The Beautiful Undead
- Twilight directed by Catherine Hardwick
- Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
Atom, 757 pp, £12.99, August 2008, ISBN 978 1 905654 28 4
Over the winter, you may have seen posters for a movie, certificate 12A (‘moderate fantasy violence and horror . . . limited bloody images’): a bunch of teenagers, Hollywood-dishy, but coloured to look like corpses, with greenish-tarnished complexions and uncanny eyes. The movie, Twilight, is about a coven of high-school vampires in the American Pacific Northwest, and is adapted from the first of a series of four novels by Stephenie Meyer; the last instalment, Breaking Dawn, came out last year. In the US the books have collectively sold more than 28 million copies. Twilight seems to be a teenage-girl thing – fancy-dress meets, author tours with live rock bands, lots of fanfic and blogging and boy-band screaming – though there is also a middle-aged fan contingent, displaying itself on a website called Twilight Moms: ‘Where Fans at Our Unique Phase of Life (balancing family, work and our Twilight addiction) . . . can gather unashamed of our irrational obsession’. It’s interesting, the way women with silly habits so often want to show off about them. Is there something about being ‘obsessed’ and/or ‘addicted’ that is supposed to keep you youthful? Is it simply that being ‘obsessed’ and/or ‘addicted’ is the closest most of us can get to being as gorgeous as these people, the beautiful undead?
The basic plot is simple. Bella, who is 17, has recently moved from sunny Arizona to live with her single father in Forks, a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, well known, apparently, for its rain and dullness: it’s ‘literally my personal hell on earth’. There, she falls in love with Edward Cullen, one of a small sect who call themselves ‘ethical’ or ‘vegetarian’ vampires, having elected to hunt wild animals instead of feeding off human blood. Edward loves Bella too; but he can barely let himself even kiss her, for fear of ‘losing control’, squashing her to death in his super-powered passion – ‘I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake. You don’t realise how incredibly breakable you are’ – or biting her to death in uncontrollable hunger. High school, small town, mopey emo kids with bleached-out faces, longing beyond lust for an impossible consummation: how many ways are there of saying – how many meanings can you breathe into – a plain little mouse of a word like ‘cool’?
There’s something depressing about this arrangement. Bella loves Edward, but can’t make out with him because if she did he might turn evil; a reader would have to be very young and/or very ignorant not to feel she had seen this sort of thing before. Didn’t something very much like it form the Big Bad – the major villain-arc – in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2? (Or am I merely showing my age by remembering a TV programme first shown in 1997?) In Buffy, the heroine went ahead and slept with the lovely monster, then suffered terrible consequences when ‘the moment of true happiness’ caused him to revert. (‘It’s the ultimate metaphor,’ as Sarah Michelle Gellar, the horror starlet who played Buffy, said. ‘You sleep with a guy and he goes bad on you.’) That was the sort of thing that happened amid the So-Cal Shakespearean ferment of that wonderful show. Whereas I hope it doesn’t give too much away about Twilight to tell you that its author is a fairly observant Mormon – no stimulants save the odd Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi, no R-rated movies – and therefore very much against even sexy thoughts and feelings outside the celestial marriage bond.
It’s not that the books read like Mormon propaganda exactly: the Bellaverse is a bit like Middle Earth or Narnia, in that God is left well out of it, with the existence of vampires explained vaguely biologically, along with ‘predators’ and ‘carnivorous flowers’. It’s more that, as with hobbits and Aslan and suchlike, religion bulges out in unacknowledged places – in the interest in immortality and eternal bonding, sects, and the very odd and uninformed fascination with ‘addiction’ and ‘obsession’, among other forbidden things – and, above all, in the centrality of ‘abstaining’, which is one word Edward’s sect uses for its refusal to feed on humans and, of course, the description for what Bella and Edward are doing when they renounce sex. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, teen chastity was fit only for the bluntest satire; and yet, here it is, a decade later, stronger than ever, the most moral and the most erotic position to take, the practice that brings the human closest to the god.
‘Why on vampires now, by what coincidence?’ Jalal Toufic wrote in 1993, in his enchanting pillow-book (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film. Well, one answer is that they never really go away. When you start looking, there’s always loads of stuff on vampires, piled up in the corners: particularly nowadays, with so many slots on cheapo channels needing to be filled (witness James Corden and Matthew Horne of Gavin and Stacey fame, currently advertising Lesbian Vampire Killers on the bus shelters of Britain). Meyer, however, has a different answer. She says that Twilight came to her in ‘a very vivid dream’ on the night of 1 June 2003 (she remembers the date because her kids started swimming lessons the morning after). The dream must have taken place barely two weeks after the last ever episode of Buffy went out on American TV.
