Frivolity

About three weeks ago I read the first three books of the wildly popular Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, and thought they were enjoyable but frivolous. Indeed, I thought so with such assurance that I never even bothered questioning why this was the case – it seemed entirely self-evident; when asked what I was doing with my time I would blush and stammer and say “reading a series of teen vampire romance novels” in a quick, low voice, while avoiding their gaze. But then I was talking with some friends, and they challenged this assessment – why were they “frivolous,” and why did that mean that I should be slightly ashamed of reading them? I tried to answer, but failed to come up with anything convincing, which seemed odd, considering how obvious my former assessment had and continued to seem. The following essay is, then, an apology of my position regarding Twilight and, by extension, all “frivolous” but moral books.

When I started writing this, I was thinking exclusively of novels -and primarily recent novels at that – but as I was trying to pin down what is and is not “frivolous” in my view, I started listing books, which formed themselves into three categories: important, serious, and self-indulgent. The more I listed, the more I noted that non-fiction books spread themselves out between the three categories as well: for instance, Wild at Heart and The Purpose Driven Life wound up labeled “self-indulgent,” James Harriet and Jacques Barzun qualified as “serious,” while St. Theophan and Dostoevsky were both “important.” There is still variation within each group, but roughly, books in the first ought to be read, because they’re brilliant; books in the second category would be helpful for most people to read because they’re good; books in the third category are just fun and nothing else, like eating candy. There’s a fourth category, I think, of profane books, but I’ve never read any of them, and have nothing to say on the topic.

 

To say that some books are self-indulgent and others not is to imply a standard from which I judge seriousness. In my case, these are the quality of certain novels and the advice of certain saints, of which these are a few of the very best: Victor hugo, Dostoevsky, Kierkergaard (whom I have never read, but even so, he’s a criterion), Homer, Virgil, St. Theophan, St John of the Ladder, St. Augustine, Solzienitzen. Then there’s a second tier of very good writers: G K Chesterton, Charles Williams, Charles Dickens, C S Lewis, George MacDonald, Saint Exupery, JRR Tolkien. Does this new book I’m reading have the mythological depth of The Lord of the Rings or the insights into the human soul of The Brothers Karamazov or the childlike wisdom of The Little Prince or the clarity of vision of the Address to the West? If not, why should I read it? What does it have that’s worth spending ten hours and more on?

 

Last summer I visited a monastery nearby for a week and a half, and while I was there I went to confession with a heiromonk who was father confessor to the nuns. He was very kind and gave a lot of advice, and among that advice he mentioned that since I had confessed to reading novels too much, he thought I oughtn’t read any novels at all. It seemed understandable, in view of how I would usually not only read novels but make up entire world inside my imagination based upon them, and would spend hours and days and (in the summer) weeks, even, making up stories about the worlds of the books and characters of my own. I gave up after about three weeks, however, and haven’t seriously tried again since, but ever since that day I’ve always felt a little prick of guilt whenever I’ve read a novel that wasn’t quite serious – which is most books really, and thought that perhaps I should try to detach myself from the reading of fantasy novels at the very least. So far I have been highly unsuccessful, and mostly just look rather embarrassed whenever I say that I’ve been reading Ann McKafrey or Robert Silverburg or Stephenie Meyer, or some similarly “frivolous” writer lately.

 

