Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Mikalogue of horror
Mika: Never fear, is home! Look what we has here.
Kit: Oh man - Mika, is that a mouse?
Mika: Well done. Gold star for Kit. Now, watch closely.
Mouse: ...much posesed by def and see skul beneaf skin...
Mika: See? Hunts it. You have a go.
Kit: Gareth, we've got another mouse to help!
Mouse: ...there doth sol in holy vision sit, in pensiv trance, and anguish...
Mika: Hm, has stopped moving. Give it a prod, no?
Mouse: ...this sensibl warm motion to becom kneaded clod ... tis too horribl!
Mika: Aha, now it runs! Catch it!
Kit: Mika, leave it alone.
Mika: Gotcha! Go on, hunt it! Bad kitten.
Kit: That's 'Kit', Mika, not 'kitten.'
Mika: Less of cheek or cuff your ear. Pay attention to lesson.
Kit: Mika, are you trying to play mother cat and teach us to catch mice? It isn't going to work.
Gareth: Okay, I've got the catching glass and card. Same drill as before?
Mika: Look, will toss it in air to make more interesting!
Mouse: ...AT UNCERTAIN HOUR AGONY RETURNS...
Kit: Mika stop it, it's squeaking! You're hurting it!
Gareth: I'll just wait till she drops it and it freezes again ... Got it!
Mouse: ...ston walls do not prison make...
Gareth: See, sweetheart? We've captured the mouse in this glass.
Mika: Hey, reality split. Where mousie go?
Gareth: It's right here in the glass, Mika. It's transluscent, look, you can see its shadow.
Mika: Must hunt again. World all of a puzzle.
Gareth: You really don't have much object permanence, do you?
Mika: Mousie? Oh mouuusieee...?
Gareth: I'll just go release you into the garden, littlun.
Mouse: ...canot see what flowrs are at me feet...
Gareth: I'll let you out at the end of it, okay?
Mika: Mousie? Where you go?
Gareth: There you go, little buddy. Stay out of the house, eh?
Mouse: ...an wildernes is paradise enow!
Gareth: That's right. First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
Kit: I don't think Mika's going to chill for quite some time.
(The management acknowledges that the photograph is not of Mika catching a mouse. Generally such occasions are too fraught to have time for photography. We have therefore included a picture from Mika's kittenhood on the grounds that it is cute. We also would request readers to picture the mouse's dialogue in smaller font; unfortunately when we tried this the entire post appeared in text too microscopic to read. Blogger has its moods.)
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
So, I mentioned previously that having succumbed to curiosity about the Twilight phenomenon and actually read the first book, I'd blog about it.
The first thing to say is this: I'm not about to slam it. (Well, the first first thing to say is that the paragraph spacing in this post may be all over the place, in which case I'm sorry. Blogger has moods.) In general I'm not eager to attack fellow-novelists on this blog, but there's another reason too: Twilight has been panned all over the press and Internet, panned up hill and down dale, and if I bothered to dwell on its faults I'd only be repeating what's been said a million times. More than that, slagging off its literary infelicities is to some extent missing the point. Twilight is popular; oh boy, is it popular. When books are popular to this extent, there's usually something interesting about them. It isn't just popular with young adults either; adults are reading it perfectly happily. The best article on the subject is probably this one in Salon by Laura Miller, unless anyone can point me to a better one, which suggests a big part of its appeal is its foundation in the Gothic low-status-girl-elevated-by-marriage plot in which the inequality between the lovers is precisely the appeal, a plot popular with all ages; I can't say it better than Miller does, so I'd simply recommend you read what she says. But, as Miller points out, adult women are consuming the book avidly. Nor, I can verify from my own experience, are its adult fans necessarily victims of arrested development; I've seen one friend give a copy to another as a birthday gift, explaining that it's a wonderful book to relax with, and both women are among the most glamorous and successful people I know.
So there's something interesting going on with Twilight, more interesting than simply scoring points at its expense. What's the deal?
I don't think I'm the only person to make this comparison, but the more I think about it the more it yields: as a writer and a phenomenon, Stephenie Meyer bears a strong family resemblance to that other great doyenne of adolescent dreams, V.C. Andrews. If we lay Twilight alongside Flowers In The Attic, some intriguing parallels emerge.
The most obvious, and I suspect a big key to their success, is succinctly put by Lev Grossman in Time magazine: 'That's the power of the Twilight books: they're squeaky, geeky clean on the surface, but right below it, they are absolutely, deliciously filthy.' Grossman points out the obvious sexual tension that riddles Twilight, the way the limited physical interaction - our vampire hero restrains himself from canoodling with the heroine because she's so incredibly tempting that he doesn't trust himself not to bite her - leads to a permanent plateau of anticipation, much in the way that real-life romances are often at their most dizzyingly erotic when you're waiting for the moment when the clothes come off. Not to mention the fact that 'I don't trust myself' is a phrase that promises spectacular passion if you ever do get down to it.
