Category Archives: Twilight

Gospel-of-Z

The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones

There is no other monster more contested than the zombie. Call any creature which doesn’t adhere to strict Romero-style zombie epistemology – it runs, or it’s not exactly dead, or it can talk, or whatever – and someone will jump down your throat. I tend to take a functional definition of your fictional monsters, meaning I’m less interested in static attributes, and more interested in how those attributes are deployed in context. Meaning if it walks like a duck even though the text calls it a chicken, you might as well treat it like a duck in terms of how that fowl functions.

Take, for example, the vampires in Twilight. There is very little to the creature called vampire by Meyer that adheres to the folklore. They’re undead, and contagious, but they sparkle, cross running water, and can go out in sunlight with no deleterious effects. (I’m not even clear on whether they drink blood, or if they consume flesh too.) No one questions whether they’re vampires though, because the whole functional definition of a vampire has to do with predatory aristocracy, sexual and class politics, and certain kinds of body horror, especially as regards to procreation. (Maybe this last isn’t in the traditional folklore, but since Claudia in Interview with a Vampire, it’s definitely a thing.) Her vamps are just ducky, even if their attributes are only vampish.

But call the creatures in I Am Legend zombies, and you will get into serious trouble with the neckbeards, even though they (the zombies, not the neckbeards, though  them too, kinda) adhere to the functional definition of the zombie. They’re relentless; they outnumber “normal” humans (the opposite is almost always the case with vamps); they presage or have caused the end of the modern world; their body horror is not based on their sexual attributes, but on revulsion and rot. (Also, bearing in mind I’m talking about the Will Smith and Vincent Price films, not about the source novel. Those creatures are an interesting inversion.) Additionally, those movies have lots of the motifs of a zombie narrative: besieged homesteads, traumatic loss of loved ones, the slow madness of the lonely.

I guess my point is this: I’ve gotten into a lot of pointless, stupid arguments on these here Internets about the definition of the zombie, and I wonder why the definition is such a big deal to people. I wonder why people police that definition so narrowly. My pet theory is that zombie narratives are often about race and class, and we’re all pretty kinked about those definitions as well. Like when I see idiots say things like “Obama is half white, so I’m not being racist when I say this racist thing about him.” Race isn’t like swirl ice cream, but a complicated slurry of competing functional definitions. In other words, race can’t be defined by attribute; it can only be defined by function. But holy god do we want it to be defined by attribute in our biologically deterministic little hearts. Ditto zombies.

But pet theory aside, I think the other things about zombie stories is that they are new on the scene, relatively speaking, so they have a kind of same-same to them. Although the whole sexy aristocrat thing is new to the vampire – older folklore has vampires as more zombie-ish ghouls who are decidedly unsexy – the folklore is old enough to allow wide latitude in definitions based on attribute. We’ve got at least a hundred years of sexy aristocrat blood-drinkers. You can date the modern zombie to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, no question, which was filmed not long before I was born, cough cough. The motifs have yet to fully differentiate through a century of reiteration and reimagining. We’re still working out the tropes, collectively.

Which is why The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones is notable. No, the zombies are more or less your granddaddy’s Romero zombies – neckbeards take note – but there’s a fundamental weirdness to the proceedings that stretches the motifs, moves the markers, and fucks with the same-same. It’s ten years after the zombie apocalypse – or zombie apocalypses, as the end of the world was a slow, bleeding affair in this this novel, a series of last nights before the very last night. We pop into the life of the “more or less white” Jory Gray, low level schmuck who lives in the militarized encampment of what’s left of half of humanity. His girlfriend left him recently for the Church on the hill, the other half of what’s left of humanity.

It’s whispered by the working stiffs that the Church both worships and has neutralized the zombie threat, but this is the kind of whispering that occurs between all working stiffs, and it’s both envious and disbelieved. Jory works building Handlers, a kind of superzombie built out of mad scientry and bureaucracy. The Handlers are used to differentiate zombie flesh from the edible, human kind, scrambling in the dirt to eat our remains unless our remains want to eat right back. They’re also fucking terrifying, in a way, this barely restrained weapon used for the most prosaic ends. Everyone can see how they’re going to go wrong, and spectacularly, but everyone is just some asshole trying to get by

Everyone is shades of Jory Gray, trying hard not to be noticed until they are, and then fuck, maybe I’ll have to come to terms with that thing that one time. Maybe the apocalypse has more to do with one moment with a hammer than it does with anything that goes on later. Maybe we’re all working though that one trauma, and the zombies and superzombies and everything else is a memento mori, but a memento mori with teeth and a descant. Jones’s prose is nasty, pointed, that kind of horror writing that runs everyday until it escalates, and then it’s well over the fence. Catch up; keep up.

I thought the climax was confused a bit – what the fuck was that one thing – but the parts that ran everyday honestly wrung me out. So much of the end of it all is the end of the one true thing, the thing you keep trying to find once it’s lost, and when you find its reminder, you sit on the floor of the bedroom and weep. You kill something with a knife made of bone. You go to work everyday like a schmuck, because that’s what you’ve got in you. That’s the only thing left, until it isn’t. Who even knows.

The Gospel of Z feels non-functional, in a way, this fucking weird, armadillo-ridden narrative, too personal, too specific. This is something left out of the canon: a side story, an apocrypha, a letter to the Galatians. This is a vision on the road to Damascus brought on by epilepsy. This is a parking lot with a good vantage. Which makes it somehow perfect for the zombie narrative, giving you good, Romero zombies that no one could argue to do this crazy thing on the edges. God bless, and good night.

ice

Ice by Anna Kavan

I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream. In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.

Stephenie Meyer, from her Twilight FAQ

I don’t think I’m going to rate Ice by Anna Kavin, as I don’t think I can say I liked it - like is such a degraded term – but I also feel a fiercely uncomfortable kinship with its dead-eyed wonder. I think if I’d read this 20 years ago, I would have gone one of two ways. Either I’d dismiss it as plotless mind-fuckery – using, no doubt, a brilliant metaphor involving an emperor’s sartorial stylings or lack thereof – or I’d enact that uncomfortable bullshit of pretending to understand something I didn’t get. Maybe I’m not giving younger me enough credit, and I’m not trying to humble-brag that I get this now by trashing my younger self. I believe Ice is ultimately un-get-able, probably intentionally so (not that that factors for me, entirely), but in a way that speaks to several of my personal obsessions: the housewife in fiction, post-apocalyptic landscapes, the harder to describe slipperiness of mid-century female writers. Ice, for me, reads as a daughter of Story of O, fraught with the eroticism of landscape and decay, the brutalization of half-sketched girl through the eyes of half-sketched men, written by a woman who, like Pauline Réage, ran her identity like artwork itself. 

Nameless characters in a post-apocalyptic dream state enact a chilly, brutal love triangle.* There is a man, and another man – sometimes a warden, sometimes a husband – and they tug-of-war over the image of a sylph-like girl who is described dismissively by her hair color and her victimhood. She cowers, there. Her wrists become bruised. Her mother was cruel and taught her submission. The man – who is the main character – alternately murders her and tries to rescue her from the other man, sometimes at once. Locations bleed from one to the next; walls of ice rear up or cower themselves, in the distance; concrete details of flat-letting and luncheons dissolve into war and radiation. The girl is trussed and murdered a thousand times, or she isn’t, and everywhere she is half out-of-sight, a mirage in a damp-smelling room or a field of trees lit by moonlight and her bare, frozen feet are blue against the snow. Or the warden’s eyes are blue like a gem whose name the narrator can’t recall. Ice is infuriating until it poleaxes you, like the dream I had last night of a bunch of gossipy chatter at a picnic with a bunch of friends that did a focus-in, dolly-out on a creature, made of smoke, who sought possession of me and mine and I ran until I was screaming and my husband woke me up, telling me I was shouting in my sleep. Exactly like that. 

Like with Story of O, I’m maybe more interested in Kavan’s fascinating biography than I am with the text itself. Born to ex-pat Britons in France, people who are primarily referred to as cold, she was a heroine addict through most of her adult life. This is often described as medicinal, as she suffered from what we would pigeonhole as depression, and she herself was unrepentant about her addictions. She burned all her correspondences and most of her diaries near the end of her life, saying, “I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be.” And how, woman. Way to rock the fuck out of self-as-art. I can see thousands of sophomore-level papers about ice-as-addiction or ice-as-domestic-panic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but they would also hugely fail. Ice might be the artifact of biography, but wrestling this bear down with life details won’t do. We shall not be going to the lighthouse today. 

