Queenpin by Megan Abbott. Simon & Schuster. 180pp., $13.99.
Die a Little by Megan Abbott. Simon & Schuster. 256pp., $16.99.
The Song Is You by Megan Abbott. Simon & Schuster. 256pp., $15.00.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. Little, Brown and Company. 352pp., $26.00.
Women are all around us. We are them, we were born and raised by them, we go to school with them, are taught by them, we dance with them, we marry them, we buy their CDs, we work in the next office down from them, they listen to us when we ring the call center, they give us a work order number for the guy who will come out to the house to fix our cable, they are our children and the mothers of our grandchildren, they live next door to us, they call us about their lung cancer or their orchid blooming, they revile us for our lousy characteristics, they help us with our taxes, they drive us to the pool, they sit silently in the room with us while the lawyer talks, they make earrings for us, they publish cooking columns, they hang their paintings, they write novels. Women are everywhere, though sometimes designated not by name but labeled “the blonde,” “the temp,” “the nurse, “the girlfriend.” As writers, they are sometimes clarified as “women writers,” in order to be better distinguished from those other writers who are not stained with femininity. Women write about all sorts of things, even politics and science. Sometimes they write about domestic scenes, the house, the child, the erring husband, the squalor of their small towns. These might be women’s novels, about and for half the world, while those other writers may write about the same subjects and find themselves lauded for their understanding of history and human nature. For women to write about their friendships with other women, foregrounding a complex, non-sexual relationship rather than emphasizing the satisfying closure of the man met, lost, then married, serves us up an exotic backside to our familiar social world. Women’s friendships in literature have an arresting spice, like cardamom, once caught in a whiff from a market stall in a foreign city. And yet that jar of pale green pods has sat in our cupboard for years.
Readers, men and women alike, have marveled at the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There are many reasons: the non-stop power of her narration, the fierceness of her characters. My Brilliant Friend and the books that follow are unusual in that they form their plot around the relationship between two women. Though there are many men throughout, it is the taut line between the two friends that pulls the reader through the years and pages. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is another novel that seems to gain its resonance from its unhooking from romance. Instead it focuses on two women friends, a writer and an artist. There are men there too, but the women are able to see each other in some way that really counts first for both of them. How should a person be to be like her, or to be a person that a person as cool as her would like to hang around with? Men’s novels about men friends have taken up this theme countless times. Fredric Jameson uses the term “male bonding syndrome” as if it were a sickness. Nevertheless we see it as completely ordinary that in literature two men confront the world together. Women might be constantly in their gaze, but the triangulation between the two men is what makes meaning of it. How strange it is then that it’s strange for women’s friendships to dominate a novel. We almost don’t recognize and can’t name it, but wonder at its way of working on us.
This strangeness might affect us more powerfully when it’s embedded in something profoundly familiar. Scottish writer Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy takes the slick crime thriller formula and shows it as it were backwards, with the female victims thrashing through the mystery and enacting their own justice both in court and privately. Because we’re used to the thriller’s clues and revelations, we feel at home in the narrative, while at the same time the primacy of the women unsettles. Megan Abbott is another consummate crime writer who deals with this feminine underside, putting women’s relationships at the center of what has always been a manly genre. Her neo-noir creations, published between 2005 and 2009, are flawless ’40s period pieces, two in the Los Angeles we know so well from The Big Sleep and The Black Dahlia. Her brand-name decor, the snappy, wise-cracking dialog, the endless twists of plot and descent into ever bleaker and lower social worlds, are all done to perfection. But where classic noir insisted on a kind of deadened sheen, a callous stupor in the face of unending corruption, Abbott gives us women who are fully alive to the evil broth they stew in. Far from being objectified creatures of male desire, Abbott’s women talk, feel, and relate to each other with great depth. The passion and complexities of women’s friendships motor these books. Women have all along been part of the noir novel, yet to find them vivid and at the fore disturbs, as if these long-legged blondes had been mute animals who now address us.
In Abbott’s Queenpin, Gloria, the female gangster of the title, shoots the jaw off a double-crossing gambler. This scene is narrated by Gloria’s protégé, a nameless tech school student who begins as a bookkeeper in a small-time nightclub and then works her way up the ranks of the racket under Gloria’s tutelage. The man Gloria has shot is this young narrator’s lover. “He started lurching toward her,” she explains, “hand under his chin, flaps of skin and muscle hanging from where his lower jaw had been. In spite of everything, his eyes were shining and I thought I could see the corners of his mouth rising, like he was smiling at his luck. Like he would have been smiling if he could have, if his smile hadn’t been half torn away.”
This scene is remarkably gory, but what sets it apart from scores of similar noir executions is the way Abbott’s narrator retains her awareness of the scene. She is avid for the details, even as she’s appalled by the killing. Rather than shield herself from this atrocity, she seems to watch herself grow into a woman with ever darker capabilities. The narrator of Queenpin is certainly much less innocent at the end of the novel than in its opening. The former student of the Delores Gray School of Business has now lied, schemed, stolen, buried a corpse, dug it up again, and betrayed everyone she loves. She is not so much damaged by all these terrible things as made more thoroughly alive. Through it all, her most important relationship has been with her mentor, Gloria. Their friendship remains the mystery of this crime novel, as the narrator continually wonders what Gloria would do, how Gloria would handle herself, and whether Gloria would ever sell her out. Both women are wide-awake to what passes between them, who they are, and who they have had to become.