So much, so evident, and Flowers In The Attic likewise displays that seductive mixture of apparent chastity and underlying eroticism. The best article I've read on that subject is Zoe Williams's in the Guardian, which again I'd highly recommend: the point she draws out is indeed one of Andrews's most curious elements: 'What makes her books so strange, however, is not the incest itself but Andrews's oddly wholesome, home-baked way of writing about it.' Our heroes in this case are wrested from their home by their beloved father's death in a car accident, only to find themselves imprisoned in the mansion of evil grandparents who have never forgiven their mother for marrying a man related to her by blood - a 'half-uncle' is how he's described in the first novel - and consequently find themselves all imprisoned in a single room with a door to the attic, forbidden to look at or touch each other, beaten if they do, with nowhere to turn their adolescent desires except each other, culminating in a sort-of rape of the sister by the brother (she fights, but says rather ambiguously that 'I loved him. I wanted what he wanted - if he wanted it that much, right or wrong,' an image of if-you-must sexual sacrifice that strikes rather peculiar in the context of sibling incest.) In general, the Dollanganger children wind up in a self-fulfilling prophecy of sexual paranoia of the kind that we generally see in porn movies more often than in literature for the under-sixteens.
As well as the structure, Flowers In The Attic pulls off a bizarre, inimitable trick of tone. Cathy, our narrator, is impeccably spoken - pushed to extremes, she may exclaim 'Golly-lolly!' - and ignorant of the workings of sexual intercourse, but at the same time, sexual fascination throbs through every scene. The idyllic father enters the house with a cry of 'Come greet me with kisses if you love me!', a curiously demanding piece of emotional dramatism that he follows up with murmurs to his wife of 'Did you think about me when I was gone? Every night? Did you toss and turn and wish I were beside you, holding you close? For if you didn't, Corrine, I might want to die...' which his wife answers 'with her eyes, with soft whispers and with kisses' - all of which seems like the kind of pillow talk you might expect adults to save till the kids aren't watching. But family intimacies mixed with sexual overtones are a Dollanganger trait. One of many, many examples: up in their attic, brother Chris comments approvingly on a picture they've found, 'Now... that is what you call an hourglass figure. See the wasp waist, the ballooning hips, the swelling bosom? Inherit a shape like that, Cathy, and you will make a fortune.' - only to comment a little later that their mother, who has a habit of drawing his head down on her breast when he needs cheering up, is even more beautiful.
The word 'bosom' in that context encapsulates a lot of what's distinctive about Andrews's tone: Chris is cheerfully letching to his sister with thoughts of his mother thrown in, but Golly-lolly forbid he use improper language in so doing. Sex is instinctual rather than verbal in this world. Cathy appeals to Chris for sexual information when they discuss the anatomy of birds: 'He floundered, his face turned deeply red, and he sought a way to say something delicately. "Male birds can be aroused, and that makes what is in, come out."' - but tells her to shush up when she asks for clarification. This tone doesn't change even as they're thrashing together on a mattress - 'that swollen, rigid male sex part of him' is mentioned, a euphemism so tortured it verges on the garbled. Even descriptions of small children have an odd sensuality: viewing her grandmother's violent handling of her younger siblings, Cathy laments that she doesn't care if 'tender flesh was bruised,' while the littlest sister 'adored skipping around the room, holding out her skirts so her ruffled panties showed.'
The combined effect is of a kind of innocent libertinism. Sex is rampant, in family chit-chat as much as in marital relations, but viewed through eyes so naive they don't grasp the difference between appropriate and inappropriate sexual expression - which means that sex expresses itself continually. It's also worth pointing out that Cathy retains a natural sexual curiosity that, despite her parents' making out in front of her, seems based on a genuine ignorance. Her grandmother is furious about her parents' incest, but she's also sexually puritanical in general: add the grandmother's wrath to Cathy's lack of information, and pretty much any kind of sex is a taboo. Incest, in this context, seems normal partly because sex itself is transgressive; incest is more or less being hung for a sheep as for a lamb - as Cathy rather indiscriminately says, 'I thought about my mother and that man, about Chris, about all boys, about men, about romance - and love.' Normal adolescent eroticism overspills, finding weird channels in every direction.
All of which adds up to a highly heated atmosphere. The popular science book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely describes an experiment in which young men were asked twice over to answer a series of survey questions about what sexual behaviour they'd consider: once when they were in a normal state of mind, and once when they were close to orgasm. (Computers were lent them to take home for the purpose.) Ariely found that when aroused, 'they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high (72 per cent higher than) they had predicted when they were in a cold state. In the five questions about their propensity to engage in immoral activities, when they were aroused they predicted their propensity to be more than twice as high as (136 per cent higher than) they had predicted in the cold state.' Arousal knocks conventional sexual boundaries askew. Were Flowers In The Attic a description of real people we might conclude that the Dollanganger children have been raised in an atmosphere where boundaries have been peculiar that they simply don't understand what appropriate behaviour is - but as a work of literature, it reads like a book so aroused that its boundaries have dissolved completely.
