Romance for the Rest Of Us

There comes a point where even I, perpetual outsider and pop cultural imbecile, start to feel the pull of social pressure.  The final straw came this weekend, when shopping with my younger sister in a mall.  In search of a cheap, generic hoodie we wandered into a shop which was branded top to bottom by a popular franchise – not in the sense that they sold t-shirts featuring the characters or lunchboxes like when I was a kid, but the fashions themselves were featured in an upcoming film, and this season the young and pretty would all be dressed like characters from the movie.

Something in me snapped, and I had to know what all the fuss was about.

This is why I acquired the first Twilight film (with, admittedly, the Rifftrax commentary), watched it, and then borrowed the book.  I needed to know.  And now, 150-or-so pages in, I’ve thrown it a few times, sworn outloud in exasperation several more times, and come perilously close to having my face frozen in a permanent sneer.  Far from being an indulgent gift to my fourteen-year-old self, the book is terrible, offensive and outright insulting.  But then, I knew it would be.  This isn’t a review.

Twilight has sold over 40 million copies worldwide.  Forty million.  Though we tend to dismiss it as pandering to the imaginations of 12-16 year old girls, a huge bulk of the franchise’s fans are adults – adults I know – who are drawn to the romantic storyline.  I suppose it avoids the stigma of the Romance Novel, though Harlequin makes about a bajillion dollars a year selling Romance Novels, and apparently half of their readers are college educated and employed, mirroring “the general population” demographically rather than being, as we might want to believe, the genre of the barely literate.  But that’s not surprising either, given the massive cult of educated young women built around the work of Jane Austen.  Who isn’t in love with Mr. Darcy?

I’ll admit it – I am a huge sucker for romantic stories.  I have read Jane Austen’s oeuvre twice in its entirety and specific works more times than I care to admit.  And I really did want to enjoy Twilight in some guilty way.  I’ll hide behind the statistics here – we, women, educated, self-confident, modern women, love romantic stories.  And isn’t the Love Story the greatest literary trope there is?

So why, exactly, am I having such a hard time finding the upscale replacement for Twilight?  I don’t want to read this series – it sucks (ha ha ha).  I don’t like my men overbearing, controlling and liable to eat me, thanks.  I want to put it aside and read something for me – the well-written but nevertheless tragic/intense/melodramatic story of love and passion.  I don’t see how it is possible that, given the market and archetypal nature of the story, there is nothing between Jane Austen and Stephanie Meyer.

I have taken a quick lap around my bookstore (okay, actually, I have spent a months worth of hours combing the place in desperation over several years) seeking my romance fix.  There are a few paragraphs worth of indulgence to be found in War and Peace.  I liked Carol Shields’ Republic of Love well enough though she is frustratingly restrained, and Doctor Zhivago has its moments.  Don’t start me on those Brontes.

Love stories are in shockingly short supply among the literati.  Either the genre is used with bitter irony to underscore some bleak topic or “realism” takes the stage and leaves us with some dull drawn-out affair the likes of which most of us have had in real life and have no especial desire to revisit.  Happy endings are utterly taboo.  The message seems to be that if you want a romantic indulgence, you can get it from the pulp-and-paperback section – greater minds are dedicated to higher things.  Yet where in the Romance aisle are the strong, educated, indomitable women portrayed?

I don’t have an answer or a witty conclusion to draw now.  Call this a plea for recommendations.  We need a Twilight for the rest of us.  We’re a huge friggin’ market, people.  Surely someone has found a way to tap us directly?

Into the Sci-fi Ghetto with Margaret Atwood

My first and only prior foray into the work of Margaret Atwood was in high school when I was made to read Cat’s Eye.  I hated it passionately.  I was unable then – and I still retain this “problem” as a reader – to separate liking the characters from liking the book.  The most poetic, well-crafted literature in the world will find itself being hurled across the room in my house if I can’t stand the characters, and Atwood’s limp, weak-minded “heroine” Elaine Risley earned nothing but my scorn.  I couldn’t bring myself to give Atwood a second chance for almost 15 years.

