16 January 2009

Another Post about my Daughter's current favourite books.

Warning: I wasn't going to write about this again, but a few people asked.

Books are tricky things. One never knows what will happen when one releases them into the wild. Usually nothing happens. The books are released and simply disappear without a trace, and leave barely a ripple to tell of their passing. Some start a phenomena, often without precedence. There was no warning that Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code were about to explode on the scene. The success of these books was completely unexpected, even by their own authors and publishers.

Sometimes books have more sinister impacts. One of the oddest was the suicide craze started by Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. When young Romantic men the whinings and complaints of the idiot Werther, rather than learning from Werther's story and rejecting his fate (Werther ultimately kills himself at the end of the story. Personally, I wish he had done it at the beginning and saved me 150 pages of Romantic whine.) they instead found they identified with the character right to the very end, as it were.

I've written a few times about the current literary fad, the Twilight series, and the tendency of teenage girls to identify with the main character. I have not hidden my disdain for the series, nor my confusion as regards its popularity. Much of what I dislike are what others extol: The story, the characters, the underlying ideas- or as I would put it, the poor characters, the lack of story, and the absence of ideas.

The story is perhaps the biggest problem. The books which I read- 2 and 4- are the stories of how something almost happened, but ultimately didn't, or to put it another way, they are the story of how nothing really happened.

It is one of the fundamental rules of storytelling that stories are driven by problems and imbalances. A wrong to be righted, a danger to be braved, a mountain to be climbed, a lesson to be learned, a love to be won. The story brings these problems into the point of maximum tension, and resolves them. The boy draws the sword, the prisoner is released, the lesson is learned and one's eternal true love stands revealed at last. Once the conflict is resolved the characters are often rewarded with a variation of the words "And they lived happily ever after." Although the happily ever after is the goal of the story, it is never actually a story in itself. It can't be: in that happily ever after there are no more problems.

Along with the rule of problems is another rule of storytelling, colloquially called the gun rack rule. This rule states, simply, that if you see a gun rack on the wall in act I, someone must be shot by act III. It is a very simple rule, with many variations. In its most basic form it is a rule we learned at our mothers' knees and on the playgrounds of our childhoods. Keep your promises. When telling a story, if you show smoke, eventually you must show fire.

In the fourth book of the series, all the problems of the series are brought into maximum tension, except they aren't. The issues that drove the series- Bella's self loathing and desire to become a vampire; Edward's self loathing and desire not to make Bella a vampire; Jacob the werewolf's self loathing combined with his impossible love for Bella- are all brought into focus, but rather than being resolves they are instead revealed not to have been problems at all. Take Bella's transformation. Edward is forced to transform Bella to save her life after the birth of their hybrid child. The difficulties the reader was told Bella would face as a new vampire adjusting to her new immortal life simply never happen. One of her new family even comments that she seems to have been born to be a vampire. Bella and Edward love each other after her transformation just as much as before, without interruption or hiccough. Her transformation is essentially undramatic, for nothing is really transformed. If she had opened her vampiric eyes for the first time and looked at Edward, and Edward had realized that something was different, that something fundamental had changed in his love, that would have given an ounce of drama into the story. Instead there is nothing. Nothing at all. No problem.

If Bella's story is undramatic, Jacob's story is problematic, precisely because his resolution is represented as unproblematic. Jacob loves a girl who will never feel that way towards him, and for that love he breaks up his wolf pack to protect Bella, (the werewolves fear Bella's hybrid child and wish to destroy the baby before it is born) although werewolves and vampires are mortal enemies. Jacob watches the violent birth of Bella's daughter, torn between a fear that she may die but also knowing that if she survives it will be as a vampire, which is to him a fate worse than death. And then, Jacob catches sight of the new baby girl and is "imprinted" on her- she is his predestined soul mate. All his problems simply vanish, just like that. He no longer loves Bella that way. His conflict with the were-wolves ends because no were-wolf would ever harm the soul mate of another. The book goes to great lengths to say that a young man falling in love with an infant is really a simple matter, and no one should be disturbed by it in the slightest. No problem.

The final conflict of the book occurs when the ancient Volturri, the vampire elders and law keepers come to destroy the new child. Edward's vampiric family gathers all their friends, Jacob summons the other werewolves as they prepare for desperate and hopeless battle. The lines are drawn between the old order vampires and the new revolutionaries, both sides prepare for battle, and then they don't. The Volturri change their minds and depart, never to trouble the family again. The happily ever after may continue, no problem. Never really was one.