Obviously this is sexually transgressive - to an extent that Twilight seems fairly restrained in comparison, being, after all, a parable about the erotics of abstinence. This isn't all that's going on in it, though. Like Cathy, our heroine Bella is a virgin eager for experience, and consequently, again like Cathy, sex is a Big Deal for her. The analogy between being vamped and being deflowered is a classic one and Twilight certainly isn't the first work to play on it - but as Bella obsesses about the two Falls, presses Edward to bestow one or the other and preferably both and Edward endlessly insists that it's not in her interests whatever Bella might think, the interplay between them doesn't read quite as vanilla as it professes to be.
Having heard so much about how idealised the Bella-Edward story was, what struck me most was how seldom they're actually nice to each other, at least in the first book. Edward takes her home to meet his family - another odd family arrangement, in fact, where his quasi-brothers and sisters are in fact two couples masquerading as adopted siblings under the protection of their quasi-parents, and as with Andrews this mix of the familial and the sexual is taken surprisingly in stride (a point I'll be returning to later). The Cullens make a pet of Bella, include her in their activities and go to some lengths to protect her when outside danger threatens - but between Edward and Bella themselves, the dialogue tends to follow a pattern rather removed from sweet nothings: Edward tells Bella she doesn't know what she's talking about, she rolls her eyes, tells him not to push his luck and refuses to do as he wishes, and then they go and do it anyway.
On the face of it this looks like tension between a supposedly modern and assertive girl and a patriarchally controlling man, but there's another interpretation: the BDSM tradition of the 'brat', defined in the Urban Dictionary as 'a person of a submissive nature who acts up or causes trouble in order to attract attention'. Considering that Bella actually accepts every decision Edward makes and considers herself besotted with him, her continued resistance reads less like a girl genuinely trying to maintain parity in a relationship and more like deliberate backchat, ambivalently provocative, the verbal equivalent of pulling against a fetter to test whether it's secure. The key factor is this: she sometimes doubts whether it's wise to let him take over her life, to let him creep in her bedroom window and spy on her while she sleeps, to make decisions for her, but she doesn't maintain her objection to these acts of control. She protests, and then accepts. The only objections she's steadfast about are objections to his refusal to consummate the relationship - to sleep with her, to bite her, to take her over completely.
For instance, dragging her to the prom, Edward finds Bella exlaiming 'in horror' and 'mortified' - which he responds to with a masterful, 'Don't be difficult, Bella.' This would sound like genuine objections on her part if her real protest was at being taken to a dance she wants to avoid. But making her dance is merely a lily-white way of pressing her limits; when they get going it's like this:
"Edward." My throat was so dry I could only manage a whisper. " I honestly can't dance!" I could feel the panic bubbling up inside my chest.
"Dont worry, silly," he whispered back. "I can." He put my arms around his neck and lifted me to slide his feet under mine.
And then we were whirling, too.
"I feel like I'm five years old," I laughed after a few minutes of effortless waltzing.
Bella is scared, but when skilfully pushed over the edge she finds herself having a wonderful time; this is an interplay of dominance and submission, Edward making Bella do things she discovers she actually wanted, rather than serious coercion. Words like 'gulped' and 'pouted' keep coming up, which is hardly the language of genuine resistance. The real reason Bella was upset is not that he's ignored her insistence that she doesn't want to go, it's that she thought tonight might be the night he vamped her and he's disappointed her 'half-fearful hopes'. She doesn't mind Edward making her do stuff; what she minds is when he won't make her do it. And in fact, as I'll mention later, when they finally do get down to business, Bella seems quite capable of erotic pain as well.
In this context, Edward's chastity starts to look less like self-denial and more like a variant of erotic domination: they kiss and touch when he decides, he retains the power to deny Bella any sexual satisfaction as a key element of their relationship, and in fact on the few occasions when they do kiss and she gets carried away with mad desire she ends up apologising for it - which might be seen as old-fashioned female sexual guilt-tripping, but might equally be seen as an apology for trying to push for more than he's decided to dole out in a way that breaks the dynamics of their unspoken sexual agreement. I have no idea w,hat Meyer's sexuality is and it's none of my business anyway, but the elements of sadomasochism have long been a crucial part of the Gothicism vampires depend on, so they're certainly present in the tradition. In the light of this, the easiest way to see Bella's relationship with Edward as fulfilling - which she insists it is - is to cast her not as a controlled victim, but as a sometimes ambivalent, consistently cheeky submissive.
Sexual practicality has its limits in this situation. Edward's other reason for restricting his contact with Bella is that he's worried he'll squash her: 'If for one second I wasn't paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake. You don't realize how incredibly breakable you are. I can never, never afford to lose any kind of control when I'm with you.' (An interesting note of instructiveness creeps into his voice in such scenes not that different from Chris's awkward assumption of the role of sex-ed teacher to Cathy; Edward blushes less, but he's still the one doing the teaching.) In practical terms the simple solution would be to find some heavy chains and make out with his hands tied down, but this is utterly unthinkable. One might argue that this is because bondage has no place in an abstinence romance, but Twilight is a book where forbidden desires creep in at all corners and there's no reason why some poker-faced, this-is-just-so-I-don't-hurt-you chain play mightn't manage to slip under the wire if it fitted with the sexual ethos.
