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Edward Cullen, transfixed (Photo: Supplied)
Edward Cullen, transfixed (Photo: Supplied)

OPINIONBooksAugust 18, 2020

I spent far too much time thinking about Midnight Sun

Edward Cullen, transfixed (Photo: Supplied)
Edward Cullen, transfixed (Photo: Supplied)

Books editor Catherine Woulfe emerges from her Twilight reverie just long enough to write a review. 

Twilight has me in a lasting swoon. It is a cup of sweet tea, to be dispensed in times of shock and sadness. Big stuff, like miscarriages, and terminal diagnoses, and on the eve of level four.

I resent that it works but it works. It works so well I would not be surprised to learn that some kind of narcotic has been brushed onto each page, or that Meyer is a hypnotist, messing with us, lacing her simple, kinda silly vampire story with subliminal calm-the-fuck-downs.

I love it so much I almost deleted “kinda silly”.

The story – human girl, vampire boy – is a static, straightforward thing, but every time I read it I become newly fascinated by its tentacles, the massive cultural sprawl. The series has sold 160 million copies and Midnight Sun is topping the charts in the UK and US, selling what the publisher calls a “breathtaking” 1,000,000 copies since release a fortnight ago. But numbers are boring. What’s much more interesting is that Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is a big fan, and so is Pacific Laureate Lani Wendt Young: she wrote her series Telesā, a lush, supernatural love story, as a Sāmoan Twilight (it’s better). What’s interesting is Tayi Tibble’s poem Vampires versus Werewolves. What’s interesting is that Twilight and its godawful fan-fiction spawn Fifty Shades kept popping up in Lisa Taddeo’s nonfiction triumph Three Women, an examination of modern female desire and self-esteem. What’s interesting is that Gabriel Tallent seems to have written his acclaimed literary novel My Absolute Darling as a response to Twilight. My Absolute Darling is a book about a father who rapes his daughter. And that’s what’s interesting about Twilight, always: that teeter on the edge of darkness.

How would Midnight Sun go down in fucked-up cancel-happy 2020, I wondered, as news broke that the book 12 years in the writing was finally here, nearly. And how would it scan with the original cohort of fans, many of whom are now like me: middle-aged, consumed by kids, no time, ever? This is the point Meyer herself was at when she started writing Twilight. She had a vivid, compelling dream about the main characters – then woke up and took the kids to swimming lessons. “I mostly wrote at night, after the kids were asleep so that I could concentrate for longer than five minutes without being interrupted,” she says on her website. No wonder she wrote of an immaculate forever-love, of high school, of matters so exquisitely, cleanly non-mundane. I need a human moment, Bella explains at one point. Parents, say it with me: human moments are overrated.

Yes please to picnics where you don’t have to pack the lunchboxes and the nappy bag and sunscreen six children (Photo: Supplied)

To the book, then. The Kobo store somehow messed up my pre-order so I have been reading the hardback. Mostly at night, so I can concentrate. It weighs 907 grams and it keeps wanting to flop closed, which makes the physical experience of reading it very much like cradling a newborn.

Part of the reason it’s so long is that Edward doesn’t sleep. This flattens the narrative rhythm, eliminating the usual lulls and breaks, at the same time stretching it all out. Also: Edward was born in 1901; he has 80-ish years of flashback material that he’s quite keen to show us.

That sounds a bit too-cool of me. I’d like to make it clear I was very keen to see these flashbacks, and that I am fine with the lasting ligament damage done to my wrists, and that yes I have been wearing the official T-shirt that was packaged up with my review copy. In public.

“This book has been my nemesis for so many years,” Meyer writes in the acknowledgements. A scene or two in you start to comprehend why. You realise that she wrote herself into a tight corner with Twilight, and more specifically with the “gifts” she gave her vampires.

Imagine the original story as a pretty, neat little tapestry. That’s the side Bella saw. Flip it over and you find a nightmare of loose threads and knots and criss-crosses; that’s Edward’s version, and what Meyer had to make sense of, this time. And it still had to come out pretty.

