Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Full disclosure: I read very little mystery. I also read very few cheerleader books. It’s a testament to the muscle of Megan Abbott’s newest work of modern noir that in spite of my partisan inclinations, I couldn’t put her book down. Our narrator is Addy Hanlon, a proud ‘lieutenant’ to her best friend and cheer captain Beth, a 94-pound waif who builds her reputation on manipulation and intimidation. When a new coach claims leadership of the squad, as well as Addy’s attentions and affections, a perfect storm of surprising adolescent viciousness begins to swell. An unexpected murder provides the requisite narrative thrust, but Abbott’s exceptional development of character performs puppet master duties on our shifting allegiance as readers.

On the surface, this isn’t an overly realistic portrait of modern adolescent life or even of cheerleading culture. It is, however, an at times brutal, but welcomingly insightful and hyper-literate mystery built on the strength of its protagonist’s (antagonist’s?) voice and the collision course storyline at the novel’s core. Much like the 2006 film Brick (another high school noir), Dare Me presents an insular, stylized world populated by impossibly articulate, dangerously cunning pubescents, made all the more terrifying for their flawed understanding of consequence and overwrought psychological underpinnings. Addy, for instance, speaks and thinks with a cadence and verve foreign to youth, but the precision of Abbott’s words and observations of her chosen demographic are of such a level as to forgive such petty grievances as the authenticity of teenaged linguistic habits. In considering the combination of the natural high she gets from cheerleading and a pharmaceutical high she gets from uppers, Addy thinks:
                        That feeling, it is God’s greatest gift. Just like that adderall. Found that
                        morning in the corner of my hoodie pocket from some long ago act of
                        Beth’s generosity, it gallops through me, and I know I can do anything.
                        When you have nothing inside you, you feel everything more, and feel you
                        can control all of it. With Jesus in my heart, and with that seismic blast,
                        who could stop my ascent? Any of ours?

But don’t let the novel’s chic superficiality mislead you: these are real, recognizable teenagers, complete with equal parts insecurity and solipsism. These girls’ worlds end at the tips of their powdered noses and the apexes of their flying basket tosses, and author Abbott captures that feeling, that fleeting existence, with impeccable realism (“That was a long time,” I add, setting my arms up for another tuck. “That was last summer.”). In this way, the book smartly mirrors its characters, offering up something sleek and easily digestible on the surface, but more subtly reveling in the nitty-gritty of its dark truths. The confusion of forgotten desire; the blurred divide between social and sexual relationships; the all-consuming thrust for excellence and approval – these struggles are the hidden gems of Abbott’s mystery. Beneath its carefully cultivated facade of sur-reality, Abbott’s book captures the greater truth of teenagedom: the beating heart beneath the sheen.

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