“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf

I read this up at the cabin, in snatches, like something stolen. In the category of post-apocalyptic post-Modern meta-mind-fuckery I’ve read at the cabin, I’m going to give the award to Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but it’s probably not wise to conflate the two. When my friend Alexis showed up with her daughter so we could enact our own lighthouse-not-going with the kids, we walked over the harsh geology of the north shore and shit-talked books and people. She’d read the back-flap of Ice, which likened Kavan to a raft of female authors, for no discernible reason other than they had lady-parts, and then named a raft of people she influenced, all male. Sure, it’s just blurb-craft bullshit, but it is also A Thing, this melting fulcrum of the pen spurting out its translations between the genders and influence and anxiety and all manner of Bloomian bullshit. 

Bullshit, she said, and pointed to the land, this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon. 

Whatever. 

I am losing my coherence, the way I do. But I started with Stephenie Meyer talking about Bella Swann, that girl in the gloaming imagined by a woman asleep, the day before her kids were to start swimming lessons which would give her the brief stolen moments to write her dream of a girl being fought over like a bone by boyish monsters, her blood in the snow, her warm chastity, his chilly skin like a wall of ice. Sometimes when we dream, women dream of being killed by men. You can collapse the narrative of Ice with fractal precision into its opening and closing lines: “I was alone” and then, “The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring.” The rest is geometry, and the angles cut. 

*Though I admit my use of the term love triangle is primarily a troll – let’s see how many people run up in the defense of the seriousness of the literary qualities of this book – I’m somewhat douchily trying to enact the gendered ways we approach literature of all stripes. Love triangle is a dismissive term – oh, sigh, another girl thinks she’s average-special enough for a ream of hot guys to love her to the point of annihilation, which is, here, absolutely the fucking point, or not, who knows what the point it? There is no spoon. Do or do not. Both, motherfucker. None.

Fremdschämen: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

There’s this really great German term, fremdschämen, which means to be embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Sit-coms are often predicated on the concept of fremdschämen, that squirming feeling you get when people are in untenable positions of their own unconscious devising – Jack Tripper in  eye makeup running some gay panic, or absolutely anything Michael Scott does on The Office. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 manages to ride the edges of my vicarious embarrassment so, so much, not really tipping into fremdschämen into the very, very end. I call this a win as far as adaptions go, really.

It’s hard to sum my feelings about the The Twilight Saga succinctly. Sure, absolutely, this stuff is objectively terrible and completely regressive. But I am not joking in the slightest when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the scariest fucking thing I have ever read, ever, hands down. Stephenie Meyer is writing from the unconscious part of her brain there, running an electric wire to certain gendered fears, and while Meyer tries her absolute hardest to write away the horror from that sequence, she’s not ultimately successful.

The ending of the book Breaking Dawn ended up being a different, chilling kind of horror to me: a vision of narrative and personal perfection that destroys both personal coherence and narrative unity. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” Gag. But I get Meyer’s desire to run the pearl silk around her earlier panic, somehow to staunch the sting of the entirety of the nightmare she produced mid-book. Which is deeply nutty in a young adult novel about marrying Jesus and living perfectly forever and ever, world without end, amen.

I’ve only read books one and four of The Twilight Saga, but I have seen all the movies, and it’s been a trip watching them on the screen. Twilight is a mess on the screen – not much that works on the page works out loud, and things like Edward’s sparkling or the vampire baseball sequence come off as unintentionally campy.

But you want to hear a crazy thing? Breaking Dawn – the second part anyway – actually works better on screen. The first part, no, they gut (heh heh) the birthing sequence of its alarming resonance, chickening out about Meyer’s bloody awful vision. (Though the coded rape scene of the honeymoon sequence is still funny/terrifying.) But the second half of the book is such a hot mess that it’s hard not to improve on it.

There’s a lot of fan bitching about how the movie people ran an action sequence with a lot of head-popping and fire, but it totally worked. I was so, so disappointed by the book, the way Meyer sets everyone up with their swirling capes, and then everything goes fssst in a Vampire Matlock sequence that is both boring and lame. It ruled to see the possibility for some godamn action in all the squandered potential of the book, even if the sequence went on overlong. The whole action sequence was smartly set up by Alice’s clairvoyance and its possibilities though. It was a departure that saw potentials in the source material that hadn’t been realized.

But the real beauty of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is in the huge love letter to all the Twifans, from the love scenes between Bella and Edward that end in some kind of nuclear annihilating sunrise, to the dumb parts where Bella reads aloud to Edward, to the page-turning final sequence where the filmmakers invoke all the lost hours the fans of the books have spent freaking out with flashlights under the covers. Breaking Dawn is garbage, but it is the garbage end of so much godamn garbage-y fun for so many people, and the credit sequence that runs a CHiPs-style freeze-frame on every single person ever mentioned in The Twilight Saga kinda brought a tear to my eye. Graham Green! Omg! What are you doing in this p.o.s.?

The part that killed me though – the part that evoked the fremdschämen I started with – was the very end, where Edward and Bella are literally (and I mean this in the original sense of the word, not to mean figuratively) are rolling around in a meadow full of flowers, and she manages to relay to Edward a psychic montage of all the previous movies. OH my GOD. That is the WORST. Fan love letters are just fine, but this is moving into seriously embarrassing territories here. Um, okay, but get a room, guys.

So, this movie was a blast, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but I can’t say it’s anywhere near objectively good. Love letters to swooning girls are few and far between though, so I respect it on that level. Good job, Twilight Saga.

Some of my Favorite TwiThings

Because I’m too old and sick this weekend, I could not partake in the midnight madness that was was the premiere of the second part of Breaking Dawn. I’m not going to pretend to fandom, but I have grown to love the Twilight franchise for its unabashed Mary Sue’d girliness. Sure, it’s totally regressive, and possibly even dangerous if taken too seriously – an undead virgin pedobear grooms his teenage girlfriend for domestic bliss? Shudder – but it’s no more alarming than any of the thousands of masculine fantasies that have some teenage asshole played by Shia LaBeouf blowing up most of the eastern seaboard because he lost his girlfriend or something. So many of the criticisms of Twilight are genderfails, angry at girls for being girls and wanting girl things.

But that doesn’t mean I’m above making fun of Twilight, because making fun makes fun. Here are some of my favorite things that come out of the Forksverse:

Buffy vs. Edward

Deleted Twilight Sex Scene
And this round-up from i09 that lists some of the scariest and most awesome Twilight merch available out there. 
So, have fun this weekend, Twihards. 
Breaking-dawn-2-bella-forever

Breaking Dawn: Narrative Tension Goes Fsssst

I read Twilight more or less on a dare, mostly so I could swirl my chardonnay and get my schadenfreude on. While I can certainly snob out about how horribly Twilight is written on so many levels, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it made me. Meyer captured itchy, awkward adolescence with such an evocative squirm, and then she relieved that adolescent discomfort with a monstrous romantic bliss. I can see why so many people responded to this, even though I was still too busy breathing into a bag having flashbacks to middle school to relax and and get swept up in the romance. When she’s good, she’s good because she is not in control of her subject, not able to stop the outpouring of discomfort and terror underlying the domestic bliss that is a woman’s expected relief, and while Twilight ends with a certain romantic harmony, Meyer doesn’t perfect the ending. All impediments to Bella and Edward are not swept away, and they don’t fade out to domestic harmony.

If you think about it, that’s fascinating. I think if Meyer had been a seasoned writer, following the rules of mass market romance – and yes, I know that Twilight isn’t mass market romance, but it does share some commonalities – she would have written a series of books shifting to other points of view, working out other romances within the Forksverse. Edward’s coven would have been all unattached, the tribe would be introduced, and they would have hooked up pair by pair: Mike with Alice, Jacob with Rosalie, that one chick with Jasper. Edward and Bella and then the later couples would cameo in epilogues and picnics with their babies, doling out advice to the new lovers while they writhed in romantic incompleteness until they didn’t, and then the sparkle ending could have been repeated ad infinitum. But Meyer is not that kind of writer; her strengths, such as they are, reside in her uncalculating evocation of…I’m struggling here…the terrors and pleasures of American femininity? The inherent conflict between the self protagonist and traditional gender roles? Some shit like that. 

Fascinating or no, I had zero interest in reading any more Twilight books after the first. But because Twilight talk is pretty much what fuels the Goodreads engine – although this is changing a bit, thank heavens – I’ve followed roughly 89 kajillion conversations about the series, spoilered myself on the plots of each book, and spent more words on books I haven’t read than is wise. I’ve wanted to read Breaking Dawn bad for a while, because I’ve been assured that Breaking Dawn is where the wheels come off, where Meyer’s unexamined domestic panic goes insane and burns the house down. Those assurances were not wrong. I’ve been hamstrung by my disinterest in plowing through nearly a thousand pages of love triangles, cheesy stand-ins for the Catholic church, and racist, Rousseauian garbage about how Native Americans are in touch with their inner furry beastie to get to this book. (Also, Edward is not Heathcliff, he’s Linton, and I’m not sure I can handle watching Meyer act out that mistake in Eclipse.) Anyway, point being, thank god for movies, because I got good and drunk and watched the movies of the middle two books with Elizabeth, who explained the stuff that they missed, and I was good and ready to read this. 