But it doesn't, of course: Edward can never, ever afford to lose control, not just because Bella is breakable but because the dynamics of their relationship are even more so. Edward is continually emphasised as 'perfect' and his vaunted 'control' is part of that. It's ostensibly self-control, but as Bella drives him so wild it's clear he can't control himself without exercising some control over her too, and that's part of the thrill. Were Edward to assume anything like a submissive position, even temporarily, his perfection would be destroyed.
All of which, of course, is far from explicit in the text, and doubtless I can be accused of having a low mind for remarking upon it. But given that both Twilight and Flowers In The Attic are books aimed at the young adult, the blend of innocence and experience has a definite edge to it. Both feel like books addressed to a virginal state of mind - which is obviously not the same as a chaste state of mind: a state of mind whose experience of ordinary sexuality is too limited for it exert much gravitational pull, and to which wild transgressions seem all the more natural because there's no first-hand knowledge of the mainstream sexuality the books are transgressing. Sexuality in these books is so innocent, it doesn't know how far from innocence it strays.
Incest is of course more transgressive than sadomasochism - though it may be different in Mormonism, the faith from which Twilight notoriously hails - but at the same time, I've heard a lot more anger at Twilight for its political retrogresssion than any anger with Flowers In The Attic. No, I'm not saying it's brave and revolutionary to challenge the feminazis. It's more that there's a tension in Meyer's writing between feminine assertiveness, which is clearly recognised as a good thing in Bella's attitude, and the temptations of the submissive role she assumes towards Edward, and casting the relationship as somewhat sadomasochistic is the simplest way to reconcile the two. In sex-positive feminism there needn't be any incompatibility: feminism means women should be allowed to have whatever kind of sexual relationship they find satisfying, and negotiated sadomasochism is a perfectly consensual relationship - in fact, some argue that the power rests with the submissive as everything is dependent on their consent, which fits quite well with Bella's obvious centrality and importance in the novel - but the problem is the blurring of lines. What's consensual sadomasochism in one context is oppressive abuse in another: the difference lies in the consent and the communication ... and in order to keep the ostensible chastity of the book, such communication is out of the question between Edward and Bella. Were they to sit down and say, 'Okay, so we agree I'll obey you in all things even if I put up some verbal resistance, unless I say the safe word, which we agree is "Garlic"', the vital element of danger would be removed, and worse, so would the innocence. Bella wouldn't be swept off her feet, or at least, the sense of danger would have to be confined to more overtly sadomasochistic encounters, which are clearly not Twilight's ballpark. Their relationship is the stuff of dreams, not just because it's idealised, but because its power dynamics remain unspoken - but work anyway.
It's worth thinking of Wuthering Heights in this context, a book Twilight is explicitly influenced by. I've discussed in a previous post, Misremembering The Brontes, that there's a common tendency to romanticise and soften the Cathy-Heathcliff relationship into a tale of passion rather than what it is, a story of conflicted aggression between two equally selfish people that spreads its damage outwards. (To avoid confusion: when I'm talking about Wuthering Heights, which will be for the next four paragraphs, 'Cathy' means Cathy Earnshaw. I'll identify Cathy Dollanganger when we get back to her.) As I pointed out, Bronte's actual Heathcliff is not as virile as he's remembered: the child he fathers is sickly and his violence is never successfully directed against men - he beats women, children and animals, but his one fight with a man is with Edgar Linton, who punches him in the throat and Heathcliff doesn't punch back. Cathy Earnshaw may feel 'passion' for him, but it doesn't stop her coldly deciding to marry Linton because he's a wealthy gentleman, and from assuming that Heathcliff ought to recognise this is what's best for her and accept it. Which he does: he suffers, he plans vengeance, but he can't stop her, and he can't stop caring about her either. There is, in short, a degree of emotional sadomasochism between Cathy and Heathcliff - but it's Cathy who's on top. Heathcliff takes out his pain on others, but he's as incapable of cutting himself off from his tormenting beloved as any courtly lover.
Bella is just as reckless as Cathy Earnshaw when it comes to endangering others - by the end of the book she's drifted away from her relationship with her mother, lost interest in any friends she may have, deliberately wounded her father's feelings so he won't oppose her running away, and involved Edward's whole family in a dangerous mission to protect her; both are something of a whirlpool, though Bronte is much more willing to blame Cathy than Meyer is to blame Bella. But the attributes of Bronte's characters get moved around to make a more convenient path for Bella to tread. Edward encompasses Heathcliff's physical presence and outsider glamour and Edgar Linton's wealth and status; while more or less every boy in the book seems to want her, there's no romantic rival who can seriously offer Bella anything Edward can't offer her more.