Here’s how the coven appears to Bella, who has herself been established as of the pale and interesting type (‘ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes’; ‘sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that the rest of the world was seeing through theirs’). She is in the high school lunchroom for the first time and sees the five vampires, each with ‘a tray of untouched food in front of them’. There are two girls, one blonde and ‘statuesque’ and the other small, dark, ‘pixielike, thin in the extreme’. The hair of the ‘three boys’ is similarly colour-coded, one ‘dark’, one ‘honey-blond’ and one ‘bronze’; which is just as well because
They were all exactly alike. Every one of them was chalky pale . . . They all had very dark eyes despite the range in hair tones. They also had dark shadows under those eyes – purplish, bruiselike shadows . . . But all this was not why I couldn’t look away. I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel . . . They were all looking away – away from each other, away from the other students, away from anything in particular as far as I could tell. As I watched, the small girl rose with her tray – unopened soda, unbitten apple – and walked away with a quick, graceful lope that belonged on a runway.
I defy the reader at this point not to be ‘gawking’ along with Bella, and to be gasping, as she is to her dowdier companions: ‘Who are they?’ ‘They’, Bella is informed, are an adoptive family of orphans, now cared for by Dr Carlisle Cullen – himself ‘really young, in his twenties or early thirties’, and his equally youthful wife. The dark boy is Emmett, the bronze one Edward; the pixie girl is Alice, and the blond boy and girl are Rosalie and Jasper, twins. Oh, and ‘They’re all together though – Emmett and Rosalie, and Jasper and Alice, I mean. And they live together,’ the voice of Bella’s geeky informant holding ‘all the shock and condemnation of the small town’. And here you have it, the essence of what Lev Grossman, in Time magazine, called ‘the power of the Twilight books: they’re squeaky, geeky clean on the surface, but right below it, they are absolutely, deliciously filthy.’ Their situation seems lawful and proper and harmless even though a little odd – a household of teens, like the Waltons or the Partridge Family – but it hints at the limitlessly libidinous, as an image already supercharged with fantasies of caste, sex and pro-ana gorgeousness (that unbitten apple! that unopened soda!) is given a decidedly incestuous Flowers in the Attic frisson.
After this first sighting, however, that is pretty much that. Bella’s character, in accordance with the conventions of the most finely mashed romantic fiction, has no features at all, apart from a mild emo-ish dysthymia (‘I didn’t relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period’) and an accident-prone streak, causing her to need a lot of rescuing (clumsiness, ‘most characteristically tripping’, is according to Toufic often a sign that a person may be ‘crossing the threshold’ to the ‘altered realm’). As Helen Fielding did with Bridget Jones, Meyer has hitched a ride on the Mr Darcy plotline, but without bothering to give her heroine any of Elizabeth Bennet’s spirit – raising a reprise of the Bridget question, why would a man of any style or substance fall for a lummox like her? To which Meyer offers two answers, one conventional and one less so: because she’s the avatar of the audience, which has paid its pocket money for the privilege of indulging itself in a bit of the something-for-nothings and a dab of the it-could-be-you’s; and because Edward’s superhuman sensorium is irresistibly attracted – with a carnality both erotic and murderous – to the special ‘smell’ of Bella’s ‘throat’.
Edward doesn’t have much of a personality either – or, rather, he has a few. One is dirty-old-mannish: ‘You are utterly indecent – no one should look so tempting.’ This is unsurprising, perhaps, given that he has been 17 since 1918, when Carlisle ‘changed’ him as he lay dying of the flu. One is more of a Darcy/Rochester, prone to ‘sudden mood changes’, from ‘ancient sadness’ to jolly joshing: ‘And you’re worried not because you’re headed to meet a houseful of vampires, but because you think those vampires won’t approve of you, correct?’ And there is the priggish Jonas Brothers heart-throb – ‘Part of being a Cullen is being meticulously responsible’ – with added eco awareness: ‘Of course, we have to be careful not to impact the environment with injudicious hunting.’ And it would be easy to go on mocking, except that this cunning piece of fictional engineering was never designed to work on mocking readers in the first place, but on the Harry Potter-primed ‘young adult’ market, full of girls longing for sex and scared rigid by the very thought. To whom, it seems, Edward is like a dream – he’s so clean and fragrant, for one thing. Meyer’s vampires neither eat nor sleep nor breathe, nor sweat nor fidget nor need to evacuate, pretending to do these things only when they need to put humans at their ease. Plus, being immortal and unchanging, Edward has the time and wherewithal to be swoonsomely kind and loyal; when he eventually declares himself to Bella, he has for weeks already been watching over her while she sleeps.