Here’s one particularly gnarly complicating factor: Edward can read minds, which means that in each scene he operates as a prism, a walking Twitter feed, constantly refracting for readers the plans and motivations of those around him. This is exacerbated by the fact that he’s anxious as hell and his role within his family is to watch for danger – for humans who might figure out the vampire bit, or other vampires who might be a threat – so basically he never stops doomscrolling through the minds of the stupid, selfish and slow. It pisses him off, by which I mean people piss him off. “Sheep-like,” he calls them. “Irritating.” He says: “I tried to block the inane chatter out of my head before the petty and the trivial could drive me mad.” (Parents, say it with me … )

Edward Cullen is all of us (Photo: Supplied)

Bella is the antithesis of all this, Edward’s spark of silent joy in a lifetime of clutter: hers is the only mind he can’t read. Instead he’s forced to deduce her character (kind, brave, selfless, caretaker, blerch) from watching her, like the rest of us plebs. These passages are written formulaically, like mini-essays: Bella says or does something interesting, Edward works it through for a few pars, and wraps up with a neat conclusion. In them you can hear Meyer answering both critics – who saw in Bella a passive, insipid sort of heroine – and fans, who will guzzle up all the new detail they can get, regardless.

There’s a really fucking creepy side to all this adoring scrutiny. In Twilight, Edward does tell Bella he can read minds. What he doesn’t make properly explicit – or maybe what I just missed, somehow, in my 7,000 re-reads – is that very early on, he also started deploying his “gift” to watch Bella every second, without her knowledge. As in, whenever she was out of his sight, he’d deliberately concentrate on the minds of people around her, and monitor her via these “secondary vantage points”. He also watches her firsthand way more than we knew about in Twilight.

Famously, he sneaks into her bedroom to watch her while she sleeps. Meyer’s had a lot of flak about this and in Midnight Sun she spends ages having Edward self-flagellate, describing the bedroom creepage as “protective – if inexcusable – surveillance”. (New inexcusable fact: on his second visit he oils her window to stop it squeaking). He paints himself as an over-anxious benevolent boyf, which might have been catnip for a younger me. But I’m old now and tired and just so sick of dudes explaining their shitty obsessive behaviour because emotions, so sections like this sent a grossed-out shiver up my back:

“I left, knowing I would return while she was asleep, ignoring every ethical and moral argument against my behaviour. But I certainly would not trespass on her privacy the way the peeping tom would have. I was here for her protection, not to leer at her … I would not treat her so crassly.”

This is fine (Photo: Supplied)

Obvious upside, for the desperate fans among us, ie me: Meyer’s very aware we want to know some of the major characters more intimately – Jake, Carlisle, Rosalie, Emmett – so she has Edward do plenty of poking about inside their heads. Bella’s parents were legitimately fascinating to me (but, small continuity thing, I found it odd that in Twilight Edward never mentions to Bella that he can’t get a clear read on her father?). Jacob is clear sunshine. Carlisle’s as drearily moral as you’d expect. Emmett gets some of the best writing in the book. Rosalie, however, does not come out of Midnight Sun looking good. I thought it was bad enough that in the chapter Meyer released in 2008 her mind was described as a “shallow” pool; well, let’s say in this version that’s stepped up to “stagnant”.

And then there’s Alice, Edward’s sister, and another major complication for Meyer. The thing is that Alice can see the future, except her visions change as people change their minds, and of course Edward can read her mind, and it’s hard to describe what a clusterfuck two whip-quick hyper-vigilant never-sleeping vampires, one prophetic and one telepathic, can make out of every single scene in which they’re within “speaking” distance. There’s a bit where he’s choosing which top to wear and it takes like six paragraphs because it turns out Alice foresaw him wearing one particular shirt, and he wants to pick apart why. And so on, and on, through 756 pages. Here, Meyer’s counting on the fact that readers will come to Midnight Sun frothing, fanatical: that they are so thoroughly hooked on the original story they will tolerate being hauled through tangle after tangle to get to more. Fresh content, we crave it, we cannot get enough.

Twilight author Stephenie Meyer and the book she took 12 years to write (Photo: Jake Abel)

Did I say already that I fucking loved it? That it was a kick to hold this huge newborn book in my hands, and to read a wee bit at a time, and to then slot the bookmark in and see that I still had so much more to go?

Over the last few years I’ve become a bit spooked by the hold these books have over me. I had half-hoped that Midnight Sun would be so shit, and Edward so unrelentingly insufferable, that they’d snap me out of it for good. No such luck. My husband called just now in case I hadn’t heard: Stephenie Meyer has revealed another two books are in the works. I yelped and did a dorky little jump-skip.

Unconditionally, irrevocably, so help me.

Midnight Sun, by Stephenie Meyer (Hachette, $60 hardback; $38 paperback) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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