I'll be talking more about the issue of choice later in the post, but it's a key element here: Edward, to Bella, is a choice that involves no sacrifices. Technically he's worried about her sacrificing her connection to the human world, but Bella isn't very connected to it in the first place - she doesn't seem to like any of her friends, for instance, and she's absolutely clear she won't miss her humanity. And why would she, when vampirism offers you just about all the advantages of humanity plus magical powers and immortality thrown in? Heathcliff as a suitor presents a serious problem for Cathy Earnshaw: he's far below her in class at a time when this matters a great deal, while Linton gives her a chance to marry upwards. Edward, on the other hand, is a member of the coolest clique on campus as well as the 'son' of a wealthy doctor; yes, he's a vampire, but not one who drinks human blood or for whom sunlight presents any serious problems, so his vampirism is largely a matter of superpowers rather than difficulties. Faced with a choice like this, Cathy Earnshaw would have found her life a lot easier.
But, importantly, added to his wealth and physicality is another factor: Edward also manages to encompass Cathy Earnshaw's dominance, removing it as a factor from the story. Bella has some of Cathy Earnshaw's verbal assertiveness, but it doesn't have her force behind it. In Wuthering Heights it's Cathy who gets her way while Heathcliff fumes in the background, while in Twilight it's Edward. Appropriating Linton's weath, Heathcliff's sexiness and Cathy's power, Edward becomes a Brontean all-you-can-eat buffet. Echoes of Cathy's aggression remain in Bella's tone, which is probably another reason why she protests so much; her literary grandmothers Cathy Earnshaws and Jane Eyre are ringing in her ears, and neither of them will let a man tell them what to do. But Bella has other yearnings. She makes token protests, and then can give in with honour satisfied. The power dynamics of Wuthering Heights have swapped genders.
Gothicism and sadomasochism going together like feathers and chicken, Flowers In The Attic has its share too, and being a wilder book it's more explicit. Cathy Dollanganger's grandparents set the family tone by whipping their naked mother from nape to ankles (offstage) to punish her for her sins, an experience she seems accustomed to (Cathy later hears of her being allowed, as a child, to play with a previously encased dollhouse 'just so she COULD touch the objects inside so she could be punished - when she broke something,' a sadistic set-up if ever there was one, and the threat hovers over the children for some time before finally landing on Cathy and Chris for talking back. The experience unites them in a weird intimacy: Cathy exlaims while Chris is under the stick that 'Chris and I had become as one in the past year ... He felt the whip, and I let loose his cries of pain,' while Chris explains later 'When she was lashing me, I heard you screaming - and I didn't have to. You did it for me, Cathy, and it helped; I didn't feel any pain but yours...' at which point the two cuddle naked together (naked to spare their cut backs, we're told, not for any other ostensible reason) and kiss like lovers until Cathy whispers protest at feeling Chris's erection, in a scene that is thoroughly uncomfortable in context but might read as Gothically romantic between two unrelated characters - which rather neatly encourges the reader to manage their own discomfort by blotting out the inappropriateness, forcing them to some extent into collusion with Cathy and Chris. Where one locates oneself on that scale of discomfort and collusion is a matter of reader choice, but one thing is certain: it's all very kinky.
Things aren't this physical in Twilight, at least in the beginning. However, I see from Amazon-search (I've only read the first book in either series through) that their relationship is eventually consummated on their wedding night in a fade-out scene that leaves Bella covered with bruises, none of which she regrets; she remarks that 'I tried to remember this - to remember pain - but I couldn't. I couldn't recall a moment when his hold had been too tight, his hands too hard against me. I only remembered wanting him to hold me tighter, and being pleased when he did...', and finds her post-coital stiffness, soreness and loose-jointed 'jellyfish' sensations to be 'not an unpleasant feeling', which suggests a definite masochistic streak, especially when she snaps 'You are killing my buzz, Edward,' a few pages later as he wallows in guilt. The interaction reminds me of nothing so much as Maggie Gyllenhaal's mounting frustration in Secretary when her lover-boss succumbs to guilt and withdraws his sadistic attentions.
This may be particularly appealing to the budding kinksters in the audience, but it's also rather clever in keeping the appeal broad. The thing is, it's difficult to imagine sensations one hasn't felt, but bruises and sexual frustration will both be familiar to a young reader. Bella's tense relationship with Edward, rather than being made up of regular sexual encounters, is assembled from component pieces that even a sexually inexperienced reader can picture. Feeling post-coital is something you have to have done to know, but feeling post-exercise and a bit bashed up, as Bella does, is an experience available to all. How many women find being 'held tight' the most erotic part of foreplay, come to that? This is pre-sexual foreplay-as-cuddle rather than a Song of Experience. Bella's reactions look like happy masochism through the deflowered eyes of hindsight, but her bruises and longings, through the eyes of inexperience, can stand in for simple vanilla intensity writ large. It may not be the most realistic sex scene in the world, but you can't fault its catch-all ambiguity.
So Twilight and Flowers In The Attic are both rather naughty in their implications, which explains a big part of their success. But I think it's also worth looking at their apparent niceness more closely as well, because parallels emerge here too, that combine with the sexuality to produce a distinctive frisson that, I suspect, may be essential to their popularity. The world is full of naughty books, but few of them manage to combine wholesomeness to such alchemic effect.
