that I have ever met that would use the phrase “smiles in reaction” nor the words “launching” or “cross examination.” That’s sloppy by way of thesaurus. So let’s play everybody’s favorite game and armchair edit this section. In full it’s: “The pressure made me more clumsy than usual, but eventually I made it out the door, feeling the same release when I saw him standing there, a wide smile automatically spreading across his face. He smiles in reaction before launching into more cross examination.”
Let’s tackle that first sentence, fix the phrasing and make it sound more like an advanced placement 17 year old girl from Arizona. “I think the pressure was making me more clumsy than usual, but I got out the door. Then I saw him standing there and felt the pressure kind of just fall off. He smiled at my reaction and then started asking me a bunch of questions.” Now, I’m not saying my sentence is awesome (look at the raw materials that I’m working with) but one of them sounds like something a 17 year old girl would say if she was telling a story (which she is, because first person past tense). The other is written by Stephenie Meyer.
More annoyances include, “I decided to read Wuthering Heights – the novel we were studying in English – yet again for the fun of it…” said no one ever. Or, if you really want to hear something the writer probably says all the time, “It couldn’t have anything to do with me. He didn’t know me from Eve.” Just fuck all of this pedestrian writing. Bella Swan is supposed to be a 17 year old girl falling into a broken romance with the love of her life ™. Maybe Meyer should have remembered that the Swan girl is just her author surrogate, and as much as she might like it to be, it isn’t actually her.
When it comes to any book, or really almost anything, it’s important to consider the themes that the book is espousing, and oh boy is Twilight full of some straight repugnant shit. As a point of comparison let’s look at another female-centric love story and discover the implicit subjugation within. So let’s talk about The Little Mermaid. First of all, this movie is usually considered to be pretty good, but there is the issue with the plot. The short version goes like this : girl falls for guy (one Prince Eric), something prevents them from being together (Ariel’s fish based alternative to human girl parts), girl is willing to give up everything about herself to be with said man (namely her friends, family, home, and if you want to get super feminist about it – her literal and figurative voice). Basically the theme is that as a woman, you should be willing to subsume your thoughts and self to be with somebody. In other words, listen up ladies – if you want a man you had better be willing to turn yourself into an object. In the world of The Little Mermaid, the men can no longer be bothered to objectify you themselves.
Let’s stick with the Ariel Hypothesis and cast its shadow back towards Twilight. Bella begins the narrative in love with the sun, and her place in Phoenix. I still can’t think of a reason other than Blue Meth to live anywhere close to Phoenix, but whatever. I honestly would rather perform acupuncture on my cornea than live in Forks either, so let’s just call that one a push. The point is, Bella likes Phoenix and we can use this information to establish that she has sketchy taste. (NitWitty Magazine would like to deeply apologize to any residents of the Phoenix Metro Area or the township of Forks, Washington. We are deeply sorry for your living conditions – ed) Yet when it comes to Edward, Bella simply decides that she doesn’t miss the sun anymore because Edward doesn’t show up at school on sunny days. Look, we could imagine that this is a pastrami fisted metaphor for Edward being her “Sun” or we can see that one of Bella’s only character traits is tweaked by a dude that keeps telling her to leave him alone.
This gets even worse at the end with the stinger (or groaner – from a certain point of view) that Bella wants Fast Eddie to make her a vampire too. Just so we’re clear, she asks him specifically to pull an Ariel. She wants him to change her in such a way so that she is no longer compatible with her life. Look, I get that there’s this notion that young, impressionable and tragically stupid people have regarding love that the key is making grand Say Anything gestures. So Bella making this sort of demand and then having it be played off as some sort of aspirational “love” thing makes me want to beat up the bathroom.
Of course that would imply that Edward is worth having any of that in the first place. But he’s not because he is a massive creep. Let us count the ways. He constantly tells her what to do. He stalks her. He watches her sleep and there is a theme of possible violence at any moment from him. Seriously, at least Christian Grey had the decency to write up a contract before being a weirdo. But let’s focus for the sake of my own sanity, the stalking and that whole sleep watching thing. Early in the novel (around page 293 in my version of this disgrace) there’s this short scene where Edward explains to Bella that he has snuck into her house before and watches her sleep. Of course she takes this as being ever so slightly embarrassing, but mostly endearing. It’s not, and that’s why restraining orders are a thing.
The thing that makes it strange, and adds a creamy center of creepy stalker to this shitty little Oreo cookie, is that in the book it wasn’t until earlier that day the two of them are not even in any sort of relationship. In other words, he wasn’t ‘keeping vigil,’ or any other dreamt up shenanigans, instead he snuck into a girl’s house whom he barely knew. So yeah, Edward Cullen is a creepozoid of the highest order. You know what happens when vampires do creepy shit?
In the end, Twilight is poorly plotted, the voicing the book uses is at best smoldering garbage and the love story seems like it’s written by somebody with only a passing understanding of the term. Everybody loses. Vampires stop being scary. Books as a medium are lesser because this is sold in the same stores. Hell, even Arizona comes out looking worse after this somehow. Before I forget, I am compelled to mention that this shit heap was originally a fanfic of Twilight. What I’m saying is that this gods damned thing caused me suffering twice. It’s books like this that make me wonder if learning to read was a mistake.
And that is the Takedown. You can agree and be on the right side of history, or you can flame me from the comments. Just know that I’ve been doing this for long enough that I feel neither pain nor joy anymore. So come at me. This time, we go out with a musical number.
Until next time.