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The Guardian 4 February, 2009

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

The vampire in the bathroom

Realism has not been a hallmark of American literature (US literature that is) for quite a long time. This was not always so, but these days what passes for "realism" is commonly a mélange of sadistic violence, cynicism and foul language.

Underneath this patina of "real life" is a fantasy world — sick, surreal and divorced from genuine reality, a world where the dominant themes are crime, greed and lust.

It is no wonder that many Americans (and Australians influenced by their dominant culture) turn away from this ugly pseudo reality to take refuge in outright fantasy: interplanetary adventures, corny mass-produced love stories and wise-cracking comedies that only marginally connect with real life.

Now there is nothing wrong with fantasies, as long as people do not confuse them with real life. Americans, however, are constantly pressured to think of the world in terms of fantasy. From the right-wingers railing against the swarthy hordes gathered on the USA’s borders, to the shiny white evangelicals warning their flock to beware of wizards and witches and other tools of Satan, not to mention the gullible dupes who want the Bible proclaimed to be "science", it is a wonder that so many Americans can still recognise reality at all!

Fortunately, life itself provides a welcome corrective to some aspects of the unreal view presented by the mass media. And there are also those rare things, the well-written fantasies.

There are innumerable fantasies published in the US and Britain these days, but most, let’s be honest, are trite, formulaic and more than a little dull. Which probably accounts for the phenomenal publishing success of Stephenie Meyer’s recent series of novels, beginning with Twilight, detailing the love story and adventures of high-school student Bella Swan and her boyfriend Edward, for whom she would gladly give her life.

Edward, however, would be unable to return the favour, since, being a vampire, he is already dead.

This is no cheap reworking of such juvenilia as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but a serious romance with an admirable page-turning tension. The tale is told, like Bella’s favourite novels, the works of Jane Austen, from an exclusively female perspective, and is extremely well written.

The imprint page of New Moon, the second volume in the Twilight series shows just what a publishing phenomenon it is: "Published in the US by Little, Brown and Company in 2006. First published in Great Britain in 2007 by Atom. Reprinted 2007 (four times). Special edition first published in 2008 by Atom. Reprinted 2008 (fifteen times). Reprinted 2009."

It is a thick book (260-odd pages) and a reprint was rolling off the presses every three weeks or so.

Stephenie Meyer is a dab hand at natural-sounding dialogue and can certainly maintain tension. I have not read any of her science-fiction, but her Twilight books can be re-read a second or third time without it becoming a chore. There are not many authors I can do that with (Austen and Dickens come to mind).

Meyer lacks the depth of intellect and breadth of concern of these two great English authors, but she does have comparable craftsmanship.

Being American, she also displays some curious foibles. She is a product of Brigham Young University in the heartland of Mormonism, Utah. Not surprising, then that one of the concerns of Bella’s vampire lover is preventing Bella from losing her immortal soul!

Another peculiarly American concern that the book displays is over the absence of extra bathrooms in Bella’s father’s house. Near the beginning of Twilight, Bella, who has been living with her mum, leaves home so that her mother will be able to move around the country with her new baseball-playing husband. Bella goes to live with her dad, the local police chief in Forks, a small town in Washington State, over on the North-West coast.

She has her own bedroom there, but the "sacrifice" she’s making for her mother’s happiness is summed up in the realisation that her dad’s house has only one bathroom! Think of that: she and her dad will have to take turns in the bathroom.

Later, when her mother is happily planning to bring Bella down to Florida where mom and the new hubby now live, one of the inducements offered is "you will have your own bathroom".

We all know that real estate agents believe that every member of a household should have their own en-suite, but Stephenie Meyer appears to be under the impression that most Americans do have just that.

But let’s face it, they don’t. An enormous number of Americans live in trailer parks, where they consider themselves lucky to have a combined toilet and shower cubicle. There are still plenty of places in the USA where they don’t even have running water.

There is nothing deliberately misleading about Stephenie Meyer’s multiple-bathroom image of the USA. It is simply a white, middle-class image. In fact, she would probably be surprised to discover how many Americans do not have any (let alone two or more) bathrooms.

It is part of the carefully cultivated image, especially in the movies, of the superior lifestyle of prosperous capitalism. The extent of the inequality that is its concomitant is casually but diligently buried.

The Twilight series is a well-told tale. Just don’t expect realism, but then surely no one does in a book (and film) about vampires and werewolves!

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