Monday, September 29, 2008

Twilight, part deux

So Owl is quite right that her transparent colleague might like to weigh in on the vampire phenomenon. Ever since Stephenie Meyer's tastefully designed books started popping up in airport kiosks and the grocery aisle, the vampire novel for teenyboppers has been growing its ranks with cheaper versions of same, even hauling oldies out of retirement for a new audience. I'm thinking specifically of L.J. Smith's cult series favorites, The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle (a coven of teen witches in New Salem), favorites of mine from kittenhood newly re-released with less trashy covers, more convenient for reading on public transportation. If you're anything like I, sometimes you feel ashamed of what the whooping-cough woman in the shiny gold ball cap thinks of your taste in literature.

But what, you ask, is so appealing about Meyer's books, besides the obvious Dateline answers (Bella's the average teenage girl with no money, no fancy clothes, totally within reach of her readership, and yet she lands a beautiful boy who happens to be a real (rich) gentleman)? I'll tell you--Twilight's Bella Cullen nee Swan is a poor imitation, but I think a legitimate descendant, of Jane Eyre. And by this I mean: This is NOT a remake, folks, just a few parallels in terms of appeal. I have included, for your dining pleasure, a cover of the great Bronte novel, featuring the portrait of Miss Charlotte herself. The comparisons between author and character have been discussed by those smarter than your favorite talking feline, but look at those eyes! Don't they snap!

In Jane Eyre we get a Gothic novel that's actually literature and not mere sensational drivel,* with our "plain Jane" first person narrator who knows she can't be a real temptation to the man of her dreams. In both books the male leads are conveniently named Edward, though Jane fans will immediately go to Edward Fairfax's surname and title, Rochester, for their hero. Another key criterion: both men have one big deal-breaker secret. Anywho, here's poor little Jane Eyre: short, a governess, the lowest form of female life in a Gothic romance after the toothless washerwoman, and then there's Bella Swan, clumsy as a drunk, whiny as a toddler, a decent cook, and average across the board without siblings or real parental figures, unless you count her excruciatingly dim dad and mother. Also, Bella and Jane are both brunettes. Shocker.

How could that appeal? If Jane's not pretty, and Bella's nothing special, they must be smart, right? Or at least driven by the strength of their convictions.

Twilight's a bit iffy on the literature category (as my friend Owl put it) Since Edward Cullen is a vampire, and cute to boot, he can have his pick of the litter, but he initially wants Bella because...she smells really good. Like a lavender-honey duck breast, or mussels in curried french fries. Like, real good. Rochester picks Jane because she's the physical antithesis of his tall dark secret--a crazy wife in the attic, big as a grizzly bear--and because Jane's got smarts, spirit, and a very small wardrobe. He likes that she doesn't like expensive presents.

The real trick with the "I" narrator is figuring out how well our heroines recognize their own beauties and deficiencies. When she looks in the mirror, Jane sees, in the words of Daniel Plainview, Oil Man, "nothing worth liking." She's realistic about her physical appearance to the point of self-insult. We know she can't be beautiful, or she'd hear about it from her friends. They remain silent on this point. It's Rochester who loves her sane steadiness, her neat hair, her slight figure. Edward Cullen also enjoys Bella's truculent low opinion of herself, though he believes she is beautiful. Bella doesn't like presents either, but in a much more annoying way than Jane, who refuses on grounds of absurdity. Dressing Jane up would be ridiculous because of her plainness, her poverty, and would suggest that our heroine doesn't know her place in society. Bella protests gifts because she likes to ruin other people's fun. I guess. Meyer never really goes into this part of Bella's disposition. Edward likes that Bella's not showy, which he takes for modesty, and that she's not scared of his rock-like, no dent, chilly physique (pure, snuggly alabaster, ladies). Rochester, as we know, is a name linguistically rooted in 'rock', and Bronte's description of him draws out all the harsh and unflattering lines jagged rocks are famous for before they hit the rock polisher. Jane repeatedly tells Rochester the truth of his looks (not flattering) and his behavior (too fond and forward), despite her position as his employee. Edward is a polished stone--Rochester remains in the rough all his life, and even gets rougher.

More to come on the unwinding Eyre/Swan theory (or not--yawn).

* The Glass Cat loves sensational drivel in, you know, its place.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

the twilight mystique: part 1

What a long strange summer it’s been. Having forsaken my cozy Wolery for a new perch in the Emerald City (which, as anyone will tell you, is no place for owls) I’m once again able to turn my predator’s eye to the field of children’s literature. And what have I found?

Turns out owls can’t hold a candle to everyone’s favorite nocturnal predator, the Vampire. Unlike owls, Vampires are further than ever from the endangered species list. And Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is on the forefront of this trend. I’ve only read one and a half books in the series, and on the prose level, Meyer is no J. K. Rowling, though she spins a good tale. So why are her books so popular?

To be honest, I’m just not that into vampires. I’ll leave it to the Glass Cat to explain why they’re so awesome.

But as soon as I started into Twilight, I got all excited about one part of the book—not normally what catches my eye in a teen romance—the setting.

See, it turns out I passed through Forks, Washington—Twilight heroine Bella Swan’s hometown—just a couple weeks ago, on my way to go backpacking in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park. Forks is truly remote. It’s hours from anywhere, and the trees, where they haven’t been cut down, are absolutely enormous. Some of those trees 500 years old, older than Dracula, maybe even older than the idea of vampires.

As I was hiking along the Hoh river trail, before I had read any of the Twilight books, before I knew they were set in Washington, I kept thinking “This is the kind of forest that would make you believe in magic. This is the kind of forest where a witch could pop out from behind a tree.”

An old-growth forest is totally different from a forest that got logged a hundred years ago. There are more spaces between the trees, more clearings, more variety. And when you stand among those trees, give you the feeling of how puny and small you are as a human (see above photo), which is exactly the feeling Bella gets when hanging around with Edward Cullen.

Maybe part of the reason these books are popular is the same reason I went backpacking—a desire to experience something mysterious and ancient—whether it’s an unimaginably old forest or a hot makeout session with your undead boyfriend. When Bella kisses Edward’s undead lips, she’s kissing something that existed before she was born, in a time she couldn’t imagine. And when I leaned against the trunk of a 500-year-old Sitka spruce, I touched something that was alive before any of my ancestors came to this country. Something older than I can imagine.

There’s other elements of the book that seem nostalgic to me, too, but I’ll get to that later.

This theory is slightly ruined by the fact that Stephenie Meyer hadn’t been to Forks when she wrote Twilight. She just picked Forks by googling the rainiest place in America.

If you go out to Forks, you can take a Twilight tour, where fans have mapped the fictional story onto the real landscape. The Seattle Times has a great story about it here. If I went back out to Forks now, I’d see it with totally different eyes.

And one postscript: Bella Cullen sounds a lot like Bella Coola, a mythical and remote town in British Columbia, where, according to friends who used to live there, there are lots of grizzly bears. Bet some vampires live there, too.