Consent Has Nothing On Smoldering Vampires

by Kayla VernonClark
Venue: Hairpin

The Twilight series can certainly, and not altogether inaccurately, be summed up as a story about a girl in love with her vampire boyfriend. Because despite such distractions werewolves discovering their two year old soulmates, the vampire version of the Cruciatus curse, and the frequency of volleyball-related near death experiences, the central plotline remains at its core the story of a girl in love with a boy who would, incidentally, like to murder no one else in the world more than her.

It is for that very reason that it seems so strange that Bella’s story, despite her authorship, does not only seem not to be about her but does not seem even to belong to her. In Twilight, Edward enforces the movement of many of the plot points by literally driving her from place to place, often regardless of her own desires. At one point in the novel, Bella “mentally calculat[es her] chances of reaching the truck before he could catch [her],” at which point he reminds her, “I’ll just drag you back.” Importantly, this “reminder” is actually named a “threat” in the novel, and as she is literally forced to calculate the distance between herself and the car, this passage is crafted in terms of escape and of the inaccessibility of escape. Bella is literally not provided with a choice; this passage is described in terms of a kidnapping. Her consent is disregarded completely as a necessary or even viable response.

Much of the narrative follows this pattern: Bella’s refusal, or potential for refusal, is followed either by threatened or direct physical action, as the narrative becomes not a series of Bella’s decisions but a series of Edward’s. He begins leading her both figuratively and very literally from one plot point to the next; he is even the literal better driver, and remedies what might be her bumpy ride between plot and supplants is own. As it happens, this ride travels at a hundred miles per hour with no history of ticketing, rendering the Forks police department incompetent in both the locating of murderers and thirty mile-per-hour speeding violations. It isn’t particularly surprising, then, that the conclusion of the book finds Edward driving her to prom—and to her resolution. Knowing she would have refused had he actually considered something as scandalous as asking her permission, he refuses to disclose their destination, robbing her even of the illusion of consent. Prom is the very last setting Bella would have chosen for her conclusion. Instead, it marks Edward’s conclusion for a narrative of his own devising.

When placed in conjunction with New Moon, the two stories seem reflective of very different narratives. More than just spawning “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” T-shirts and inspiring a war that would destroy a multitude of eighth grade friendships, New Moon hardly includes Edward’s physical presence at all. Not that Edward is missing otherwise—when she isn’t thinking about him, she’s searching desperately for ways to avoid thinking about him, or to bring him to her. After he leaves, when the weight of her depression is crippling and there are literally no words on the page, the startling blankness of the page echoes the striking disappearance of Edward from her life, as she struggles with her inability to cope without having him beside her. It means that Edward cannot drive her through her narrative arcs in his Volvo, or drop her off at the corner for a quick subplot before manhandling her back into his vehicle. But he nevertheless steals a part of her, too.

Within the novel’s universe, by the beginning of New Moon, Edward and Bella are hopelessly in love with one another; they more or less exist at the behest of each other. Apparently Edward’s love for her has continued to make her slightly less edible, and apparently his talent for ochre-eyed smoldering has not diminished since we saw them last. When he leaves her, he assures her confidently that her “memory is more than a sieve,” and that he himself shall fill his time with other fancies. This feigned dismissiveness does not extend only to his own actions; he also tells Bella that, though Alice wanted to say goodbye, he told her a “clean break from [Bella] would be better.” The Cullen family, which occupied a large portion of Twilight and filled up the spaced in which her friends had previously existed, has here been jarringly stolen from her. Without her consent, without so much as a discussion, her world is torn from beneath her feet.

Edward had taken up the spaces of her friends; he’d become her constant accompaniment at school, and he’d come to occupy all the words on the page previously associated with any of her other companions, with the exception of the now-removed Cullens. His abrupt goodbye does not allow her a moment of recovery. Edward leaves out of a desire to protect Bella, as he decides what is best for her without a moment’s conversation regarding the reality of his absence. He makes the decision that her safety matters first, and with that dislodges himself from her life—and dislodges her entire narrative. Her narrative had been his movement (and, of course, his rock hard abs). Her narrative had been dependent upon his choices. And, again, without her consent, he removes her plot completely, which forces the narrative into a stasis that even features a number of blank pages with the headings of months above them. Without Edward, there is no movement at all. He kidnaps himself, and with that he steals her story.

Frustratingly, both novels seem to propose that Edward’s attractiveness works against a need for consent; because he makes Bella hot and bothered, and because “perfect” numbers among one of the most common adjectives in the novel, permission becomes irrelevant. In the universe of Twilight, “no” invariably means “yes,” unless you are sure to add a sprinkle of hundred foot high cliffs and a pinch of likely death. Consent may be sexy, but the Twilight universe is a reminder that even free will cannot trump a hot stalker with scorching ochre eyes who wants full access to your blood and your plot.