I can see why they split Breaking Dawninto two movies, because it is two books. One is a shockingly naked expression of procreative terror, an effective horror novel which is effective because it is so completely, so thoroughly, so devastatingly unconscious. The other is a boring, mechanical attempt to cauterize the previous blood-letting, an act of wish fulfillment so severe it almost negates the power of the previous installment. The wish is to unsee the terror of the previous entry, but whoo boy, there is no unseeing that. Before reading this, I tried to think of novels that detail the process of pregnancy and childbirth, and I mean embody, not just use as grist from some guy’s mid-life/Oedipal crisis, or mention as the conclusion to the novel. I blanked for a long time, but eventually I came up with two: BelovedToni Morrison‘s ghost story of slavery, and BarrayarLois McMaster Bujold‘s court intrigue of the domestic. I find it interesting that the pregnancies in these fictions are all metonymous in some way, dissociated. From Beloved, I have a vivid image of Sethe’s water breaking in an unstoppable stream of piss, while her daughter-ghost rises in her high-necked white dress, or from Barrayar, Cordelia helping a woman deliver a baby during a battle, while her own swims in a tank, his fragile bones breaking. But neither of these births are normal by any stretch: disembodied, metaphorical, political, even while they have a fierce physicality that I can remember years later. 

The dissociation in Breaking Dawncomes from the fact that the point of view shifts to Jacob for the whole of Bella’s pregnancy. The book starts with the Swan-Cullen wedding, a dreary obvious affair with requisite reference to clothing. The newly minted Cullens then whisk to Brazil to a desert island, and a series of sexual encounters that feel like S&M literature written under the Hays Code. I found them alternately hilarious and unsettling: a bedroom filled with white downy feathers after Edward has pillow-bitten his way through the grind; Bella waking covered in bruises that she can’t remember receiving, and begging a remorseful Edward into doing it again. She gets knocked up – pun intended – on the first try, though doesn’t realize it for nigh on 100 pages of snorkeling, eating eggs, and trying on lingerie. We’re in kill-me-now territory, for this reader. But they eventually figure it out, Edward making a tight-lipped phone call to Carlisle, his father/doctor, and Bella going completely fucking insane with baby fever. 

Here’s where the point of view shift happens, and it’s breathtaking to behold. I try to avoid speculating about authorial motivation, but I think it’s obvious that Meyer is bound up in Bella, at the very least as a wish-fulfillment vehicle, if not a full-blown author proxy. (Breaking Dawndoes goes full Mary Sue in the last half though – more on that later.) And Meyer, for a variety of reasons, can’t have her stand-in express the terror and discomfort of pregnancy, the doubt and fear, the sheer towering life-and-death of it all, so she turns to another who can. Jacob performs his task admirably, giving voice to thoughts that by all rights Bella should be having, would be having, if she weren’t silenced by her standing as idealized womanhood. The pregnancy is breakneck, almost literally, a week of gestation collapsed into a day. Bella grows hollow-eyed, starved of nutrition by her fetal parasite, her ribs cracking by the sudden ballooning of her body, sipping blood out of a styrofoam cup with a lid and straw. In one awful scene, her pelvis snaps. 

Holy fuck. I’ve had some babies, and I was harrowed by these descriptions. While I found much of pregnancy novel, and enjoyable in its novelty in some regards – when else can I experience being kicked in the bladder from within my own body? – pregnancy was also uncomfortable and scary, on both physical and existential levels. My son gave me an umbilical hernia, which necessitated surgery; I am riddled with stretch marks; I had never once experienced heartburn before my nascent kids pushed my stomach into my throat. (What is this sensation I am feeling?? My heart it burns! Oh, so that’s heartburn. Sucks.) And I had it easy compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from friends, bedridden with a variety of leaking, potentially lethal pregnancy-induced conditions. I’ve been dithering for the last half hour, trying to figure how to say this out loud, this unspeakable truth, but I believe that every pregnant woman, regardless of her politics or her beliefs, thinks to herself at some point, this thing inside me has no right to kill me. I resent that I may have to choose between my life and another’s. I resent that I am expected to love someone more than myself, sight unseen. I love myself. I choose me. 

Phew. I’m feeling a little gross after writing that, but there it is. Bella doesn’t say anything like this, and Jacob twists and howls, saying it for her. I thank the starry heavens that we make it through Bella’s pregnancy in another character’s head, because she is freakishly placid and resigned. Bella is surrounded by unwomen – the barren, the childless – who protect Bella’s wishes to go through this unwise, fatal pregnancy because they don’t care about her at all, they only care about the baby. The sterile werewolf who hates Bella and Jacob, Rosalie who has been opposed to Bella’s transformation into a vampire on the grounds that Bella will not be able to have children, these women give voice to the conundrum that they are giving Bella what she needs to become a woman, in this traditionalist mindset, but that the woman is disposable in that act of creation. Good gravy, think about it, it’s so fucking sick and perfect that it kills me a little. 

At the end of Jacob’s pov section, Bella goes into labor, such as it is. Honestly, I have never read anything scarier in my life, the placenta detaching, Carlisle, the doctor, conveniently off set. This is a mutant, remember, encased in a placental sac so hard that it can only be gotten through with teeth, the infant’s teeth. It is a shower of blood, one that had me flashing back to my own deliveries, and not in a good way. This following bit is gross and overshare: I had repressed this memory, but after 42 hours of labor, and a nail-biting finish where I nearly bled to death, I remember being wheeled out after all the stitches and happy conclusions (in that neither I nor my son were dead) and seeing the river of blood and fluid on the floor, leading to a drain. I remember lying in bed, two mornings before, after waking up to my water silently breaking, and thinking, holy shit, there is no way out of this now. I have to experience the next 12 hours – this was hope talking, though I didn’t know it – and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. It was the moment before the roller coaster went down the hill, and I didn’t know if there were tracks at the end, and that was panic, pure panic. 

The birthing sequence is told twice, once from Jacob’s pov, and once from Bella’s, and it’s fascinating to compare. Jacob is angry and horrified, like you are when you are a rational human watching a mutant baby eat its way out of a woman you love. Bella’s perspective is batshit insanity. I went back and re-read this part today, after I finished, because I have this horrible image of Bella’s child smiling at her with a full set of teeth – seriously, close your eyes and imagine an infant with a full set of teeth, smiling – shudder, shudder – and I couldn’t remember whether Bella noted this, or Jacob. It was Bella, and that image fills her with joy. I’m running out of expletives, but holy cussed godamn fucking shit. I’m losing the capacity to talk about this coherently, because this is so fucking bananas. 

So. Baby born, who is flawless and perfect. Bella transformed into vampire, now flawless and perfect. From here on out, the plot could not be more boring, more impossible, more unnecessary. There’s some thing with the Voltari making a power play for the baby or something – seriously, I’m not detailing the plot because it makes so little sense. I barked out some laughs when Bella and Edward go at it like marble rabbits every night when the baby goes to sleep – haha, such an accurate depiction of new parenthood. I completely lost my shit when, after roughly seven hundred new characters are introduced, Jacob says something to the effect of: how am I going to keep all these people straight?! Next to his statement is a little asterisk.*

*See page 756 is written below, and I am sent back to an index – hahahahahaha – that is a list of characters complete with helpful little strike-throughs for the characters who have died in previous books – hahahahaha. Holy shit, woman, have a little more faith in your writing. 

It’s like Meyer squeezed out this horrible truth, and then panicked, canonizing Bella and stripping out all the narrative danger, all the reality. We don’t really hear again from Jacob or the wolves, which is incredibly frustrating, because obviously Sam and Jacob make up at the end, but all of that occurs off-stage. And there are a bunch of new wolves??? And they are not really werewolves, we learn in an infodump?? Everyone recedes into a prop for the perfect child, one that makes everyone instantly love her. Meyer spent all her truth on the trauma of childbirth, and once we’re back in Bella’s head, she can’t express the impolite notion that infants can be difficult to love. I do believe in a certain amount of parental instinct – we wouldn’t make it far as a species without it – but for most new mothers, we are struggling with exhaustion, blood loss, and a dizzying hormonal stew when our babies are at their neediest: screaming, feeding, pooping on a loony schedule. Teeth or not, they do not smile for weeks, and while that first smile is intensely satisfying – I can still remember the first time the boy laughed, and that was sheer joy transmitted by sound – the weeks before are managing an uncommunicative alien who has consumed your life. 

