ON VAMP­ING UP CON­VEN­TION

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - KIRSTEN TRAN­TER

THE ad­vent of Stephe­nie Meyer’s teen vam­pire ro­mance saga Twi­light , now a block­buster film, was for some read­ers a new dawn af­ter the end of the Harry Pot­ter se­ries. For oth­ers, such as me, it promised to fill an older gap left by the demise of Joss Whe­don’s cultish, icon­o­clas­tic tele­vi­sion se­ries, Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer . I still long for more vam­pire sto­ries with spunky girls at the cen­tre. This loss was a big fac­tor in my pur­chase of the Twi­light saga’s large first vol­ume at the air­port be­fore a long flight last year.

Meyer’s oddly hyp­notic story turned out to be a per­fect an­ti­dote to the pain of jet­lag: an old­fash­ioned, dreamy ro­mance.

It soon be­came clear, how­ever, that rather than slak­ing the post-Buffy thirst, this vam­pire story was tap­ping into some­thing much more un­set­tling. It was at some point in the third or fourth vol­ume, right when the chaste heroine Bella ad­mires how hand­some her vam­pire boyfriend Ed­ward looks in his ‘‘ khakis and pale beige pullover’’, that my sus­pi­cions were fully con­firmed. Vam­pires in pale beige? I was, in fact, read­ing some­thing like the anti-Buffy.

Both crit­ics and ad­mir­ers of Meyer’s Mor­mon­in­flu­enced vi­sion have steadily noted the se­ries’ con­ser­va­tive sex­ual and so­cial pol­i­tics ( though it must be said that moral con­ven­tion­al­ity looks pretty weird when seen through Twi­light ’ s dis­tort­ing su­per­nat­u­ral lens: sex should wait un­til you are mar­ried. Mar­ried to a vam­pire . Hav­ing vam­pire ba­bies and slurp­ing blood from a cup de­signed for milk­shakes.)

Twi­light ex­changes Buffy’s mes­sage of girl power for the stalest — but, it seems, the most com­pelling — nar­ra­tive of fe­male masochism, where sex is not only bad but also some­thing you get pun­ished for.

In Whe­don’s se­ries, the vam­pires some­times mis­take Buffy for a vic­tim from some outdated story, doomed to scream help­lessly and wait for a guy to save her but they pay dearly for those ex­pec­ta­tions: this girl sur­prises them and kills all the mon­sters with a lit­tle help from her friends. Whe­don’s witty, quirky cri­tique of sex­ist nar­ra­tive tra­di­tion seemed to sig­nal that we had moved into a world where those ob­so­lete ex­pec­ta­tions were turned on their heads. How could we go back?

Un­like the well-groomed Buffy, Bella is care­less of her ap­pear­ance, not a girly girl ( she has a nat­u­ral beauty, nat­u­rally, of which she is charm­ingly un­aware). She is, how­ever, creep­ily like a per­fect lit­tle wife to her di­vorced dad from the day she moves in with him. She hur­ries home from vam­pire make-out ses­sions so she can be

KATE and Steve lived in their haven on the hill in Toolangi State For­est for just a few months, but it was their place be­fore they even moved in.

Some­one else bought the 16ha block when the sub­di­vi­sion took place in the 1950s, and a creative builder con­structed an in­ter­est­ing lit­tle house of lo­cal tim­ber and found ob­jects. Th­ese in­cluded a cou­ple of stained glass win­dows, from an old prop­erty in the area, that glowed in the set­ting sun. One wall of the shed was a forsale sign from the days when that piece of par­adise was first on the mar­ket. But th­ese peo­ple were just care­tak­ers; this small home and its bushy sur­round awaited Kate and Steve.

It be­gan to show their spe­cial touch as they con­tin­ued what oth­ers had be­gun. Steve re­placed the shiny metal han­dles of the stove with stripped tea-tree branches, pol­ished to a honey gold.

As soon as they had pos­ses­sion and long be­fore they moved in, Kate’s green fin­gers started re­vi­tal­is­ing the aban­doned but once abun­dant vegie patch. With Steve’s mate Johnno they in­su­lated the walls, lin­ing them with pan­els of an­other lo­cal tim­ber that was tinged with pale pink.

They cleared around the house, got rid of scrubby un­der­growth and en­cour­aged the na­tive or­chids and in­dige­nous plants to thrive. back in time to cook din­ner for Dad and do the dishes, since he’s so bad at looking af­ter him­self.

Bella’s not so old-fash­ioned when it comes to sex. She wants to sleep with her vam­pire paramour, Ed­ward, but he is so be­holden to his turn-of-the-cen­tury be­liefs that he in­sists on mar­riage first, and a 2000-page courtship. He is also afraid that he will ac­ci­den­tally kill her if he lets him­self kiss her.

Vam­pire sto­ries have al­ways con­veyed a pow­er­ful sex­ual al­le­gory: the kiss that gives into the dark­est de­sires; the ec­static pen­e­tra­tion of the bite. Ed­ward wants equally to kiss Bella’s throat and tear it out. He mas­ters this im­pulse, the mon­ster within, but it is a daily strug­gle sup­posed to con­vey his strength of char­ac­ter.

