24 March 2012


Locus Focus: Take Sixty-Six

This month's exploration of deserts didn't seem very promising at the beginning. I was fairly sure this was one theme I wouldn't be able to stretch over four Saturdays. What was there to be said, I wondered, about settings where nothing ever seems to happen (and hardly anything ever gets to live)? How naive I was!

Since then, I've read Louis Sachar's Holes and seen that deserts are the perfect stage for Westerns, some of the most action-packed stories ever told . . . revisited H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and admitted that deserts are an essential arena in any archeological adventure . . . and peeked into Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and realised that deserts are to Science-Fiction what fantastic islands are to seafaring stories. (Hmmm. Locus Focus hasn't been on board a ship yet, has it?) I'm a little sad to be on my last desert of the month.

Phoenix, Arizona
by Stephenie Meyer

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favourite shirt--sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.

In the Olympic Penninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few days old . . .

It was to Forks that I now exiled myself--an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks.

I loved Phoenix. I loved the sun and the blistering heat. I loved the vigorous, sprawling city.

With the exception of the first three months of her life (and two weeks of every year since then), Bella Swan has only lived in warm, dry places with her mother. The cold, rainy world of her father is as alien to her as Mars. If only it had stayed that way . . . =P

Although Bella loves the "valley of the sun" and isn't a big fan of any place where it snows, she doesn't look it. And she's very self-conscious about not looking "like a girl from Phoenix should." The sun hasn't tanned her pale skin or brought out any highlights in her dark hair: she might as well have grown up in rainy, cloudy, cold Forks. And this is our first hint that although she feels like a total outsider there, it is where she truly belongs.

If Stephenie Meyer got anything right (and let's give credit where credit is due), it was her setting. Forks is simply the perfect place for Bella's awakening to the world of vampires and werewolves. As she notes while wandering through the forest right outside her father's house:

This was the wrong place to have come. I should have known, but where else was there to go? . . . Here in the trees it was much easier to believe the absurdities that embarrassed me indoors. Nothing had changed in this forest for thousands of years, and all the myths and legends of a hundred different lands seemed much more likely in this green haze than they had in my clear-cut bedroom.

And much more likely than they would have been in the even clearer-cut desert where she used to live. Deserts are arguably just as old (if not older) than forests--but while the latter seem to carry deep memories of lost magic, the former hide a mysticism that is married to common sense. This is where you are kept alert by rattlesnakes, not lulled into a trance by crickets or birds. If Bella had met a vampire in Phoenix, she could have written him off as a hallucination; havng met a vampire in Forks, she accepts him as a dream come true.

Meyer's vampires may be unharmed by sunlight--but that is small consolation when they sparkle in it. There is a wider logic to this, in the sense that no vampire of any mythology would last a week under the sort of unforgiving light you find in the desert. These characters need fog and mists and shadows--not just those in the settings of their stories, but also those in the imagination of their readers. Which is why when Meyer's vampires do come to Phoenix for the climax of the story, they have to come at night . . . and they can't stay long.

And that's really fair enough. Characters have a right to their context. But now that I've been through three different deserts with three different sets of characters, I find that anyone who couldn't endure such a trial by fire and light doesn't impress me very much.

Image: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

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