Oh shit though! How could I forget the imprinting?? Sweet zombie Jebus. Jacob does express this impolite anger at the child at the end of his section, stalking down to murder the infant for what she has done to Bella. It is the cheapest, grossest cop-out ever that his anger is magicked away by some sort of gross sexual soul mating. (I know I’ve used gross twice in that sentence; sue me.) I’m way ZOMG about the idea of imprinting – this is what I get for not reading the previous books, where they explain why only guys imprint, and why imprinting isn’t the most kinked idea ever. Edward’s convenient mind-reading keeps telling us that Jacob only has pure thoughts for his infant bride, but come on. I suspect that Meyer pulled this stunt to give poor, rejected Jacob a consolation prize, and to keep him from running out of there. One of the last chapter speeches is about the power of family, and how family is choice and a bunch of other garbage. Jacob would never choose to stay with this family Meyer has constructed without magical duress. But with imprinting, now the cult can be complete! (And, though these thoughts lack coherence, I think there might be something in this imprinting business that is about sexual competition between mothers and daughters, and the uncomfortable reality that all children grow to become sexual beings. The imprinting puts a tight leash – pun intended – on the child’s inevitable adolescent sexuality. Best mother ever!) 

Bella goes full Mary Sue in the end, even her trademark clumsiness erased, her beauty perfected, her talents blooming into story-destroying weapons. She’s so good at everything that she makes conflict impossible. I was sorely disappointed by the big “battle” with the Voltori, who succumb to her perfect motherhood in the most boring episode of Vampire Matlock ever. Which is super funny, because Alice’s clairvoyance is obviously the real reason that any of that worked out, but that’s the trouble with clairvoyant characters – they really know how to spoil a plot. I spent a fair amount of time laughing when Alice bails, and everyone is like, nooooes! That must mean we are dooooooomed!! Because, you know, there’s no other good reason for a clairvoyant to head out on some super secret mission when there’s a big throw-down on the horizon. Certainly she won’t arrive at the perfect moment with some major trump card. That’s not more likely at all. But Alice’s decampment serves as grist for the emo mill, and without all the hand-wringing brought on by her leaving, there would be almost no emotional drama – clearly fake as it is – to the any of the boring, perfect proceedings leading up to the end.

Much as the last section bored me to tears, at least when it wasn’t grossing me out, I was zero to the bone on the last page. Bella and Edward’s forever and evers to one another, the vision of this family locked into an unchanging perfect stasis, unable to sleep or dream, fundamentally cut off from the larger world, this hit me like a ton of ice. Good god, who wants this? Who aspires to shed every single vestige of their humanity in the attainment of domestic perfection? And having gotten there, who thinks this perfection is anything but a horrible nightmare? Edward was right at the first: an existence of unchanging perfection is no life at all. Throughout this book, the people in Bella’s life disappear on by one: only a brief mention of her school friends at the wedding, then silence, her mother considered and then discarded again, her father brought in in the most ancillary way possible, the concerns of lives of the werewolves dropped after Jacob is neutered. Breaking Dawnis a chilling portrait of the most self-serving narcissism, that old Freudian saw about procreation as immortality turned monstrous in its perfection. I just went and tucked my kids into bed, and I feel fiercely in this moment how transitory their childhoods are, how precious it is that they grow and change, what a gift it is that we fight, and even that we inevitably die. It’s quite a feat Meyer performed here, making me cozy up to my death while I tuck my kids in. Grief is the left hand of happiness, to misquote my beloved Ursula K Le Guin, and I hold my children with both hands. Anything else is as dishonest as it is awkward.

50shades bear

Fifty Shades of Fanfic

I’ve been writing this review for four hundred years. Seems funny, because this only came out whatever many months ago. But for real, I think this is the longest bother I’ve had with a review. This whole review is tl;dr, and a ton of it was written while drunk, although I’ve certainly had time to clean up the typing, given the 400 years. So the usual caveats are in place: I might talk spoilers, though I try to note them. I also cuss a fair amount, and there’s some sex-talk, but if you don’t like cussing or sex-talk, then you won’t like this book anyway, and what the hell are you doing reading reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey? You know what this book is about.

Some Blather about The Novel, The Romance, and The Fanfic

I’m not even sure it could rightly be called a novel, if you get right down to snobbish definitions involving, like, narrative structure and the experience of reality and stuff. Observe my man Nathaniel Hawthorne making the distinction between a Novel and a Romance in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.  The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.  The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.

Nate was living before the invention of the modern romance, so he can be forgiven in assuming his writers were dudes. (Although, according to this definition, extremely dude-y books such as Moby Dick; Or The Whale are Romances. So there.) I mean, maybe this crusty distinction between Novel and Romance – even the capital letters are an indication of moldering taxonomy – has been exploded by the contemporary creation of the romance novel. You got you peanut butter in my chocolate! Etc. And to digress even farther, this distinction between Novel and Romance becomes unworkable fast when you start factoring in any kind of genre fiction at all – scifi, fantasy, the detective novel, Noir, the post-modern novel, the action adventure, Westerns, (some) satires, parodies, the Gothic novel &c &c. Or maybe unworkable is the wrong word – maybe the word I’m searching for is pointless. So you’ve got an extremely small subset of books that strive for some kind of hewing to probable reality and psychological exactness, and then you have 95% of the books published in the world. Maybe even 95% is low.

I’m putting in a paragraph break here to indicate I just spent way too much fucking time screwing around on the Internet looking at various critical definitions of the novel, arguing and muttering with all of them, and realizing if I go with one to prove some amorphous gut reaction about how weird a novel this is, that’s not really going to get me anywhere. Mirriam-Oxford-Whatever defines the novel as a book of a certain length that goes on about some characters until it ends which is good enough for me. (As I’ve been recently called out for paraphrasing, be aware this is exactly that.) So. That doesn’t make this less of a weird novel, and that probably boils down to its fanfic nature.

So, fanfic? Much hay has been made about this being a work of Twilight fanfic. And much of that hay discounts all fanfic as a form of plagiarism, which I find a little severe. (I mean, this might be a straw man argument I’m fighting – that fanfic = plagiarism – but I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of bananas that many times it has been stated that if this started life as fanfic, it doesn’t deserve to be put to paper, cannot be considered as a work of fiction. I get a big stink eye when certain kinds of authorial motivations are used a priori to dismiss fictions. You can put in a big rampage about blurb-craft that seeks to equate everything dystopian with The Hunger Games  – everything with vampires with Twilight  – everything with wizards with Harry Potter. And then, while we’re at it, pretending that narrative similarities between these books and countless other fictions that predate them renders that book some kind of fiction crime. What is up with this?

I once had a dude tell me with absolute earnestness that Star Wars was “just a remake of The Hidden Fortress” which is near one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. Yes, they have their similarities – in the same way that Battle Royale and The Hunger Games have similarities, both to each other and to dozens of other fictions, from Battle Royal - Ralph Ellison’s opening chapter to Invisible Man - Lord of the Fliesto Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome down to the freaking Theseus myth. It is the worst kind of authenticity-seeking hipsterism to treat books with similarities – especially freaking genre fiction which by its very nature deals in set motifs and narrower stylistic parameters – as failures if they aren’t so stunningly original that your face melts off. Originality is bullshit. For fuck’s sake, people, the ancient Greeks should be suing the shit out of the entirety of Western civilization – including Shakespeare, that rip-off artist of the first order – and on that level, and I have close to zero patience for it. There is nothing new under the sun. Get over it.

Which is not to say I don’t understand that there are complexities of race/gender/culture/placement that result in one thing being noticed and another falling down the well, and that can be monumentally unfair, awkward, or stupid. There are better romances out there. Hell, there’s better Twilight fanfic out there. We can wring our hands about why exactly this piece of shit got to be the biggest piece of shit since Twilight, but ultimately, that’s not really this book’s fault. It can’t bear up to scrutiny, but then I’m not sure it was even trying. Popularity isn’t a criticism in its own right. Though it does get people indisposed towards the fictions at hand to read them – resulting in some unfortunate book/reader pairings. It’s true that I probably shouldn’t have read this – I’m a crank about romance novels in the general, if not the specific. I’m no Twilight fan, even though I have some serious obsessiveness about that series and how nutty it is.

Anyway, point of massive digression being, I admit I’m the kind of girl who, when I hear the words “authenticity” or “originality,” I reach for my pistol. Which is not to say I don’t believe some books are total rip-offs of others – The Sword of Shannara (which I like to think of as the s-word of shannara) being a complete and unvarnished rip-off of The Lord of the Rings – but while I hate the shit out of that book, I hate it for being super crappy on its own terms – ripping off the bad parts of Tolkien and leaving the dross – not because the rip-off occurred in the first place. I know I’m an outlier on this one, but I perversely kinda liked Eragon – the first book anyhow – because while it’s Star Wars in Middle Earth with some Dragonflight thrown in for shits and giggles, it’s absolutely naively exuberant. That kid is having a freaking blast playing in worlds way, way above his pay grade, and the glee of his rip-off is both charming and infectious. (Though, of course, objectively fucking terrible, and to seasoned readers, a Frankenstein’s monster of parts ripped from other fictions.)

