Monday, 11 June 2012

MEGAN ABBOTT'S END OF EVERYTHING


It might become a challenge to discuss Megan Abbott's books without reference to the words 'fever' or 'dream'. Her first four novels approached the world of noir from the inside, or perhaps, in a genre where the protagonists are usually men, often superficially attractive (qualities we're supposed to judge in women) but possessed of one-track minds and/or half track brains, we might better say from the other side. This reclaiming of the world of noir has been, for me, the most interesting and original work done in the crime field in this new millennium.

Although her fifth novel, 2011's, The End Of Everything, is, on the face of it, a novel about adolescence, whose 'crime' sits mostly offstage while Abbott provides a stunning take on the power of sexuality, and the even greater power of repression. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense, because that is at heart what noir is all about at heart—the feeling a child has, of being caught in the grip of a force he or she cannot control, a primal urge beyond understanding or coping-- isn't that exactly what noir protagonists wind up feeling? That they are adults merely intensifies the predicament, intensifies the temperature of the fever dream in which it takes place.It's why the best noir is filmed in shadow, in fog, in haze, in darkness, where no one can see what is coming.

Lizzie and Evie are best friends, with Evie's older sister Dusty their glamorous role model, and Evie's father, Mr. Verver, as the perfect dad, at least in the mind of Lizzie, who's being raised by her single mother, who herself has just begun an affair. Then, Evie disappears, and it soon appears she has been kidnapped by the Verver's insurance agent, Mr. Shaw. But nothing, it seems, is the way it seems.

Although the setting appears to be the 1980s, but the story has the feel of the 1950s—so much so that it reminded me of Thomas H. Cook at his best, the same sort of emotional undercurrent which reveals itself in its own repression, that same sort of quiet build-up which goes beyond noir, but still stirs the perfect surface in search of the imperfections underneath. Abbott, through Lizzie's teenaged eyes, builds an undercurrent of sexual malice which permeates virtually every scene, boiling just beneath the surface. And Lizzie's perceptions are modern, the only really modern thing in the story—she is the author's stand-in, seeing a Fifties noirish reality beneath that 80s world. The reader feels like a youngster who's stumbled across their parents' cache of steam-covered 50s paperbacks. So Mr. Verver, the seemingly perfect father, more and more takes on the appearance of a predator, an abuser, not so different perhaps from Mr. Shaw.

Except that Mr. Shaw is also not quite what he appears to be, and Evie's kidnapping is not quite that either. Without wanting to spoil the story, Abbott has also written a look back at Lolita, again, as I suggested at the start, told from the other side. After all, what is Nabokov's novel, if not a look at 1950s masculinity, and its fatal attraction to the unspoiled, perfect, uncomplaining, unthreatening femininity of the 50s teen, just starting to be sexualised in the post-war modern world.

It's a brilliant book, whose tone never falters, whose tension is wrenched tighter and tighter with each page, and whose vision is resolutely noirish. Megan Abbott's fiction remains fascinating in its obsessions, and in The End Of Everything, she takes them out of their classic setting, and proves she can make them work on a wider, more surprising canvas.

The End Of Everything by Megan Abbott
Picador, £7.99, ISBN 9780330518314

No comments :