In Abbott’s Die a Little, the key relationship is between sisters-in-law Lora and Alice. Lora is a school teacher, straitlaced and responsible; her brother Bill is an LA cop. Bill marries Alice, a beautiful seamstress of dubious background. Lora gradually finds out what Alice’s former life was like. Lora comes across a deck of pornographic playing cards, and realizes that one of the pictures is of Alice and another woman they both know. The two women, dressed only in garters, are posed kneeling and cupping each other’s breasts:
Though their bodies and faces are tinted a rosy shade, the photographer hasn’t bothered to tint the insides of their mouths, so instead of red or pink, the mouths give way to a gray-blackness like something has crawled inside them and died there. Like their insides have rotted and the outside has yet to catch up.
Lora is horrified by the image, and especially by what it reveals about Alice’s prior circumstances. Alice, a model housewife who dotes on her husband, has concealed her past, which gets darker at every turn. Lora’s reaction to Alice is quite complicated. While the degradation depicted in the porno card repels her, it also seems to help her understand her own desires. She depicts herself as prim and orderly, but she also has a strong sexual appetite. This has been part of Lora’s character all along, but we learn of it only late in the book, when her boyfriend tells back to her the beginning of their affair. He reminds her how she went to bed with him within hours of first meeting him, and how she used to come over to fuck him after chaste dates with other men. Suddenly Lora is much more than the polite teacher persona she shows the world and the reader, but also a woman who acts on her lust. That is, she is a whole adult with many roles and facets.
Abbott began her career as an academic, writing about American crime fiction. In a piece in Salon about the novel Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks, she addresses women’s sexuality in noir: “even in noir, a genre rooted in lust-gone-amok, we still rarely see female characters blazing with the kind of compulsive and single-minded sexual activity that is nearly elemental to male noir protagonists, from Jim Thompson and David Goodis to Lawrence Block and James Ellroy.” Lora is hardly compulsive, yet it’s still unexpected to see a grown, single woman fictional character in her twenties enjoy sex the way she does. There is no reason her behavior should trouble us, except that noir has not shown us women like this before. We are more used to the caricature of the nymphomaniac than to mature sensuality. What would be most familiar would be this novel told from the brother’s point of view, moving to reconcile and save two women from the grips of other men. Though Die A Little is a replica of a world other authors have created, Abbott shakes it alive by framing it through the women’s relationship.
In this genre, most women are treated like props or playthings. Yet Abbott’s characters don’t become objects even as they are objectified. They know what they’re doing as they suck the cocks of ruthless men. Whether they enjoy it or despise themselves for it, they don’t deaden themselves to their experiences. This makes the everyday phenomenon of women’s degradation more plangent. The friendships between women are in some sense like the bonds of survivors of a wreck. Lora and Alice keep watching each other, fascinated by the ways they are alike. They know the man they both love, Lora’s brother Bill, can never recognize their depths. But they see it in each other, and they can’t look away.
The Song Is You, based on a real missing person’s case, takes on violence against women more directly. A missing starlet, Jean Spangler, has either died from a botched abortion or been murdered during sadistic sex with an unhinged comedian. This is the only one of Abbott’s four neo-noir books told from the point of view of a man, a Hollywood publicity agent of sorts. He seems constantly at the point of understanding something, but can’t quite put it all together. He finds he’s been closer to the disappeared Jean than he knew, as she had been friends with his ex-wife. His ex, Midge, discusses Jean wistfully:
“You missed everything,” Midge sighed. “She may have been a tramp when she needed to be. Who isn’t? But she had something bright and shiny about her. You wanted to rub against it. Feel the shock.”
This opens up a little pause in the novel, where the plot stops rushing towards discovery, and we simply see Jean as she was in an amicable relationship with another woman. Midge expresses affection, envy, admiration, and sadness for someone she used to know. Jean had been the excuse that sets the whole mechanism of the plot going, with its detours and blackmail and false scents and unexpected identifications. Yet the vanished woman rises up at this point, not as a plot device or a placeholder but as a complete human being. This seems unprecedented in noir, which deals with the living dead in its calloused, shut-down men. Jean has been violently abused, but here in her friend’s eyes she’s seen as more than a victim. Jean’s violent death could only be part of her story for Midge.
Sadly, Abbott abandoned her noir recreations after Bury Me Deep. Perhaps the world of noir seemed like a diorama, an endless loop of trench coats and mink hats, night clubs and race tracks. Her subsequent books are set in varied present environments, and also focus on women and girls, including the just-released You Will Know Me. But the constraint of noir is what makes her experiment so moving. The shadowy streets, desolate canyons, palm-fringed resorts, live on only in reproductions, and the details of mood, speech patterns, gender relations, race relations, politics, pacing, all have to fit together lovingly to reproduce it well. Abbott gets all that right, so that we recognize our beloved Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Yet we’re forced to see the masters differently when Abbott brings forth the women who have always lurked in noir. No one asked them what they were thinking about, who they cared about and what they did all day until Abbott came along. Then it seems that we haven’t been reading like women, if we’ve excused and stepped over the sweet wives and evil girlfriends in the novels of the classic noir writers. Perhaps that’s what reading like a woman is, being forced to sidle along behind the eyes of the dashing cop or crooked sheriff. If we’ve only seen the world through the hard man’s cynical slits, we’ve missed so much. We’ve missed everything.
Angela Woodward’s new novel Natural Wonders won the Fiction Collective Two Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. She is also the author of the novel End of the Fire Cult and the collections Origins and Other Stories and The Human Mind. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.
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