Cathy and Bella are both basically girl-next-door types. Bella is clumsy but beautiful, Cathy is a ballerina and beautiful, but both have something rather distinctive about them. Both are very much a proper girl of their time.
Cathy exists in a somewhat timeless space. Flowers In The Attic was first published in 1979 and is set in the fifties; with her tutus and her 'Golly's and her long blonde hair, Cathy is to some extent an amalgam of all the pink-ribbon girlyness one can find between those years. Bella is a noughties girl, the responsible daughter of a feckless yet charming single mother who determinedly joins her father in Forks, Washington for a while to let Mom have some fun on honeymoon; back with Dad, she takes over the cooking and tells him she doesn't need to be fussed over - which is to say, she's independent, at least until Edward enters her life. Cathy tries to get her vitamins and sunlight and loves her arts and crafts, Bella eats vegetarian and believes in speaking her mind. Stylistically they're rather different, but what they are is what a girl of their time is supposed to be. In this context, Cathy's 'Golly-day' is the equivalent of Bella's rolled eyeballs: a period tic denoting appropriate femininity.
Which has the compelling effect that these girls seem so normal that it's easy for a normal girl to put herself in their shoes. It's something of a literary demerit that both of them react to their bizarre situations with such conventional language (though Andrews is a curiously arresting stylist in her freewheeling way), but I suspect it's a marketing plus: rather than being changed to something Other by the otherness of their experiences, they remain a one-size-fits-all pair of shoes that a normal girl can don to try, vicariously, the thrills of transgression with none of the penalties.
It isn't just their language that's ordinary, though. There is, in their disturbing mutations of family values, something pre-sexually domestic - and that, I think, is the real key to both.
Bella hates Forks - so much so that she keeps saying it in her sleep, according to Edward - but she doesn't leave. Cathy hates the attic, unsurprisingly, but she can't leave because the door is locked - and later, when they forge a key, she makes brief outward forays but keeps returning. Both of them are stay-at-home girls physically, even while their emotions and experiences careen all over the map. This is an introverted dream of transgression: your internal life and your domestic relationships go wild while your body can stay within a manageable set of boundaries. Limits in these worlds are geographic rather than behavioural.
And more than that, and crucially, there's an element of homeward-bound destiny in their sexual choices - or, at least, the sexual options that are imposed on them. Cathy has no man in her life except her brother; she sneaks out around the rest of the mansion and kisses a sleeping young man, but as he's her stepfather her sexuality remains held within the family crucible. Bella, curiously, seems to have left no social life behind in Arizona: she misses the weather and the landscape, but despite her homesickness she never pines for absent friends or boyfriends, never mind calls or e-mails anyone except Mom, the only person she reminisces over. Both, once settled in their confinements, assume the role of little mothers - Cathy's baby brother actually takes to calling her 'Momma', while Bella's cooking is ostensibly a bid for independence from her father but has a certain hausfrau quality to it as well. Little Motherdom is a traditional form of feminine virtue, of course, a way of getting the merits of Madonnahood without having to sully oneself with sex - not that sex is off the agenda in either of these books - but it's also a way of assuming power in the domestic sphere. And, crucially, it's getting power in a domestic sphere you're born into, rather than having to strike out and create your own.
Here's the thing about normal sexuality, sadomasochistic or otherwise: you have to leave home to find a partner. You have to measure up options: who you want, who wants you, and the horrible occasions when those two things do not overlap. You have to risk rejection. You have to risk something even worse: making the wrong choice. Adults can wind up in bad sexual relationships, or can pass up good ones, or settle for adequate ones and wish they hadn't. You have to make your own decisions in a world of billions, and if you don't have an arranged marriage set up you have to use your own charm and your own judgement to do it. If you don't feel quite grown up or sure of yourself, that's not a comforting thought.
Family, on the other hand, is fate. You're tied together by blood. You don't choose your siblings: they're there by birth, a law of nature, inevitably present and, through childhood, the world in microcosm. They're supposed to protect you, to shape your ideas of people, to be loyal to you. You can swap one boyfriend for another, but you can't swap brothers and sisters: nobody else can replace them. As an adult you have to choose who to start your new family with, but the family you're born into is your destiny.
Which is why, despite its wild taboo-breaking, there's something curiously cosy about Flowers In The Attic. Cathy and Chris don't have to look far to find a destined partner: they have each other. They don't have to look far for high drama, either: there's plenty of that in their family background. Break with normality just enough that incest seems an option, and it's melodrama that can happen without having to leave your safe space. They don't have to step outside the microcosm to get a world of experiences.