Because, probably, a lot of this snarling about fanfic has to do with the fact that Twilight is objectively terrible, and much more recently written. I can name you several hundred thousand retellings of Shakespeare stories, which, my friends, could be classed as AU fanfic (AU standing for “alternate universe”, something I learned because of this book.) A Thousand Acres, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, When You Were Mine, Prospero’s Books, Scotland, PA, “O”, et freaking cetera. But, first, Shakespeare is not objectively terrible, and second, he is out of copyright. But lord knows, hitching your cart to something that everyone knows sucks and is also insanely popular is so evil and an attempt at a cheap cash-in, which hitching your cart to something that’s part of the Canon is totally a’ight, despite it being an obvious attempt to add intertextual gravitas. I don’t want to get into it too far, but plagiarism and copyright infringement are two different things, though there is admittedly an overlap. I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis or anything, and I will bow to someone who does, but the AU-ness of this little world makes straight copying unlikely. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that while I can see the ways this narrative owes certain structures to Twilight – the gormless girl at the center, the stalkerish love interest, a catalog of secondary players  – I’m not sure these things are unique enough to say that Twilight invented them. By which I mean, Twilight didn’t invent them. This book is stupid enough in its own way to be, if not uniquely stupid, than differently stupid enough from Twilight to be its own stupid thing. And, like Eragon, Fifty Shades is absolutely bone-shattering in its love for its shitty characters, bad prose, and earnest enjoyment of its source material. Which, good for it, although I can see how this book is shittier than Twilight, on both prose and character levels. Which, wow.

Interestingly, while Ms. James’s crimes against prose are different from Ms. Meyers’s, there is a weird similarity to the enthusiasm of their badnesses. Maybe it’s tone? You can tell they are writing their little hearts out, thesaurus at the knee, cartoon sweat leaping off their brows. A for effort, and I actually mean that in a non-bitchy way. I don’t get the impression that either writer has delusions about their writing abilities – this isn’t full of attempts to pull a fast one or bullshit you about how they are deconstructing the form or some such nonsense – a clumsy plug I see trying to justify a lot of D-grade pulp. It’s a straightforward first person narrative with a narrator who claims to be exactly what she thinks she is. (Whether she is is another ball of wax.)

However, and this is a big however, that is not to say there aren’t some gaping holes in motivation and sense that can only be plugged if you consider this as a derivative work. There’s this pretty great review of the book City of Bones on Ferretbrain that defines how fanfic works pretty neatly. I’m just going to quote a little bit, but you should probably go read the article at some point.

Essentially City of Bones reads like fanfic – and I don’t mean that as kneejerk indicator of poor quality, I mean that it reads like something constructed for a different purpose, functioning on a different ruleset. […] I truthfully have no idea what it is that makes fanfic work but it seems to me to have something to do with potential plausibility. Scenes of certain characters doing things they never explicitly did in the books (even if this is fucking each other) resonate with you because it feels both novel and familiar […] Fan fiction, even if you’re looking at a 100,000 word AU fic, seems to be all about the establishment of moments, which need not necessarily (and probably don’t) exist as part of a continuum of moments.
This is absolutely the opposite to a book.

I mean, obviously, the thing I like about this definition is that the writer has the same qualm I do about how this work functions as a novel, though she uses the term book. I mean, obviously this is a book – I can shart out 50,000 words and have it printed and bound and call it a book – but it’s not a coherent narrative, either in terms of character development or in narrative structure – it’s a series of moments. I think it’s possible to break structure – I think the books in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever Series taken individually, especially after the first – don’t pull off the whole narrative unity thing that well – the fucking cliffhangers – but they do rise to believable crescendos within the terms of that world. There are stakes. People change. And ultimately, taken as a whole, the series constitutes a coherent arc. But the terms of this world have some serious split-personality which blows its potential plausibility. It’s not even so much that I think it’s tricky to add sex into a narrative that is functionally virginity porn and a morality tale about the female libido. It’s that the terms of the Forksverse and Shadeland are fundamentally at odds with one another, and that even in a Romantic sensibility, not a Novelistic one, this world’s order wobbles.

Bella, Ana, Christian, Edward

So, to the characters. Taken without her Bella-ish beginnings, Ana is a deeply nonsensical character. I mean, she is anyway, but her nonsense makes a little more sense with Bella in the mix. Bella is a pretty solid hot nerd reader-proxy just waiting for the make-over to release her inner Swann – get it? get it? I mean, it’s right fucking there in her name – whose inexperience and virginity is completely justifiable due to her age. Age her up a couple years to just-out-of-college, and you have some serious problems. Repeatedly, Ana says and thinks things – this is first person, so we’re privy to every single fucking thought – and thought while fucking, badumptss – that imply she has never had one single solitary sexual thought her whole life – up to and including the fact that she has never masturbated. Now, I’m not saying that 22 year olds who haven’t been kissed don’t exist, I’m saying that 22 year olds who have never once contemplated their own sexuality don’t exist. This is not some sly, damaged narrator who is playing coy about her motivations either – every thought is bald as a baby’s ass. But if that 22 year old is secretly a 17 year old from Forks, WA, then it jibes slightly better.

You know, until it doesn’t, because say what you will about Bella – and I’ve said my share – she is completely capable of expressing her desire for Edward. She’s the one pushing sexual contact every single step of the way. Both books spend a lot of focus on strange somewhat disembodied aspects of their mens – Edward’s skin, which you might remember is marble-like, alabaster and cold, or Christian’s long, elegant, tapering, ET-like fingers – and both these boys exist as a sort of libido-body for their female protagonists. Which is to say, both Edward and Christian are unicorns drawn to the virginity of the female character, with their horns a-blazing, and you may insert all the innuendo that you see fit. Edward though, however often Meyer tries to underline his predatory nature, is the poster boy for true-love-waits, the cauterizing masculine rationality that puts the brakes on dangerous, deadly female sexuality. Not to reiterate my Twilight review to much, but Edward exists to both canonize and criticize female desire – the male version of the Madonna/whore – the God/devil. But much more weighted to God.

This is where 50 Shades starts to fall to pieces for me. There’s this character in this little seen 90s movie played by Eric Stoltz – I can’t remember the name – who has been working on his dissertation for like ten years or so. His favorite phrase is, “and I’m paraphrasing myself here”. That’s what I’m about to do. I’m paraphrasing myself here, but I believe very strongly that the paranormal in fiction – that thing, like vampirism, that shifts a relatively boring ass story full of the ornament of everyday stew-making and class-attending to the red, the thing that makes a Novel a Romance – is something that allows story-tellers to explore the edges of cultural expectations. Zombies equal the fear of the mob cut with the theatrics of fear-based siege societies; werewolves equal the id/ego split; vampires equal the parasitic aristocrat and also, sometimes, the Freudian sex/death equation. Ghosts are our embarrassing angry pasts. So Edward’s vampirism is a heightened metaphor for male sexuality seen through a female lens, or a nod to certain theologies, or something. Whatever it is, it involves the cultural constructions of imaginary though partially agreed upon group identities. The group of vampires have these characteristics – let’s run them to their logical conclusions.

Twilight works, on the level it works, because Edward is unreal, this saint/stranger, vegetarian vampire impossibility. He’s obviously a unicorn, probably more likely than an under-30 hot-ass billionaire like Christian – because seriously, the only under-30 billionaire, hot-ass or not, I can think of outside of crown princes of women-hating theocracies is the dick who invented facebook. (Who isn’t under-30 anymore, but was once.) And no thank you to all. But Christian’s vampirism is not that he’s an under-30 hot-ass billionaire, it’s that he is a member of BDSM culture, a very real, very marginalized group of people.

I’m not competent to talk about how the BDSM community works, but I get very very fucking twitchy and worried when real groups of people are used in the fantasies of others, especially when those others are members of the over-culture. I might even go far as to say it’s shitty as shit to treat that culture like some kind of half-assed paranormal ornament on the par with vampirism. (This is not to say that BDSM culture can’t be criticized, just because it’s a sub-group or something. I am a sex-positive, kink-positive feminist – in that I think that our sexualities are vital and inextricable parts of our identities, and that kinks are a part of the typical variation of human sexuality, but I also believe that issues of consent can get very murky indeed once you start factoring in gender, class, and personal experience. I might be in full-on Minority Warrior mode – attempting to score points from my position of straight, white, middle-class comfort when I say things about the use of BDSM culture in this book. I honestly don’t know.) (I mean, maybe the real problem is that there’s just enough half-assed “facts” about BDSM culture for this to be a problem. Christian does a tolerable job of explaining BDSM, but everything he says is constantly undercut by Ana’s freaking out and eye-bugging. And undercut by how James seems to be positioning him to have a big “emotional break-though” when he explains what’s up with his refusal to be touched and the scars on his back and stuff. There’s a bright red arrow pointing to some heavily bullshit Freudian mama-hurt-me-so-I’m-afraid-to-loooooove thing, which makes me want to smash things with a hammer. Cheap psychology really pisses me off; we are all more complicated than this red arrow.) All of this hand-wringing and parenthetical bs aside, I get worried when we (whoever the fuck we is) start using real, non-imaginary people as sort of half-assed paranormal boogies, ascribing them stock psychological backgrounds. I’m not competent to talk about BDSM culture, and I get the distinct impression that neither is James. And, drawing conclusions about BDSM culture from this book alone is a huge, huge freaking mistake.