He is also, of course, ‘shocking’ in his handsomeness. He cannot go out in sunlight, not because it kills him or reveals that he has no shadow – these apparently are ‘myths’ – but because his complexion ‘literally sparkles’, ‘like thousands of diamonds’ are ‘embedded in the surface’. It’s a funny thing about teenybop heart-throbs – at least from Osmondmania in the 1970s on – but as if in compensation for the bits missed out, they seem to need little excuse to get their shirts off, and so it is with Edward too: revealing a ‘sculpted, incandescent chest’ and ‘scintillating arms’. Repeatedly, he is described as ‘a perfect statue’; ‘satin smooth, cool as stone’; his flesh so cold and hard and ‘perfected’ – like the dead body in Sylvia Plath’s final poem, ‘Edge’ – that Bella has to wrap herself in an ‘old afghan’ before they can share the briefest snuggle. So here we have him, the perfect boyfriend, who is also a walking corpse. He is, by any logic but the desperately teenage, something that love can neither touch nor warm up.
Bella decides that she too must be ‘changed’ into a vampire – ‘change’ being a less threatening way of putting the matter, I guess, than the more usual ‘sire’. Only Edward doesn’t want to do it, because he believes he’d be damning her for all eternity, as he seems to think he has been damned himself. So Bella nags and whines about how inadequate she feels next to her demonic lover – ‘I can’t always be Lois Lane. I want to be Superman, too’ – and fantasises about her ‘conversion’, as she calls it, a purgatorially painful operation poised somewhere between erotic act and medical procedure, baptism and apotheosis: ‘I hoped that I would be as strong as Edward said I would be. Strong and fast and, most of all, beautiful. Someone who could stand next to Edward and feel like she belonged there.’ But Edward just keeps on refusing, point blank at first, and then, cunningly, unless and until Bella marries him. These arguments are accompanied by declarations of love that become sometimes tacky and disordered in their striving to express the degrees of ‘obsession’ and ‘addiction’ involved: ‘Yes, you are exactly my brand of heroin,’ Edward says, while Bella describes a one-off dose of ‘unnecessary cold medicine’ as ‘gratuitous drug use’. And so it goes on, with various Native American werewolf and evil Old World vampire subplots, for 1600 pages. Fort-da, fort-da, fort-da.
Since Polidori, vampires have been at least in part expressions of middle-class fear and envy of a decadent but mysteriously powerful European aristocracy. How, then, does this work in a New World high school, and with vampires who are trying to be good? ‘There’s a lot of people who . . . aren’t having the Prada lifestyle,’ Meyer has said, ‘and going to a special school in New York where everyone’s rich and fabulous’ – which is both true, and a little disingenuous. The whole point of the books is that the non-Prada-lifestyle Bella stumbles into a fawning and banal fantasy of life as lived by rich (they’d probably say ‘wealthy’), highly educated (Carlisle, remember, is a doctor, and since they’re immortal, there’s been plenty of time for everyone to get lots of Ivy League degrees) and ever so slightly boho white Americans, made to seem ethereal because seen with the soft-focus vagueness of outsider envy. Their house (or ‘home’, as in ‘You have a very beautiful home’) is ‘timeless, graceful and probably a hundred years old’, and it’s ‘painted a soft, faded white’ and has a ‘massive curving staircase’. The Cullens dress ‘exceptionally well – simply, but in clothes that subtly hinted at designer origins’. The only things given any specificity are the cars: Meyer’s brothers, she says, are ‘obsessed – and I mean that in the literal, clinical sense – with automotive vehicles’ and have supplied specs for all the ‘Cullen cars’, including Edward’s silver S60R Volvo and Rosalie’s red BMW M3.
And so the pabulum slips down, spoonful by spoonful, with every now and then a neat idea, an unspoken hint of untold perversity, an almost subliminal flash of something nasty: a torn-off head, a gang rape, a bunch of tourists rounded up, they think, for a visit to the medieval prison, but really about to be descended on and blood-sucked en masse. ‘What are we afraid of? Everything,’ Ariel Levy wrote in Female Chauvinist Pigs, her 2005 study of the way the US media seemed increasingly dependent on pornographic imagery, even as federal funding for sex education programmes ‘except for those advocating abstinence until marriage’ was withdrawn. Repression and titillation don’t work in opposition: the two of them like to hang together, thieving from your pockets while you’re still figuring out these arousing, bewildering images, what exactly they are for, and what, exactly, they are telling you to do.