It's why, too, the Cullen menage seems such an odd mixture. The age differences between the paterfamilias Carlisle and his charges are surely, after a hundred-odd years together, negligible, and in fact Edward's 'mother' was vamped after he was, and is physically twenty-six to his seventeen, hardly a workable childbearing gap - but they seem to live together as actual parents and children rather what you might expect, which is housemates who pretend to be a family to avoid attention while relating to each other as adults. Carlisle brings new members into the family in the hopes of them finding romance with each other; Edward actually doesn't click sexually with the 'sister' intended for him and remains celibate for the best part of a century (whether this puts him ahead of Chris in normality or behind him in sex drive is debatable), but all of them benefit from this benign matchmaker presiding over their lives - and to whom Edward introduces his new girlfriend quickly, like a respectable boy. Bella is in fact desperate to be vamped, and in this domestic-destiny ethos it's easy to see why: once she's vamped, her options will be closed down. Edward sees this as something of a problem, but in this context it's a perfect solution. She'll never have to worry again: they'll be bound together, literally, by blood. Destiny, sex and family cosiness are all hers for just one little nibble.
A reflection from later books in the series is key here. I gather that werewolves in this universe are revealed to find love by instantaneously 'imprinting' on their future beloveds, sometimes when those beloveds are mere babies, whom they tend to babysit and caretake until the girls reach an appropriate age for more lover-like overtures. As I haven't read further than the first book there's a limited amount I can say in detail, but the idea fits precisely with the pre-sexual sexuality of both these books. You get the supposed protection of the perfect brother-father, sexual initiation with someone you know is safe, and the problem of finding a partner all solved in one fell swoop. As someone says - Jacob the werewolf, I think - 'You become whatever she needs you to be, whether that’s a protector, or a lover, or a friend or a brother' - a quote I just found after typing the previous sentence and was a little surprised to find so explicitly echoing what I'd said. The idea seems to be that the man is adaptable, moving from role to role as the girl's needs change.
Rather than assuming she'll need more than one person in her life, picking a role and sticking to it, it seems the ideal relationship is with someone who does everything at once - almost in the way that a mother fulfills all a baby's needs for its first few months. You don't have to accumulate your own life: it's solved at a stroke. One man is literally everything to you. If Chris was an unrelated lover who had imprinted on Cathy, their relationship would make a lot of sense.
And let's not forget something: by vamping her, Edward would be assuming a quasi-paternal role for Bella. Why is Carlisle Edward's 'father'? Primarily because he's the one who vamped him, and is sufficiently older than Edward in vampire years to act as a mentor. Bearing in mind that Edward's nearly a century older than Bella and does keep trying to mentor her - insofar as he keeps making decisions for her, at least - and that the act of vamping her would put her through a rebirth, biting Bella would be familial as much as sexual. (Especially considering that the Cullen 'family' are all genetically unrelated; vampirism itself reads as a kind of family dynasty, at least in the first novel.) It's less explicitly incestuous than Flowers In The Attic because vampirism is a shifting metaphor, family one minute, sexuality the next, outsiderdom and clanship and anything else you want to project, which means the reader can comfortably ignore the more difficult implications at any given moment, but there's a certain combining of roles in the act of vamping Bella that has a mildly Andrews-like ring.
Chris and Edward's shared roles as instructors fit in here. Chris may be a little uncomfortable explaining what's 'possible to do', but he's in good company with Edward's explanations of how vampirism works. Both are sexual initiators, initiators to knowledge as well as sensation, keepers of secrets who have 'all the answers'. Edward's vampire explanations come into play here: he has to be the keeper of more esoteric knowledge than Chris because Bella is a modern girl who already knows how It is done, but both combine the guardian-of-innocence role with the knowledgeable-deflowerer role, a cocktail that disturbs many readers but clearly intoxicates many others. Like brother-fathers, they enlighten and strive to protect; like lovers, they deliver new experiences. Roles that in reality are generally kept separate are combined. It's more problematic for Cathy, but we can see why Bella keeps calling Edward 'perfect', and it's not just his model looks: he provides for her in a single package what one normally has to look in multiple places to find.
Of course families can chafe as well, and both Cathy and Bella get a bit of adolescent defiance thrown in. Cathy's mother turns out to be a proper bad hat, sneakily poisoning the children to rid herself of their burden, so Cathy righteously usurps her position as mother, defies her grandmother as well and establishes herself as the new junior matriarch. Bella resists any intervention by her dad while enjoying the protection of Edward's, a traditional form of teenage experimentation: freedom-with-safety-net. (Altogether healthier than incest, of course; millions of people remember their teen best friend or boy/girlfriend's house as a haven from the tensions at home, and being kind to the waifs your son or daughter brings back is the action of a responsible adult. It's one of the more ordinary aspects of the novel.) Rebellion is an essential part of the teen experience, and Cathy and Bella both get to do it - but it's their sexuality that's the real rebellion. Would Cathy have slept with her brother if it wasn't forbidden so obsessively? Heck no; she leaps to kiss an unrelated man the first chance she gets. Would Bella break with her father over anything except Edward? Probably not; before Edward, her aim is mutual tolerance. Sex is the great disruptor of family frustration. But other families are waiting, better families - the kind of family you normally get by striking out. Only Cathy and Bella don't have to, or at least not very far.