The sex scenes in this book are competently written, once you cut out literally every single thing Ana thinks while they are going on, and everything that happens before or after. All of the sex toys and contract stuff feels a little google-y – like James read some wiki articles about Ben Wa balls and hard limits and tossed those suckers in there – but in concrete, physical terms, there isn’t a lot of coyness and euphemism. Which is the sort of thing I hates in a sex scene – no “apex of her thighs,” no “globes,” no “manroots.” Good. Whether this sort of thing will turn you on is another issue entirely – and this is the goal of erotica, non? – and one that I can’t answer. Desire is a personal game, maybe even more so than comedy, which can factor in less id-based orientations like politics. And, I shouldn’t be swinging at this right now, but scoring point trashing other people’s sexual responses is lazy bullshit, my friends, and something I’ve seen happen far too often in reviews of 50 Shades.

Which is not to say there isn’t a lot here that is, as the term goes, problematic. But the sex is competently written, if you’re into super mild bondage, and contains just enough understanding of kink to pretend to be kink-positive, if you choose to ignore huge freaking swathes of the novel. And you can, absolutely. I got my copy from the library, which is a little eeww, because the book easily fell open to certain, ahem, passages. They were well thumbed, like you do. I mean, how many Ayla books were read solely for their poor sexual content? Or Wifey? or Flowers In The Attic? (Just because I’ve dated myself here as from the pre-Internet era, these books were heavily stolen from mom in youth, and read pretty exclusively for the sex scenes.) (Not my mom – no way – I’d more likely get some pomo behemoth– but as a generation.) I get the impression that beyond all the griping I’m doing about this being a fan-fic-y series of moments, 50 Shades is being read by a large number of people in an even more decontextualized manner: sex scene, sex scene, sex scene, end, like playing a video game and skipping the cut scenes, because who freaking needs ‘em?

But let’s talk about Ana for a little bit more, hmm? I’ve said before that she’s a nonsensical character – she does not hold together – but the ways she fractures are completely, utterly fascinating. She’s got a “subconscious” and an “Inner Goddess” – fully embodied, fully voiced aspects of herself that she is in dialogue with almost all the time. She sees them tap their toes or hears them say things she can’t. It’s not exactly the angel/devil thing you find in cartoons – though the Inner Goddess seems to exist as a sexual id, mostly. I was most bothered by the subconscious because in almost all the contexts in which Ana talked about her subconscious, she was really referring to her conscious mind. These were thoughts that she was having. There was no sub about it, just to make the shittiest joke ever.

This analogy is going to be tricky to pull off, but bear with me. I think one of the reasons Bella’s voice worked so well for so many of the mom-set – of which I count myself a member, so this is not a disparagement – is that Bella thinks like a housewife. All the stew-making and worrying about her father Charlie’s diet/friends/whatever feels like the running background monologue I have about my family’s welfare, about the state of the fridge, about the fact that the car’s brakes are squeaky, and shouldn’t I figure how to take the car in? Edward appears, fully formed from the head of Eros in his marble-white armor, and distracts her from this everyday banality. He’s a daydream. A daydream with teeth.

But now we have Ana, who is the daydream of a daydream. A housewife dreams of a teenager who is secretly a housewife dreaming of an untouchable boy. Another housewife dreams that same teenager who is secretly a housewife dreaming of a boy, and she touches that boy, and he touches back. Eeeek! Bella doesn’t get her freak on until the last book, once she’s gotten married like a boss, but Ana dives in, um, like a boss. New simile please. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Ana is this sexual tabula rasa – an unwritten sexual being – and we get to watch while she is written into being. Ana would probably be a better character if she didn’t have Bella in her DNA – this moralistic over-presence that reads femininity in very conservative terms. Ana’s subconscious, in this reading, is the housewife split again, because they (we) are defined in many ways by our sexuality, but mostly in the negative. We’re the end result of the romance plot, glimpsed in the sequel smiling beatifically with an armful of babies, but never really considered again in depth.

I will say, overshare be damned, that sexual life post-marriage, post-children, is an endlessly complicated set of negotiations – not simply between the couple – what you want and how you want it – but also a negotiation with our aging bodies, the demands of the family schedule, the logistics of having sex in a house with children whom you don’t want to freak out too bad. I can understand the desire to return to origins and perfect them, or replay them, or reimagine them, or whatever. All the ridiculous (and frankly boring) consideration of the sexual contract between Ana and Christian may may not have the content of a boring married couple’s, but the contract is an unspoken component of boring married life, and as such, I can see why it appeals to so many of us smug marrieds. The funnest part of the book, as many have noted, are the emails flirting and teasing between Ana and Christian – “You hang up.” “No, you.” Silence. “Are you still there?” – which are on one hand emblematic of hazy courtship, but on the other mirror my day-to-day goofy texts and boring questions between my husband and me.

ceridwen: you got an extremely urgent ups envelope. Want if I should open it?
NSP: sure
I bet it’s spam of some sort
ceridwen: AHHH111!!! POISONOUS SPIDERS1!!
NSP: I don’t think I’ve ordered anything recently
ceridwen: Actually, it’s spam.
NSP: I knew it
ceridwen: I was hoping for the spiders.
NSP: I could order spiders
ceridwen: Then I could be a superhero!
NSP: Bitten by radioactive spam

I have been laughing about this exchange with my man for two weeks, but then, I don’t really get out much which is exactly why 50 Shades works, if and when it works. But Ana’s a total psycho because she’s being used as proxy for too many freaking things, and there’s no freaking way that a character as thin as she can bear the strain.

Pro-Ana

Oh, did I say thin? How clumsy of me. This is one of those half-assed thoughts, but I was bolted up by all the anorexic ideation in this book. It’s there in Twilight, all this food-worry – though mostly it’s located in Edward and his “vegetarian” vampirism. But here, good lord, Ana is the poster girl for the pro-Ana movement - I mean, it’s right fucking there in her name. It’s part of the sexual contract that she be more”health-conscious” – down to the hours she will spend exercising. And after Christian has put all these restrictions on her food, she stops eating because of how “emotional” she is, which gets him to spend all this time pushing food on her. I can’t even unpack it, it’s so fucked up. If he’s her sexual body, and he both restricts her food and tries to get her to eat? What the fuck does that mean?

I see a lot of weirdness in romance novels about the categorization and criticism of various female body types – male too, actually, but as these writers aren’t men writing for a male audience, I’m assuming it doesn’t affect dudes the same way – but the way it works here seems particularly confused. I mean, the target audience is likely like me: carrying a few more pounds than I’d like, slightly wrecked from child-bearing, unable to carve out the time for the gym. In sum, not 22 (or 17) anymore. So, on the one hand, Christian feels like a bodily superego, the one that criticizes when we get to end of our weeks and order pizza, too tired for sex, almost too tired for the parenting bullshit that must come first. On the other, I want to wring Ana’s fucking neck for all of her “too stressed out to eat” bullshit. That was probably a non sequitur, but whatever. I think what makes me irritated is that I know what anorexia looks like; I know how it thinks. (Caveat: I’m not an anorexic, but it’s gotten too close for comfort with too many people I love.) And while Ana’s thought processes hit that anorexic mindset with a flaming arrow, the whole thing was wrapped up in this breezily clueless “look at how cute and deep I am for forgetting to eat” thing that makes my head explode. No anorexic forgets to eat. She might tell people that’s what happened, but that’s not what happened. First person narrator fail.

