When I think of twee, I think of Dr. Who. To me, twee is an English thing, a certain English kind of humor. It’s “cute and clever” and a little flamboyant. There’s an American twee, now, the kind of thing you get in Wes Anderson movies, and it’s kind of different. American twee takes itself seriously, and thinks there’s a deep meaning behind the exuberant playfulness on the surface. (I suppose it’s possible there’s a deep meaning behind classic English twee that I can’t see, not being English, but I find it tough to believe it’s the same one.) American twee is very proud of itself for being cute and clever, and sees the wish to be flamboyant and playful as a virtue in itself, and to be indulged for its own sake. American twee says, “Isn’t it amazing that I can feel all these things?”
It sounds from this like I don’t like twee at all, which isn’t entirely true. There’s a Wes Anderson film there, or two, I think, that I like—though not when it seems like the point is to admire Anderson himself, and approve the women who sit around and admire him. A.S. Byatt, who’s mostly a pretty serious novelist, can go into twee when she likes. I’m looking forward to the second season of The Librarians. And there are a lot of books coming out these days that have elements of what I’d consider twee. Most of them can’t be dismissed only because of that.
A good novel that I’d consider somewhat twee, though in a good way, is Erin Morgenstern’s A Night at the Circus. It’s about a kind of love affair and rivalry between people who exist at the core of a kind of magical traveling circus, about a small number of people from outside who become drawn into its sphere, and about what it means for the circus to exist at all. (It’s not the kind of thing I tend to pick up, though I’ve liked some adult fiction fantasy, like Wicked, with which this has some similarities.) They were trained in different ways, and the circus itself is set up as a contest between them, to the death (which puts wrinkles into their love affair). Each is both within and outside of the magical world; it’s natural to them and to the people they’re closest to, yet still strange. They don’t live in a world where magic is taken for granted. The circus itself exists on the boundary between life and art, the physical and the emotional, and feels very real. The sense I had of tweeness comes in because there is a way in which the readers is asked to marvel at the fact that such things can happen, and that these two young people can so amazingly create them, which threatens to overpower interest in the things that are happening. But it never really does. The characters’ feelings about what’s happening to them are realistic and go well beyond bald astonishment that such things could be in the world.
A twee novel that I did not like, and could not finish, was Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions. I liked his earlier A Half-Made World, which he set in a fantasy kind of mostly uncolonized quasi-American continent, though I haven’t read the sequel. He published The Revolutions after that, and it’s set in London, in a kind of steampunk Victorian or Georgian world. (I don’t read steampunk much; a lot of it does seem to have twee aspects.) In this world, there are strange magical things going on, natural disasters and people influencing others without their knowledge, secret societies delving into the supernatural, rich eccentrics funding research and invention for who knows what purpose. The main character is a young man, just beginning to make connections with real people other than himself. He falls in love, abruptly, with a young woman who lives with a nice shopkeeping family and works for those secret psychical researchers. And they begin to get involved, without really wanting to or choosing it, around the edges of world-shattering events, in ways that I’m guessing promise to teach them about their own natures and about humanity. I don’t know for sure, because that’s where I stopped reading. I skimmed further on for a while, and then gave it up.
The difference between the two, I think, is deeply intertwined with their respective relationships to twee. A Night at the Circus tells us what it feels like, not only to be aware of having unusual powers and to stand in amazement at the world that granted them, but to use them and want to use them, and to live a story that needs those powers to take place, with other people who are living similar stories. The Revolutions, on the contrary, promised to tell a simple love story, with an alternate-historical background of world-shattering events, in which one or two characters are changed as much by their romantic connection as by their acknowledgement of the nature of their powers. And those powers aren’t naturalized, but treated as alien to the everyday world, possibly something too dangerous to keep hold of.
The Revolutions’ narration felt straightforward, as one thing happened and then another thing; and periodically an amazing, weird happening overtook the characters, but this happening seemed described in a merely visual, or intellectualizing, way. Morgenstern works so hard to provide objective correlatives, described in loving detail, for all her own happenings that it could begin to feel like too much, but it made the story feel like something. Gilman seemed to have felt it could all happen by itself without his help.