All of which points to Cathy and Bella's experience as immature, a failure of one kind or another to properly grow up. This makes the deficient as role models, of course, but not every fictional character has to set an improving example, and those that do aren't necessarily the multi-million sellers. Writing immaturity is something of a tricky business for the mature writer: once you know, you can't unknow, and that knowledge often puts some kind of perspective on the experiences of the immature protagonist. But Cathy and Bella aren't just young, they live in a young universe. So extreme are their circumstances that they're travelling without maps: in the peculiarity of their relationships is a literal form of that mixture of the childish and the transgressive that can possess the half-matured sexual self. As I've said, it's not a realistic depiction of human behaviour, but it is an excellent rendering of the kind of unrealism with which naive eyes can invest the dark and mysterious world of sex. To see things through those eyes without pulling away in discomfort, one has to become naive oneself, to enter into their drama and fevered curiosity and confused understanding of boundaries, their longing for adventure and their fear of leaving the nest.
This is, as I've said, a fundamentally virginal form of sexuality. Experience isn't present enough to counterbalance it; sex is safely contained within a domestic sphere while revealing thrilling depravities. It's like making out in your bedroom with the boyfriend your parents approve of while they enjoy a tranquil drink downstairs, unaware that he's shockingly good with the ropes and blindfolds. Pitched at a teenage audience, it's really not surprising that it's such catnip. Nor is it that surprising adult women enjoy it either; virgin sexual fever is one of the most intense of life's experiences and it's not remarkable that many readers enjoy reliving it. (Cards on the table: I rather enjoyed Flowers In The Attic's wacky melodrama - it was so strange I ended up mentally reclassifying it as outsider art, but it was certainly page-turning - while Twilight didn't much hold my attention as anything other than a phenomemon. But they occupy a similar cultural position, and I do think they come out of the same psychological stable.)
The safety of home, the thrill of rebellion and the breathless fascination of sexual transgression, all in one book? And anyone's surprised they sell well?
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Check out this groovy mention! Also, vampires.
The Guardian says I'm excellent. Specifically, the magnificent Alison Flood does. Does not this rock? Let's all take a moment to appreciate this fine person.
She reckons that vampire fiction is on its way out and werewolf fiction will be the next big thing. It's an interesting thought.
My husband once saw an entire bookcase at Murder One headed 'Vampire Romance', which sounds pretty much like a market boom - though as that was a few years ago, it may well be true that vampire fiction is a saturated market and should fade away after a while.
Do I think this is likely? To tell the truth, I don't have much of an opinion. I've read and seen the odd vampire thing, some of which were good and some of which were bad, but I have to admit that my expertise when it comes to vampires is pretty limited. On a general principle, I'd be prepared to bet that Ms Flood - and Neil Gaiman, whom she was quoting - have a point when they say that vampire tropes are getting tired. Massive imitative booms generally lead to a lot of bad product; there are two possible explanations:
1. People with basically copycat imaginations are likely to follow whatever's in.
2. There are always bad books being written about every conceivable subject at any given moment; if there's a market boom for a particular subject, the bar lowers and worse stuff gets published.
Probably it's a bit of both, with more of my money on 2.
On the other hand, when it comes to booms, imitation comes in two forms: taking inspiration from what you now see is possible, and copying the furniture. The latter is common, the former is where good stuff comes from. For instance: in the wake of J.K. Rowling's amazing success, British children's fiction enjoyed a tremendous heyday in the late nineties and early noughties. This didn't mean it was a huge wave of stories about wizarding schools; it was more that children had become a promising-looking market, grand stories for that market looked like fun, and a lot of good stuff got published. That's inspiration about what looks possible.
Copying the furniture is easier to do, but it produces more ephemeral stuff. I saw a documentary the other day arguing that The Wire has changed everyone's ideas about what television drama can be. If this means people start reaching for drama that's broad-ranging, ambitious, subtly characterised, complex and passionately engaged with the world - all qualities The Wire has in abundance - that'll be excellent. If it means people start churning out capital-C Cynical cop shows, they'll just be copying the furniture, and the results will range from adequate to dross. The inspiration method may produce something that looks very different from The Wire in everything except quality; the furniture method will produce stuff that looks very similar in everything except quality. I know which I'd rather watch.
So, will lycanthropy stories will be In as Alison Flood suggests? If they are, I'll probably have drifted out of the fashion by the time it hits - I've already published another book that has nothing to do with lycanthropy. (Though I suppose I could always pretend to be a trendsetter.) Since I am sworn to tell the truth, I have to admit it might be pretty pleasant to have written a book that anticipates a sudden fashion, because then I might become rich rich rich and you'd all have to be nice to me, but if somebody read my book and decided they wanted to be influenced by it, that wouldn't necessarily have to mean a werewolf book - and in fact, I'd probably be more interested if they wrote something that wasn't about werewolves.
Has anyone been following the vampire thing? If so, what do you think of it? I know Twilight's been a big production - curiosity led me to read the first one, an interesting experience about which I may blog when I can get round to it (I'm technically on holiday this week) - and I know it's a series much slammed by bloggers round the world, to the extent that I don't want to hop on that bandwagon too fiercely, but how about the broader trend? I'd be very interested to hear opinions.
In any event, let's raise a glass to the Guardian and all who sail in her.
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