And in these same lines, alcohol use/abuse also factors pretty strongly, as Ana is supposedly not a seasoned drinker, but gets blotto on at least one loud occasion – one that uses the Jacob character totally shabbily, I might add, but then, borderline-racist use of non-white characters is a Twilight mainstay, so it’s okay, don’t worry – and pours it down as liquid courage in several others. Just, what the hell is going on here? I don’t even have any conclusions to draw, I just want to point it out, this fluttering, strange disavowal of sensation by Ana – I never drink! Or think about sex! Or food! – and then the constant reality of the exact opposite – mediated by not one, but two! psychological others in this book. It dizzies. Maybe this is just the constant thrum in this book where we are obviously meant to take Ana at face value – the first person; the bald straightforward sequence of events – but over and over, she’s damaged as a narrator, unbelievable as a character – too many people in her mix – author proxy, reader proxy, Bella Swann, sexual tabula rasa, everygirl, inner goddess, subconscious, virgin, whore. That’s probably why this novel is both as successful and as derided as it is: Ana is incoherent as a woman, and that incoherence mirrors a basic facet of trying to live up the impossible, conflicted expectations put upon our gender. (Which is not to say dudes don’t have a set of fucked up expectations put on them too or anything, but, and I’m paraphrasing myself here,  things are about what they are about, not about other things. This isn’t about a male sexual experience, except as a female fantasy, and it is not being read by nor was it written by a man. Men can go elsewhere for their incoherent gender standards – oh, hai, Western Canon.)

Some Shit about BDSM

Anyway, on to Christian. Christian is all BDSM all the time. So much that, like Ana’s claim never to have had a sexual thought, he claims never to have had vanilla sex. Which, snort. I’m not bagging on kink when I say that sometimes, after a decade or more of sexual activity, you’re just not going to be up to busting out the swing every single time you have sex. There’s gonna be that time when you just do it, because sex is an important, but also a sometimes a mechanical part of a long term relationship. I mean, no one said that the sex in Romances, or romance novels, or whatever, had to hew to reality, but just, come the fuck on. All that aside, Christian is absolutely forthright and honest about his kinks – kinks which, as they play out on the page are not much more than the mildest of bondage play. Ana regularly and compulsively, possibly even willfully misinterprets his actions and statements, but again and again, what he says is what he means. Christian is incredibly forthright, and, even though we’re supposed to be rooting for Ana – that’s what the first person means here; root for me – I found it very difficult to side with her at any point, especially in the final “plot twist”.

Which is not to say that Christian isn’t a total abuser, which is what makes my antipathy for Ana kind of hard to deal with. Because Ana is absolutely a terrible person — she shits on her friends, she treats her family like crap, she hates literally everything in the world — but she also doesn’t deserve the abuse he doles out. The sex scene in her dorm room, when he comes in the window like a total creeper, feels just awful, Ana gritting her teeth through a debasement she doesn’t want. Orgasms aren’t consent; they’re just orgasms. He leaves her crying, bereft, which in my half-assed googling about BDSM makes him the worst dom ever. Whither your aftercare, asshole?

I’m nervous as shit about how this might play out in later books – I get the sincere impression that Ana’s irrational ideas about the sources of Christian’s kinks will be given credit – like she’ll cure him of his fucking abuse and kinks and they’ll ride off into the sunset of missionary style sex with the lights off. That’s the Romantic narrative, right? That true love can transmute the Beast into the God-husband, which is an okay, if silly thing to think about vegetarian vampires, because it’s not like they exist anyway. However, stories about “curing” deeply ingrained sexual proclivities through the power of love and magical ladyparts just smacks of reprogramming camps for gays. Is this a Godwin? Maybe. But the way Ana constantly conceptualizes Christian’s kinks as born in trauma, as a psychological knot to be cut, this makes me nervous. Even if his kinks were born in trauma, pretending like some Magic Vagina is going to untwist this wire between fear and sexual response for an individual is not just naïve, but narcissistic. A person is never a cure. I don’t even like that I’ve written that sentence that way, and I want to go back and throw a ton of conditionals on everything I’ve written, but whatever.

And if I go back and change the word “kink” for “abuse” in the last paragraph, it all gets a lot worse. Stories about about curing cruelty and possessiveness through the power of love make me nervous. The way Ana constantly excuses Christian’s abuse as born as his own trauma — which may be, strictly speaking, accurate — doesn’t make the abuse go away. She will never be able to love him enough, fuck him enough, or behave in just the exact right way to keep him from hitting her. To keep him from setting the terms to absolutely everything.

So, how the fuck long have been going on about this book? Too godamn long, that’s for sure. Hi. How are you? I’m feeling a little fatigued, but there are still a couple of things I wanted to touch on about this book. And what I want to talk about is tampons. I’m not putting this discussion under the spoiler tag, even though this takes place well into the book, because I’m not sure this “narrative” can be spoiled. So, fair warning, the spoiler averse – maybe my discussion of a discrete sexual encounter will ruin this book for you. (Lol, as the kids say.) (But also, seriously, spoilers on the ending in two paragraphs.)

Late in the book, Ana has a bunch of hand-wringing and Oedipal (Electral?) bullshit with her mom, which ends in a hotel room working out the final stages of her contract with Christian. So far, all the sex scenes have been pretty clean, in the sense that, even while there have been mild bondage aspects, everyone is beautiful, orgasms are simultaneous, and that even virgins can blow like Debbie doing Dallas. Not to be crude – too late! – but even though I said the prose wasn’t euphemistic, there’s a big freaking lacuna in the way a sexual neophyte deals with the sticky aftermath of…well, you know, spit or swallow? Also, how did she not drown giving that one blowie? Which, fine, this is not a frank sexual text. But in this later scene, intercut with some actually honest-sounding dialogue between Ana and Christian, he pulls out her tampon and then fucks her. In the aftermath, she looks at him, at his body covered in her blood, at her thighs streaked with it, and it strikes her as an image of nakedness. This is a moment of sexual, personal rawness, and the physical and the mental are both bloody with it.

Which, fuck yeah. Yes, this is absolutely a squeamish image. This is a little gross, or a lot, depending on how you feel about menses and all that. But taking you and your hang-ups out of it, this is an absolutely vivid character moment. This is something a character does and thinks – and absolutely astonishing to find in a romance novel, dealing as it often does with sexual encounters idealized or gauzy. This is both shudder-able, and shrug-able. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to live in tents during our uncleanness, and it should be no big shock that someone, somewhere, had sex on the rag. But that’s not even my point – my point is we have this moment where Ana and Christian are doing something both so usual, and so transgressive to say out loud, that it makes them momentarily look like people.

And then, my friends, it all goes to shit. I don’t even have this book anymore, which is why I can’t go back and figure what happens exactly, but once past this sanguine Rubicon of period sex and emotional nakedness, Ana goes completely fucking bonkers and ends their relationship? Honest to Christ, I have no idea what happens, but the book ends with her weeping about some damn thing and moving out, or something. The ending is where the fan-fic-y-ness is totally obvious, because this is just a quick, bullshit slipknot to tie the threads until Eclipse the next book, which will keep confounding these idiots in their quest for hetero sexual perfection using vampirism BDSM culture as a metaphor for heaven knows what. Which, fuck you. The stakes are way too godamn low for me to continue, even if I want to get to the Christmas scene I read in 50 Shades of Fuck All  standing in a bookstore well before I read this. Kiss kiss! Look at our perfect babies! Arrggghhhhhh.

Arggghhhh.

I feel like I should come up with a coda on this review, but I’m not sure I have it in me. I feel like punching this book, and giving it a wedgie, and speaking softly to it, not to scare it, while feeding it formative feminist texts. I want this book to love itself more that it does. I want it to be less half-assed. I want us, by which I mean women, I think, but then maybe I mean everyone, to sit down and examine our kinks, and own those fuckers, and not have to get off to stupid fucking virgin-proxies who have embodied proxies themselves. I get why we’re doing it, but it would be sweet as fuck if we could all just move on.

 

The Twilight of Girlhood

Two things happened in my household, shortly after I started reading it, that seem germane to a discussion of this book. First, I was in the kitchen, dealing with the endless in-and-out of the dishwasher, and I became aware of a small, soft, wet noise coming from the back bathroom. This made my mom-ears perk up, and I went back to find my daughter, who is about 2 ½, tearing off strips of toilet paper, wadding them neatly, throwing them into the toilet, and then flushing. She looked up at me with her deceptively cherubic face and said, “Here Mum, this is for you.” She held out a tp wad. I tossed it in, and flushed, and then we went to find less futile pursuits. Second, in the same back bathroom, my dog was in there diving for tootsie rolls in the cat-box. The litter tray has one of those detachable tops, with an opening in the front so the cat can go in there and do her business without sending litter all over the freaking room, theoretically. The dog, in her lust to eat cat shit, got her head stuck in the opening and the topper thing lodged on her neck. She freaked out, the way only largish dogs in smallish bathrooms with a litter topper on her head can freak out, and there was all manner of howling, skittering and general mayhem, until I went in and rescued her from herself.

I’ve been known to let my metaphors run away from me, but let’s see if I can pull this off. We all have stuff that we do that’s stupid, futile or disgusting, or all of these things at once: eating cat shit, flushing wads of toilet paper down the toilet, smoking cigarettes, polka, embroidery, reading Twilight, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these pursuits, exactly (although I would give consuming feces a miss if you aren’t a border collie) but to the non-enthusiast, they seem inexplicable. But that’s the thing: eating cat shit is a source of pure, whole body pleasure for my dog; that, barking at kids on bikes and sleeping on the couch. While I may grumble at the mess and unintended comedy these activities generate, I really can’t criticize her joie de vivre. So, reading Twilight was like eating cat shit for me, but I mean this in an understanding way. You may not love smoking. The thought of the smoke hitting your lungs and the buzzing sensation you get in your fingertips may turn your stomach, but man if just typing these words doesn’t make me want to go out on the back porch and pound down a heater.