Every Day: Restructuring (And Reimposing) the Gender Binary

The struggle for identity is difficult enough to master for the typical teenager occupying a single body—but for “A,” who inhabits a different body every day, undermining any possibility of lasting attachment, identity seems altogether more impossible. That is the novel, at its core: what is identity when all of the visible, biological, and socially constructed factors are stripped away? What does it mean to be a person outside of the casing?

The very prospect of the novel is both fascinating and atypical, and the questions necessarily raised by its concept are important ones. Even at a syntactical level, it proves a difficult text to resist: Levithan sculpts his narrative with crisp, concise language—and in the confines of his succinctness, there are many moments of overwhelming beauty. It is not a difficult read, but there is a quiet kind of poetry that occurs in moments like the conversation in the darkness between twin brothers, one occupied by A, when “the way words take a different shape in the air when there’s no light in the room” (117-118). Levithan is able to offer recognizable truths in a way not beholden to the cliché, but in a way that is both familiar and revelatory.

A has lived to the age of sixteen in 5,994 different bodies—and until A wakes up one day in the body of a boy named Justin dating a girl named Rhiannon, there is no real consideration given toward the hope of a “normal,” single-bodied life. But A’s attachment to Rhiannon comes immediately and absolutely, and in the breathlessness that follows all A comes to want is a life that lasts more than twenty-four hours.

What is most captivating about this novel is indeed A’s relationship to identity; not only does A not consider attraction to be gender-specific, but gender itself A equates more with clothing than static reality: “There were days I felt like a girl and days I felt like a boy, and those days wouldn’t always correspond with the body was in” (254). A’s gender is dynamic, fluctuating, capable of redefinition—and that is exactly the point. If people were not held to a particular social construction, Levithan seems to reason that this is the fluidity one might expect, a kind of fluidity beyond bodily constraints, independent of what might be considered biology.

Yet amidst all the fascinating implications surrounding identity, one of the most frustrating constructions is A’s involvement with Rhiannon. A awakens in her boyfriend’s body, is able to bear witness to her “true self,” and immediately intends to rescue her from said boyfriend, who neither treats her well nor could ever possibly understand her the way A does. It functions very much in the vein of he Nice Guy trope; A’s entitlement toward her and her affection is almost jarring. Because A is a Nice Guy, and understands her, and is able to see her through the eyes of her boyfriend without inhabiting his apathy, A should have her, and she should want A—perhaps to the exclusion of all else. For being a better person than her boyfriend, A expects everything. And though A is meant to inhabit a space without and inclusive of gendered, this positioning is very much gendered.

Perhaps this would be less frustrating if the narrative did not seem to agree with A’s stance as hero. And yet, though Rhiannon’s relationship with Justin is described as having a multitude of attachments, it is apparent that Justin’s only real redeeming factor is his refusal to be seduced by A in the body of beautiful Ashley Ashton, with Rhiannon feet away. But whether involved with Justin or A, Rhiannon must constantly define herself in terms of the people around her, all demanding pieces of her. It is obvious that they have a connection—begun with A’s existence in Justin’s body, of course, but a connection nevertheless—but perhaps this is why I found it so startling when she proclaimed A was the “person [she] love[d] the most in the entire world” (259). In the entire world? Above her family, and her friends, amidst the protests that hardly knows A at all? More than anything else, that functioned as a bucket of ice water and stole me out of the world entirely.  

Perhaps one problem was that Rhiannon never felt fully realized; her character’s rendering made at the behest of her relationships always seemed to cast those characters in the highest resolution. Even in the moments her friendship with her actual friends occurs to A, there is no real focus on an outside narrative. The implication of one is there, an implied interiority that exists beyond him, inaccessible both to A and to the reader, but even so she has verbally placed her love for A as expanding beyond her attachment to anyone else.

The conclusion of the novel felt, in part, necessary—but in the same way that Rhiannon’s character exists primarily with respect to the other characters, so again this is reconfirmed by the climax itself, which casts her once more as the damsel, rendered almost painfully without agency. (The brief, shining exception to her frequent one dimensionality as a character is the point at which she explains her vegetarianism, which rings both with accuracy and a deeper, albeit fleeting connection to the world around her, an engagement to which the reader is never allowed to bear witness.) The conclusion makes sense, in part, for A’s own development as a dynamic character, but it seems extraordinarily limiting to Rhiannon’s. Again.

Indeed, the world crafted is a remarkable, intriguing one; it makes the opening page near-irresistible, demands immediate questions. For all the boundaries it sets, however, those in search of the why answers, and of the how answers, will find little satisfaction within. But perhaps that is because the plot’s framework is not the point at all; the point is the implications of the framework, and the ambiguity of its very nature. A does not know the whys in the same way that no one else does; we are here, and we must push against our own boundaries to test them. We do not have our reasons, either.

I cannot deny the novel held my interest and I find that, in broad strokes, I quite enjoyed it. But I cannot dismiss the narrative’s perpetual upholding of A’s actions toward Rhiannon as true love—or, in the conclusion, even helpful and selfless—which became, more than ever, difficult to stomach.

            Every Day raises many of the right questions, but it makes many of the wrong sacrifices.