Read This High-School Noir, and Then You’ll Want to Read Every Other Megan Abbott Book

Reading between the lines.
June 3 2014 12:06 PM

The One

Megan Abbott explodes genre like no other writer.

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Author Megan Abbott.
Author Megan Abbott.

Courtesy of Drew Reilly

Megan Abbott is the kind of author whose books, once you’ve discovered them, present an immediate dilemma: You want to read them all, one right after the other, in hopes of prolonging the spell, yet you also become consumed with the need to hold one or two titles on her backlist in reserve, so you can be assured there will always be one yet to come. There are lots of authors who write books you want to devour, but, to borrow an old construction from that esteemed literary critic Yakov Smirnoff, with Megan Abbott, her books devour you.

I say this as a relatively recent (and somewhat reluctant) convert. I only discovered Abbott thanks to the good advice of a wise friend whose recommendation I at first decided, for unsound reasons, to ignore. When my friend, who’s always up on worthwhile crime writers, mentioned Abbott to me,  I did what we’re all too prone to do in this age of cultural saturation: I made a snap judgment based on scant information and decided, without reading even one of them, that her books weren’t for me.

My stupid decision was based entirely on one line in her biography: Abbott holds a Ph.D. from NYU, so I assumed that her crime books represented a kind of cerebral writerly slumming—you know, bloodless deconstructions of genre thrillers that also managed to drain them of any fun. (For example, the post-modern pretzel Noir by Robert Coover, or some of Paul Auster’s coolly Frenchified “homages” to hardboiled mysteries.) This despite the rave blurbs she’d earned from James Ellroy (no cerebral deconstructivist, he), Laura Lippman, and Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn. I’d made my decision to deny myself, and I stubbornly stood by it.

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Then I, you know, read one of her books.

The first one was Abbott’s third novel, Queenpin, a highlight of what may be called Early Period Abbott, a classification that isn’t at all intended to imply immaturity or apprenticeship. The first four of her seven novels, starting with Die a Little and on through to Bury Me Deep, are pitch-perfect evocations of classic period noir, set midcentury, but each with an ingenious contemporary twist. As the title of Queenpin suggests, the story is one of a powerful crime boss undone by an ambitious underling, except in this case, refreshingly, both boss and underling are women. This not only gives new resonance to the book’s familiar noir trappings; it also opens up entire new areas of literary territory for Abbott to explore, conquer, and claim as her own. I don’t pretend to be well-read enough to make the following claim authoritatively, but if you think there’s an American author writing about the thorny intricacies of female relationships with more smarts and verve than Megan Abbott, feel free to step forward and make your case.

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Graphic bySlate

Abbott’s early novels read simultaneously like unearthed 1950s pulp classics and like novels written by a sharp modern writer with a canny expertise in 1950s pulp classics—knowing evocations of a classic form that simultaneously honor and explode the precepts of that form. See what I did there? I just made them sound really boring, with all my talk of honoring and forms. So let me add this corrective: They’re awesome.

Abbott’s writing recalls for me that pivotal scene in The Matrix, when Neo finally defeats the evil Agent Smith and, by extension, the Matrix itself. He does this (15-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT!!) by flying into Agent Smith’s body, inhabiting him, then blowing him to smithereens. Once this is done, Neo flexes his muscles in a cool, Zen-muscle-flex-y kind of way (making reality bend around him), then calmly locks eyes with the remaining agents, daring them to approach. To me, that’s kind of like Abbott and pulp literature: inhabit, explode, flex muscles, then beckon readers forward for what’s next.

Late Period Abbott we can date to The End of Everything, her 2011 novel, which was her first with a contemporary setting (well, the 1980s) and an adolescent, not adult, heroine. For those of us who like our favorite authors to basically do the same magic trick over and over while we clap along with glee, this shift from her earlier period noirs was nerve-wracking. The results, though, were astonishing.

To make my case, I’ll head straight for Dare Me, her 2012 masterpiece, a classic noir love triangle set against the backdrop of a wolf pack of high school cheerleaders. I once said that Dare Me deserved to win the Pulitzer, and this was more than the usual logrolling Internet hyperbole. The creeping Dutch elm disease of contemporary American literature is how each new important literary novel is judged, essentially, on how closely it resembles previous important literary novels, in a hermetically sealed cycle of reproduction and imitation—a flawless lineage of bland clones grown in an airless lab. (As it happens, 2012 was the year the Pulitzer committee refused to name a winner in fiction, inadvertently proving my point.)

Dare Me doesn’t truly resemble anything that’s come before it (though I did clumsily describe it once as Spring Breakers meets Carrie meets All About Eve, which gets you about halfway there). Abbott marries the best pleasures of the pulp tradition with the highest ambitions of literary craft, yielding a novel that offers a strikingly diverse spectrum of readerly pleasures: It’s a gripping murder mystery cloaked in a shrewd examination of female friendships, draped in rah-rah Americana, then reflected in the funhouse mirror of contemporary teenagerdom. Abbott conjures all this with her own brand of herky-jerky, gut-punch poetry, featuring none of the carefully sanded edges and high-gloss sheen of “literary” prose. I just opened my copy of Dare Me more or less at random and found this description of two girls after school: “We were lying on Beth’s deep blue bedroom carpet, as we’ve done a hundred, a thousand times, collapsing from our labors, the wages of war, one kind or another. Adrift on that speckled ultramarine, Beth would lay out her martial machinations for me, her attaché, her envoy. Sometimes her mouthpiece. Whatever was required.”

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