So I get it, I get the whole Twilight thing, on some level. But then there’s the girl thing. I’m not exactly the intended audience for Twilight, because I’m not a teenage girl. But I keep having to account for my not reading Twilight, as I will now have to account for disliking Twilight, because I live in a community of women who were once girls, because I was once a girl. I’m fascinated by how many women I know who love this book, women I love and respect, women who are not laughable, stupid or thoughtless. They may express chagrin or embarrassment, as though they just were busted for smoking on the back porch, but they love it just the same. Hating on Twilight, for guys, is easy, because it doesn’t betray their essential guyness; in fact, probably the opposite. (Yes, yes, girls are gross, now back to the clubhouse!) Hating on Twilight, as a woman, is essentially a betrayal of girlness, an erasure of that awkward adolescence many of us share. One can easily, oh so easily, enumerate the literary failings of this book. One can easily, oh so easily, parse the religious messages and sexual politics into something monstrous and ugly. This is all fine; go for it; I will be on the sidelines with pom-poms. But what I keep coming back to is the true, earnest and deeply felt pleasure this book provokes in so many women. Pleasure that is real and not deserving of scorn.

That community of women thing is what sent to reading Twilight in the first place. My sister was reading Twilight at the urgings of one of her co-workers. She has had an uneasy relationship with this other women, which had recently been patched up into something resembling friendliness. In their water-cooler conversations, the co-worker began extolling the merits of Meyer’s book, and pushed it into my sister’s hands. She knew what she was in for – how could she not given total cultural saturation at this point – but found herself unwilling and unable to actually finish reading the book. How was she going to explain this to the co-worker? We all know (or maybe we don’t) how quickly this sort of thing can get personal. It gets especially personal with books of this nature, that slip into the female hind-brain and coil around our unspoken (unspeakable?) drives and desires.

One of the reasons I hated this book (and I mean that word emotionally, not critically, if you know what I mean) was that Meyer was far far too damn evocative of the strange alienated horror that is adolescence. Bella is never easy; there are very few unqualified pleasures for her; every single action, especially the ones that occur within the bewildering sucking chest wound that is her social scene, is considered for its effect on everyone else, her status, her placement in the group, her precarious self esteem. It gave me vivid and lingering flashbacks, and not in a wheee-I-see-trails kind of way, but in the countless shaming episodes way. The only real source of pleasure for her is her time with Edward. And while it’s probably not original to point this out, Edward is the externalization of her desire, an embodiment of the girl-fic wish fulfillment of both desire and fear, the shaming female libido that goes bump in the night. He can’t read her mind because he’s an extension of her mind. Which brings me to the creamy ironic center of this review. On some levels, this book is a morality tale about female pleasure, and I was unable to take much pleasure in that. Gods, but I love me some irony though, so it the book evoked entirely unintended pleasures.

Never is this more apparent than in the scene in which Bella is menaced by some would-be rapists. She’s been mooning all day about Edward, which in very concrete terms gets her cut off from her female companions and their consumerist escapades. She ends up surrounded by threatening male desire, which she has provoked by her dreaming thoughtlessness. Edward appears, the sort of flip side of this desire, and rescues her. When I was working on my Feminist Merit Badge, there was much talk about the virgin/whore thing, and then also romance novels and other mass-produced fantasies for women. Too much of this kind of talk can make me really really tired, but I’ll try to keep it brief, for all our sakes. Although I don’t think I’ve heard about a boy version of the madonna/slut thing, I think one is at work here, as one is at work in many female wish-fulfillment exercises. Men are conjured, neutered and domesticated, and that process of domestication both justifies and condemns female desire. Bella simply cannot help herself: her mooning attraction to Edward gets externalized into her scent, which makes him unable to help himself, makes him an animal, reminds us she’s an animal, a sort of endless mirroring. That scent also ribbons through the air, cartoon-like, bringing horribly unlikely rapists wafting in by their noses. Desire is a dangerous thing, girls. Here’s a Ken doll for you, his smooth, cold, inhuman man-parts stamped carefully into place.

I’m bringing up Ken deliberately. In her Goodreads review, Elizabeth describes this book as a Barbie doll, which pretty much nails the whole thing for me. Barbie is the embodied consumer. She teaches girls how to accessorize their lives: boys, friends, dresses, houses, all neatly displayed in little consumable packages. Barbie teaches the values of consumerism, of consumption, while simultaneously being completely immune to its effects. Barbie cannot get old, fat, or overdose on heroin. She is the bulimic model of perfection. By many yardsticks, one could say that Edward is an anorexic. A vegetarian vampire is a contradiction in terms. While not personally a sufferer of an eating disorder, I have a number of very close people in my life that I’ve watched go through that mangle. I get it too: I was demographically ripe for this sort of thing: a white, middle-class overachiever. The anorexic, as it has been explained to me by people I love, craves control over the uncontrollable, over her needs and ambitions. That Edward cannot or will not eat is especially troubling when he’s viewed as Bella’s externalized desire. It’s a closed loop: food equals death, desire equals death. Bella can’t see Edward in a mirror (in a dream) because he’s not really there; he’s wasted away. That the book ends with Bella begging Edward to “change” her – this is not a spoiler, everyone in the world could see this one coming – means that she is begging for death, the way any girl who expresses desire is begging for death.

I’d like to finish with a craft project, if you don’t mind. Please, warm up your glue guns. There’s a paper store near my house that hosts classes every month, and I keep thinking about attending the one about altered books. I’m not entirely clear on the idea, but it seems you take old books, and cut-and-paste alternate text and pictures as commentary or whatever. I haven’t done this yet for three reasons: a) lazy b) somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of cutting up books, even in the service of making cool, new books c) don’t want to be caught dead anywhere near something that even remotely has a chance of being associated with scrap-booking, even kinda sorta. I can’t emphasize this last one enough.

This is my idea for the altered book of Twilight. If I weren’t a squeamish girl, I’d march right down to Sex World in the warehouse district, and I’d buy up a bunch of pornography. Not just any pornography, but pornography with people with normal body hair having enthusiastic sex, cheerful happy sex. (Does such a thing exist?) No smoothies allowed, no shaved, pre-adolescent vaginas, but big furry bushes and armpit hair a la the 70s edition of The Joy of Sex. This would get pasted over every description of Edward’s cold and marble-like skin, because Stephenie Meyer’s ossification of the human body bums me out.

I’d toss in photos of Michelangelo’s David and Christ on the Cross, just to show how the nude male body has been depicted over time. (Women can certainly complain about the female nude, but since the rise of Christianity in the West, the most predominate male nude is Jesus’ broken body on the Cross. The primary visual representation of the male body is one of torture.) In would go some stills of the pretty blond-haired girl who has just devoured her bickering parents in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead because zombies freak me the hell out the way vampires never did. Also, because in the ongoing conversation I’ve had about this book with my sister, which ended in the double dog dare that I read it, she expressed bewilderment as to how anyone could love a dead thing. Quote she: “Vampires are just high-functioning zombies.” More than the crap prose, the endless adverbs, the discouragingly accurate portrayal of adolescent discomfort, this may have done the book in for me. Zombies man, brrr.

I’d put in wads of tp, to represent for my daughter, who some day may find this book appealing. But also for another reason: I recently had occasion to be in one of the local high schools, not the one I graduated from. I went into the bathroom, had some good times reading the graffiti: various people are bitches, etc. Then I looked up, and the ceiling was dotted with wads of dried tp, stuck to the ceiling after some industrious young women had spent what I know from personal experience is a very long time getting those suckers to stick. Throw too soft, and they won’t even hit the ceiling. Throw too hard, and they’ll bounce back. You’ve got to get them wet enough to stick, but not so wet they just fall apart. Stupid, futile and possibly disgusting, but emblematic of times spend with other girls doing the useless and possibly damaging things that made adolescence so enjoyable. I think I’ll do without the cat shit. I’d douse the book in the cologne my first boyfriend wore, that, the smell of cigarettes and leather jackets. Mmmm, smell-o-vision. Then, I’d cover it with the brown paper bag covers we all put over our text-books in school to protect the actual covers. I’d draw all manner of doodles, phone numbers, one liners, hearts and bunnies all over the outside. Finally, I would affix a picture of Spider Jerusalem on the title page, and dot it with pink nail-polish blobs in a heart shape around the picture. Then I’d put the book away and try very hard never to think of it again.