Also represented as no problem is Bella's pursuit of immortality. Immortality is one of the great dreams of fiction. it is a goal, a reward, a metaphor. It stands at the heart of many great stories. But with dreams also come nightmares, and many writers have explored the question of eternal life from another perspective. In Harry Potter, Voldemort pursues immortality through repeated acts of murder and the deliberate destruction of his own soul. Bilbo and Frodo find their own version of the ring of Gyges, a ring which not only makes one invisible, but also immortal. Except the Ring is an insidious thing, and their immortality carries a heavy price. it does not increase one's allotted span of life; instead it is stretched out, like too little butter over too much toast, a Bilbo puts it. On top of that, there is always someone else out there who wants the Ring for themself.

Perhaps the most nightmarish vision of immortality comes from Swift's Gulliver's Travels. During the Laputa section of that book, Gulliver is asked by one of his guides if he has met the Struldbrugs. When Gulliver asks the sensible question: "What's a Struldbrug?" his guide answers that every now and then a child is born with a certain mark by which people know that they will be immortal, and these children are called the Struldbrugs.

Gulliver immediately goes into raptures and states how wonderful it would be to be a Struldbrug, and explains to his surprised and confused guide what he would do were he an immortal Struldbrug, and how he would spend his ages in the pursuit of learning for the betterment of mankind as a kind of benevolent deity.

Gulliver's guide then clear up Gulliver's misconception. Gulliver had assumed that immortality would bring eternal youth, but this is not so. The Struldbrugs age normally, they simply don't die. They continue to age all their days and become infinitely old, infinitely decrepit. By law, they are considered to be dead at 80.

Another view of Immortality comes from a more recent book aimed at young readers: Tuck Everlasting. In this book the main character meets a family who drank from a nearby stream and now are immortal. Winnie grows fond of the youngest Tuck, who wants her to drink from the stream and live with him. His elder brother tells her that immortality comes at a heavy price. Finally the father takes her aside, and tries to explain to her just what life means. His life, he says, has stopped. He exists like a rock in a hill, unchanging. She tells him sh doesn't want to die, and asks if that's wrong. No, he tells her, but he also tells her not to be afraid of dying. Rather, be afraid of the unlived life. Soon after the Tuck's flee the area, but the youngest son promises to return, and asks Winnie to drink and wait for him. Winnie ponders it long. In the end the youngest son returns after many decades, and finds Winnie's grave. Her happily ever after was a mortal span. She lived a long life, had children and grandchildren, loved and was loved., and left in peace.

Bella's story offers no such insight. It offers no insight at all. She just blithely desires immortality so she may forever be with he love. And so it happens. It was that simple. There are no insights, no truths revealed, no idea debated. She knows nothing at the end that she did not know in the beginning. As teenagers, they knew everything they needed to know throughout life. The insight of Susan Pevensie, who rushed through her life to reach the silliest part and who would then spend the rest of her life trying to stay there is completely absent here. The only virtue this book celebrates is youth, and this is not a virtue which is known for its ability to endure.

I said before the book at least shows Bella absolutely refusing to abort her child. It also shows her and Edward waiting until they are married before they have sex. But it is a skewed wait. They wait until marriage but they do not wait to get married. They marry as soon as possible to get on with their immortal lives. I have known people who have done this. I have seen lives ruined by this. Haste and impatience, also companions of our youth, are also celebrated here. Patience, Wisdom, Effort are all absent from this story.

In spite of all this, I am not much worried about potential fallouts from this book. Most people who read it will enjoy it for a time, or not, and ultimately toss it aside for the next thing. The suicide craze I mentioned in connection with The Sorrows of Young Werther resulted in the deaths of 30 to 40 young men in all of Europe. Most people will suffer no ill from reading these books. But a few may, and they should be warned. However, those who are most in need of a warning are always the least likely to heed one.

We said before that the first few books, told from Bella's perspective could have been summed up in two lines: 1. My life sucks; and 2. the pale guy is cute. Having read to the end, I find the whole series can be summed up in one line: "Once upon a time there was a girl named Bella, who, by the time she was nineteen, had everything she had ever wanted." And that, my friends, is not a happy ending. It's a tragedy.

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