Bella’s and Ed­ward’s ar­gu­ments about sex make real ev­ery metaphor you’ve ever heard or imag­ined about women’s sup­posed fragility and the vi­o­lent force of male de­sire. ‘‘ I won’t be able to con­trol my­self. You’ll get hurt,’’ Ed­ward pleads be­fore their wed­ding night. He’s strong and hard as steel; she’s a del­i­cate, crush­able

The place shone with their loving care. But it wasn’t only the house and vegie patch that were re­newed; they too thrived in the peace and tran­quil­lity of this tree-filled space far from the noise and bus­tle of sub­ur­bia.

Mar­ley and Ralph, their small ca­nine com­pan­ions, thought they were in heaven as they roamed the 16ha, un­suc­cess­fully chas­ing the scents of echidna, kan­ga­roo and pos­sum.

Old friends who were lucky enough to visit them there in those months saw the love Kate and Steve had found for each other and this lit­tle piece of Aus­tralian bush. Lo­cals who had known them for only the few years they had been to­gether in the Yarra Val­ley recog­nised that the cou­ple had found some­thing spe­cial.

And I, Kate’s mother, was filled with joy that my daugh­ter had found a per­son and place to love more deeply than she had imag­ined pos­si­ble. Her brother Dave and sis­ter Jane were flower. Bella claims to be less frag­ile than Ed­ward thinks, and the books linger over ev­ery de­tail of her erotic ex­cite­ment, the thrill of ev­ery touch am­pli­fied by the con­stant ef­fort to re­strain her­self, not go too far, not ex­cite the mon­ster too much. He’s the one say­ing no, but only be­cause his em­bod­i­ment of po­ten­tially mon­strous sex­ual ap­petite is matched by an equally ex­ces­sive streak of pro­tec­tive feel­ing and moral nicety.

Ed­ward is the ro­man­tic hero taken to dizzy ex­tremes: he’d kill to keep you safe — and chaste — but his ar­dour is such that it would de­stroy you if fully awak­ened. How he loves you!

The suc­cess of Meyer’s gor­geously crafted hymn to con­ven­tion proves that au­thors and film­mak­ers are still happy to cre­ate sto­ries that end with cow­er­ing girls be­ing saved by pow­er­ful guys, and girls are more than happy to em­brace them. Wit­ness the de­press­ing spec­ta­cle of vi­o­lence that ends the first book, and the movie, where Bella is bru­tally tor­tured and ren­dered help­less be­fore be­ing res­cued by Ed­ward: pre­cisely the kind of fa­mil­iar night­mare that Buffy tore apart.

Bella has her de­sires, but their cost in this drama of masochism may break your heart. She wakes up from their first night of ec­static mar­i­tal sex to find her body bat­tered, cov­ered in bruises from un­in­tended in­juries she was numb to at the time. Ed­ward turns his face away in shame: sadly his pre­dic­tions were true.

It’s pop­u­lar ( Mor­mon) teen vam­pire ro­mance: what did I ex­pect? And is it so bad to en­joy this kind of guilty plea­sure, a good story that just hap­pens to re­in­force a whole bat­tery of pa­tri­ar­chal val­ues?

‘‘ This book’s suc­cess makes me won­der about the fu­ture of mankind,’’ says a post on an in­ter­net dis­cus­sion page ded­i­cated to Twi­light . ‘‘ I work in a book­store that had a release party and there were hun­dreds of teenage girls there who were to­tally, gen­uinely in love with Ed­ward. They are the kind of books that are so bad they are good. To know that there are girls and their moth­ers who take this misog­y­nis­tic bull­shit se­ri­ously sad­dens me.’’

But who knows? Maybe the young fans of Twi­light will be in­spired to watch re-runs of that an­cient TV se­ries about the blonde who kills vam­pires and imag­ine a dif­fer­ent kind of world, where girls can kiss as hard as they like, and look af­ter them­selves. thrilled that their big bloom­ing with love.

Now our joy is washed by more tears than we can ever shed.

On Satur­day, Fe­bru­ary 7, 2009, it took just mo­ments for Kate, Steve, Mar­ley and Ralph to die to­gether when the wind changed di­rec­tion and a wedge of fire raced through their place. It hap­pened so fast, they would not even have known that it was com­ing.

The an­nounce­ment of their death, printed along­side the pain of so many oth­ers also try­ing to un­der­stand how a mo­ment can take away so much, says it all: ‘‘ It was the place they loved. They would not have wanted to be any­where else.’’

But the depth of sad­ness in Dave’s eyes while he tries to find so­lace with his own lit­tle fam­ily, the in­ten­sity of the grief and anger in Jane as she rails against the world and strug­gles to ac­cept that she will never see her Kate again, and the depth and in­ten­sity of my grief also say it all: sweet as mem­o­ries might be of the hap­pi­ness they found on that hill in Toolangi, it isn’t fair that they died, and our pain will never cease.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style. Kirsten Tran­ter lives in Ithaca, New York. She is work­ing on a novel.

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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