Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Missed Metaphor

Recently I was pointed to a review of Twilight that harshly condemned the series on the basis that "vampires don’t complete humans, any more than a lion completes an impala." And while there are plenty of things to condemn the series on -- the prose that goes beyond lush to purple and even putrescent, the way in which Edward's behavior toward Bella becomes steadily more obsessive and controlling, in ways that make it look like an abusive relationship should be regarded as normal and healthy -- this complaint tells me that the reader is mis-reading the book.

In fact, it almost makes me think of a reader complaining that the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane is bestiality because Superman is in fact a Kryptonian rather than a human. Well, technically it's true -- as described, Kryptonians would have such an alien biology that a gingko tree would be more closely related to dear Miss Lois Lane than our favorite square-jawed superhero. But most Superman readers would groan with exasperation at such objections and answer, "but that's not the point." A literalistic reading of the Superman universe, along the lines of Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" (in which he meticulously details exactly what horrors would ensue if a being such as Superman really existed and really tried to interact with human beings) ignores the spirit in which the Superman stories were created. Superman was never meant to be read in the realistic mode, as a rigorous extrapolation of alien biology. It's comfort reading, a way of recapturing in this uncertain adult world the memory of when we were little kids and our parents seemed all-powerful, perfectly able to protect us.

Similarly, we are not intended to read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight as though it were Those of My Blood, in which Jacqueline Lichtenberg creates a human subspecies known as the luren which are the basis of classical vampire legends, and rigorously accounts for each aspect of vampire lore with scientific explanations. Yes, there is effort to create some kind of a narrative rationale for vampirism -- but that is as much because, as Marion Zimmer Bradley frequently said, "suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by the neck until dead." Blatant allegory tends to turn off the reader, to increase the mind's "sales resistance" to the ideas the author is trying to convey, so clothing the story in additional layers of versimilitude will help lower that resistance by reassuring the conscious mind that it is in fact reading a story, not a lesson.

At least in my reading, vampirism in the Twilight-verse represents lust -- that fierce, crazy desire that shuts down reason and leads people to do really stupid, self-destructive things just to get laid. And when you realize that, you can see why it works as a vampire novel, and wouldn't if it were written as a straight-up mainstream romance. Obviously Edward's a bad boy, with the traditional risky bad-boy appeal combined with a deep sense of morality and self-control. If he were a mainstream romantic hero, he'd be a character more in line with the protagonist of John Ringo's Ghost . When Mike Harmon sees a pretty girl, he wants to have her, now, like a dog in rut -- yet he also knows that rape is not just a crime, but a betrayal, a tearing of the social fabric, so he controls that animal-heat urge.

But that kind of a character is too real, and thus way too scary, to be exciting in a teen romance (as opposed to a techno-thriller with fantastical elements, aimed at an adult male audience, as Ghost is). But by making the character into a vampire, we move the dangerous aspect of his personality into the realm of the fantastic, and thus make it less threatening.

Now this isn't to say that there's nothing wrong with the books, or that they're great literature. Far from it, the prose is lousy, the characterization is superficial, and the fantastical elements really don't break any ground. But complaining that the vampire doesn't complete the human in the relationship is to completely misunderstand the nature of the metaphor being used, and to actually undermine whatever valid points the reviewer does make against the series.

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