* * *

My generation grew up in the age of the morally ambiguous monster and the ironic anti-hero, and no one is at all surprised when the vampire turns out to be the angst-ridden good guy. I usually don’t read vampire stories, so I’m not very familiar with stock characters in the genre, but going by shows like Angel and Moonlight, I’m willing to suggest that Tormented Vampire Hero is on of them. So now there’s Edward – the Vampire Hero with all the sensibilities of a Jane Austin character. What’s not to like? He’s gorgeous, kind, polite, possesses super powers, decorous, eternally seventeen, tries very hard to do the right thing, quotes Shakespeare, reads Victorian romances when he’s bored, writes classically-themed music inspired by his girlfriend, drives a beautiful car, is rich but not too snobby. Oh yeah, and did I mention he’s gorgeous? Indeed, pretty much every young (or not so young) woman to read these books develops an instant and lasting crush on Edward, and great sympathy for Bella, who is hopelessly in love with him. As a result their love story, which is carried through Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and the soon to be released Breaking Dawn is extremely emotionally compelling. Meyer’s style is good enough to rarely distract from the power of that emotional attachment (although if she mentions that Edward has “a body that any male model would sell his soul for,” or any variation on that theme one more time, I’m going to be very disappointed), but not so good as to be worth mentioning. Which is to say, she writes like a good modern novelist, with a mild flavor of Sense and Sensibility, Wuthering Heights, and Romeo and Juliet added in. But Meyer’s work doesn’t have the ironic distance that is the hallmark of most modern writers. So that I don’t have to keep repeating this for the remainder of this essay: Edward is most girls’ dream boyfriend, for most of the reasons mentioned above, and a couple more which are less innocent.

 

To counter the massive sense of imbalance in the Bella/Edward relationship because of his vampire powers, Edward is not only hopelessly in love with Bella, but suffers for her a great deal – when she’s in danger, when they’re apart, when he has to leave her “for her own good,” when he thinks she’s dead, when he realized how much he’s hurt her. The way meyer describes it, this is like the emotional equivalent of being burned alive or something – like if your husband left you times ten. When E. thinks B’s dead, he flies halfway around the world to try to kill himself (vampires are very difficult to kill in these books), but fortunately she finds him in time. There’s part of me – a small, dark part, ruled by vanity and lust for power – that loves this, and it forms part of the pull toward wishing someone were so desperately in love with me (a typical desire). The rest of me finds this repugnant.

 

I do not, however, want to write a comprehensive critique of these books and my reaction to them: I wish there were another perspective that was entirely different – I wish, for instance, that Carslile has a bit more Zosima in him; I wish there were a strong, platonic friendship in there somewhere, so that not everything was sexual tension and suffering all the time (and no, Bella’s friendship with Alice doesn’t really count, because it’s very Edward-centric); I wished Edward would explain his philosophy, and Bella would quit dismissing it as silly (even if it is, she should give it some serious thought, because he’s been considering this for 90 years, and she for little more than nine months); I wish a lot of minor things that don’t need to be explored at this point. But I’m not sure if any of those things would be enough to effect the essential lightness of the novels. I’m trying to think of what would, but am probably too tired to do at the moment. being the genre that they are, it’s probably impossible. Balancing the emotionalism with more thoughtful dialogues or reflections from the narrator might do it, but she’s only seventeen, and fairly shallow – changing the narrator, however, would change everything, and probably make them not nearly as compelling. Mmm… I’ll try to give this some more thought when I have time.

______________________________

A few days ago I read a pair of highly entertaining novels by Dean Koontz: Forever Odd and Brother Odd, about a highly unusual young man who can see the lingering dead. Though certainly not great these are solidly good novels, and I would recommend them as good summer reading (Odd Thomas is actually the first in the series, and should probably be read before the others). In any event, I tend to understand and empathize with the motivations of the young man, however unlikely both his circumstances and actions may be. I was mildly surprised to realize that there are frivolous, unlikely novels that don’t bother me, because recently I have assumed that all such books are likely to bother me in equal measure, simply by virtue of being frivolous. Not so. And that brings me back to the last series of novels I read, Twilight.

 

I was reading a thread on The Twilight Lexicon this afternoon, where avid fans of the series were discussing whether or not Edward was a fool for trying to leave in New Moon, to which the consensus was that yes, he was a fool, but he had all the best intentions. Their main argument rested on the facts that a) he ended up not being able to live without Bella in any event and b) leaving hurt Bella a great deal more than Edward anticipated. Both points are true, but I believe that they miss something very crucial as well: everyone ends up dismissing the question of whether being a vampire is a Very Bad Thing or not, and how important this question is to everyone involved with the Cullens.