In accordance with the adage about the rubbishy book making for the better movie, Twilight the film is great. The mise en scène luxuriates in the dinosaur-age greenery of the temperate rainforest, the ugly rainwear from Wal-Mart dampness of school and diner and Main Street, day after day after day. Eighteen-year-old Kristen Stewart, Adjani-pale and massy-haired, somehow makes perfect sense of Bella: she has a particularly fine way of squirming around in her skinny trousers, and perhaps got her chin-out speaking style from Jodie Foster, with whom she co-starred a few years ago as the diabetic daughter in Panic Room. And all the girls are squealing at Robert Pattinson – the noble Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter films – as Edward: hair quiffed, face powder a shade or two too light, modelled, I thought, on Prince William on a night out at Boujis, laughing fondly down at Kate Middleton when she can’t help herself being middle-class. There’s a little bit of martial-arts-type leaping, some tiny vampire flashbacks done, wittily, like Nosferatu, but that apart, the film is gloriously lucid, without flicker or gloss or shadow. I went to a West End matinée on a Saturday, with girls on their eighth and eleventh viewings, and a few women closer to my age with bags from Debenhams and Primark. It was the first time I’d been to the cinema for ages and I bounced out full of beans.
Then afterwards I found myself feeling wretched, in a way I really haven’t for years and years and years. Why can’t I be freed of the need for food and sleep, why can’t I squirm exquisitely in skinny trousers, why can’t I be for ever beautiful and young? Awful memories were dislodged, of being young and full of longing – a really horrible feeling, a sickening excess of emotion with nowhere, quite, to put it. ‘I wish I could be a vampire,’ I actually said out loud at one point, though once I’d said it, I knew even that didn’t get to the heart of the problem. But the internet is great for discharging all this discontent and discomfort. I watched trailers and out-takes, I browsed on Twilight Moms, I read the interview with ‘Stephenie’ in the latest issue of American Vogue – she is ‘obsessed with the Greek salad’ in her local deli. I read somewhere some interviews with Kristen Stewart, who finds the Twilight craze ‘psychotic’. I watched a film on YouTube of the Twilight actors in, I think, Japan.
‘Why write on vampires at this stage in history?’ Toufic asked. ‘Were humanity to conquer death . . . it will suddenly dawn on it that the attributes of death, or pastiches or parodies of them, have become salient facts of life.’ Toufic is captivated by thresholds, misunderstood warnings, lapses in consciousness, ‘quantum effects, such as tunnelling’, ‘unreflective glass’: tropes traditional to the vampire movie, but versions of which structure all films, all narrative. How can a story ever be told without jumps through wormholes, dissolving doors and windows, dream-states and drowsiness and forgetfulness and the vagueness that comes with sitting in the darkness in front of an enormous screen of light? In the old days, the Gothic was said to focus readers’ deepest fears about their future: blood-sucking aristos; mills, engines, new technology, with its way of shifting boundaries between the human and the not-human; infant mortality, post-mortem flatus, doubts about the afterlife and, of course and always and mainly, the problem of death. In our day we don’t have to visit a cinema to hallucinate life into images of immortal perfection; they flicker everywhere around us, emptied of the animal and plumped up instead with plastics. And so, the question is not so much about entering the ‘labyrinthine realm of undeath’ as whether anyone can ever really be said to leave it.
One odd thing about Meyer’s vampires, though, is that they do leave it, to show up in mirrors and photographs: Edward looks ‘just as beautiful as he did in real life’. Is this because to follow tradition would have been just too creepy, or clearly nonsensical given that the books are written for a generation that experiences the world ‘as the visible first and foremost, with all the other senses draining off it’, as Fredric Jameson once put it, a generation of people who live with images, shadows and reflections as intimately – and unhappily – as with their own bodies? Or was it for pragmatic reasons, so as not to make things difficult for the makers of the film? In support of this interpretation, Twilight’s fighty dénouement happens in a hall of mirrors – in a ballet studio – with a twist involving home movies on VHS and a baddie who has brought along his own mini-DV camera (‘I thought this room would be visually dramatic for my little film,’ he says).
Another mirror is placed right at the beginning of New Moon, the second book in the series. Bella has a dream in which she thinks she’s meeting her long-dead grandma, ‘the skin . . . soft and withered, bent into a thousand tiny creases’; ‘like a dried apricot, but with a puff of thick white hair standing out in a cloud’. Then, behind her she sees her beautiful vampire, ‘strolling gracefully toward me’, ‘brilliant sunbeams shattering off his skin’. ‘Only then, as I looked at the bigger picture, did I notice the huge gilt frame that enclosed my grandmother’s form . . . There was no Gran. That was me. Me in a mirror. Me ancient, creased and withered. Edward stood beside me, casting no reflection, excruciatingly lovely and for ever 17.’
It’s Dorian Gray, of course, but it is also a brilliant, terrifying observation about what it is to be mortal and ageing in the world of ‘magazines’ and ‘old masters’, to feel your body judged and found lacking, to know the situation is irremediable. The horror of this may not always be noticed by the teenagers who are Twilight’s designated audience. But the Twilight Moms most likely feel it deeply, and like to make a great big noise, as a way of hiding from the fear of it, the disappointment and the shame.