The Year of the Flood seemed to me to be a good safe re-entry into Atwood’s work.  After all, I do love speculative genres when well-written, and I have a special place in my heart for post-apocalyptic and survivalist stories.  The book had been getting excellent reviews elsewhere and so I could also hope for a good read, regardless of genre.  I was mildly put off by Atwood’s insistence that she isn’t writing science fiction (a preposterous claim well debunked by Ursula le Guin) but I resolved to give her the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t know if I succeeded.  I’m torn now on this book.  On the one hand, I enjoyed it.  It was quaint, a page-turner and satisfied my bizzare craving for apocalypse scenarios.  If it had been written by a denizen of the sci-fi ghetto I’d probably be writing raves right now.  But on the other hand I’d been led to beleive by reviewers and Atwood herself that this book represented something else, some higher, more literate thing than mere science fiction.  The New Yorker has likened Atwood’s “speculation” to Orwell’s offerings, and Year of the Flood was long-listed for the Giller (though, perhaps tellingly, failed to be shortlisted for any of Canada’s big literary awards).

What it certainly isn’t is anything special.  As literary fiction it is a mediocre-to-decent work.  On the whole it feels rushed, as if nobody bothered to do a thorough edit.  Ren describes Toby with effectively the same analogy twice in the first sixty pages:

“You wouldn’t think it would be Toby … but if you’re drowning, a soft squishy thing is no good  to hold on to.  You need something more solid.”

“…we trusted Toby more: you’d trust a rock more than a cake.”

Early in the book Ren and Toby speak of each other in nearly whistful tones, as if they’ve played a great part in each others’ lives.  Yet when their mutual history finally collides at the AnooYoo Spa, we are told they barely interact and Ren, ultimately, leaves within a few months.  I found myself repeatedly faced with similar questions about the characters’ relationships (what was up with Toby and Zeb?  Or Amanda and Jimmy?  Glen and anyone?  Mordis?) and the root of my confusion is ultimately Atwood’s haphazard character-building.  Names and positions fail to pupate into fully-formed characters and so they phone in their parts in the story like  high school thesbians who only barely learned their own lines.  Even the two main characters fail to fully gel.  Toby was the more successful of the two protagonists: Ren was a half-believable sketch whose early opinions made less and less sense the more you knew about her.

I also found what other reviewers referred to as “clever” to be quaint at best and more often, lame.  Her future is populated with genetic “splices”, creatures created by man and released accidentally or intentionally into the wild.  These critters are invariably called by a spliced name – rakunks, (raccoon/skunks), liobams (lion/lams) or wolvogs (wolf/dogs).  She makes easy double entendres of the corporate overlords like CorpSeCorpse (get it?  CORPSE?) and SeksMart (you know, like SEX) and Saints of most of our twentieth-century Greenies, which frankly seems to overestimate the long-term impact of people like Terry Fox.

Oddly the novel’s “roughness” is discounted as some kind of virtue by Jeanette Winterson’s New York Times review.  Apparently “The flaws in “The Year of the Flood” are part of the pleasure…” – I beg to differ.  But this is par for the course with Atwood reviews I am learning.  The woman can do no wrong, which brings me to my next complaint.

If Year of the Flood isn’t a wonderful literary novel, is it at least good science fiction? Sure, it’s not bad.  Nothing special.  Science fiction motifs have been used to address Atwood’s themes already, from  child abuse (Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber) to religious cults of sustainability (Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash) to mega-corporate control (Shadowrun, anybody?)  But Atwood’s reviewers don’t seem to have any experience or history with science fiction, so they speak of her most mundane tropes as if they’re stunningly innovative insights.

This, I think, is what drove me the most crazy about the book.  How can so many reviewers get off calling her “prophetic” for a book that simply re-treads the same material science fiction writers have been working with for the last fifteen years?  She surely treads it well enough, but prophetic?  Seriously?  It’s insulting to the smart, clever, funny and literary science fiction writers out there who don’t have Atwood’s golden glow.  Most of all I’m disappointed at Atwood herself, who rather than acknowledging the fine tradition of eco-speculation she is joining, acts as if she has invented the wheel.

So it’s a pretty good book.  I guess.  Shame about the pretentions, because they pretty much ruined it for me.