 

Brahm Stoker is, in many ways, not as good a writer as Stephenie Meyer: Dracula is usually dead boring. He goes on and on about things that don’t matter, such as elaborate descriptions of various locations and the operations of a phonographic diary, which pretty no one cares about any more (possibly they never did, but editors were more indulgent back then). But Stoker has one great virtue that most modern writers of vampire novels lack: he appreciated how very bad it is to be, become, or become prey to a vampire. There’s nothing cool or sexy about having one’s soul drained out through the blood stream. When one of the female characters is starting to be turned by Dracula, and a communion wafer pressed to her forehead burns her like acid, it’s terrible. It’s difficult to convey, and probably wouldn’t mean much to a modern audience that doesn’t share Catholic sensibilities, but all the power and terror of Stoker’s vampires hinges upon entertaining the possibility that there are supernatural monsters that can not only kill the body (which in his world, is a relatively small thing), but can, in some terrible way, also harm the soul. They have power to make even God reject their victim, as symbolized by the way in which things like holy water, crosses, and communion wafers hurt those who have fallen under their sway.

 

Edward Cullen still possesses some of that old dread of being rejected by God, even if he doesn’t quite know who God is, or what His demands consist of. He also suspects that vampires are unnatural, and, especially, rejected by God, so that though they have great longevity, strength, speed, sexiness, and so on, they are ultimately melancholy creatures, outside of the order of creation. In short, being a vampire is a Very Bad Thing. Being a vampire himself is something of an affliction, which he endures, and sometimes enjoys aspects of, but if he were ever given an opportunity to become a normal person again, he would probably jump on it in an instant. It’s possible he might even trade it for going back and dyeing of the Spanish Flue, though it might be he loves Carlisle too much for that. In any event, it’s certainly not something he would wish on someone who could otherwise live a normal human life. So, seeing that Bella would either get killed or become a vampire if she continued to keep company with him, he left, somewhere near the beginning of New Moon. If he had known how much leaving would devastate her, would he have still gone? Probably not, on account of weakness, just as he probably would have eventually returned anyway, out of misery. I would, however, assert that just because Edward would not have been able to endure the outcome of his choice, that does not make it the wrong one.

 

A while back I was talking with a fan of Twilight, and though through lack of time I was unable to hear her whole argument, but something she said struck me. She said that I was unable to understand or judge correctly what Bella or Edward or Stephenie Meyer ought to have done, because I have never experienced life shattering love or loss. That struck me as odd, and somehow emblematic of differences between Stephenie Meyer’s assumptions about the role of emotion and my own. I believe that there is a right thing to do, and that because of various circumstances (emotional, physical, whatever) people very often do not do it. Explaining the reasons why a person failed says nothing about the original question of what the right thing was. It’s not so big a problem for me when a character knows the right thing and fails to do it (as when Edward lets Bella get involved with him in the first place), or even when they do something that I consider to be wrongheaded, but is well articulated (Like Dimitri chasing after Grushenka). The biggest problem is when there’s an ethical problem that’s glaringly obvious to the reader, and, in this case, to at least one character, but which everyone else is utterly blind to, because it conflicts with their emotional ties.

 

Literarily, I end up being disappointed because there are these questions burning in Edward’s soul upon pretty much all the characters’ moral questions hinge: is it a Very Bad Thing to be a vampire? Do vampires have souls? If it is indeed Very Bad, what is the role of love? Can the best thing for another person sometimes also be the thing that hurts the most now? Is it still worth it? What happens to a vampire that kills himself? Is it worth enduring years, decades, possibly centuries of emotional torment to do the right thing? But no one else is willing to talk about any of the above questions, especially Bella, though many of them effect her most of all. Because she’s afraid of what the answers will be. Because she’ll get hurt. Because she won’t be able to become a vampire. As understandable as those reactions may be, they’re bad for the quality of the books, because should vampires indeed prove to be rejected by God, then there are no happy endings. Bella becoming a vampire is ultimately a tragedy, and her staying human means probably decades of pain and loss. If it’s actually alright to be a vampire, then there can be a happy ending, but at the expense of shallow philosophy and a disappointing anticlimax.

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