Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Review: Die a Little by Megan Abbott

You know that urban myth, story, or whatever that says if you put a frog in boiling water, it’ll jump out. However, if you put a frog in cold water and turn up the heat, it’ll be boiled alive because it can’t recognize the changes around it? Keep that in mind as you read Die a Little (2005), Megan Abbott’s rich noir debut.

Recently, my mom asked me what I meant by the term “noir.” I told her that it derived from the term the French gave to the dark, black-and-white films in the immediate post-World-War-II years. These stark films, usually crime dramas, focused on people living in a world rent open by the horrors of global war and near genocide. Cynicism was openly displayed. Morality seemed to take a siesta for six years and many people wondered why it all mattered. The films, and later novels and short stories, usually had gangsters, femme fatales, cops, private investigators, and all sorts of people life seemed to turn away. And in many of these stories, regular people stumbled through a shadowy door, a door they rarely noticed and, if they did, walked past quickly or on the other side of the street. Because what these regular people saw when they opened their eyes on the other side of that door changed them forever. They can’t un-see what they’ve seen. They just try to get back out of the door as quickly as possible and try to forget. But they can’t.

Lora King is one of those people. She’s a school teacher and the sister of Bill King, a junior investigator with the DA’s office. With their parents dead, they are the only family each of them has and they cling to each other like drifters on a life raft. They do anything to protect each other, they love being with each other. They are content. Until Alice Steele shows up and changes everything.

But, like the frog in water, the change is not instant. No, it’s gradual, a simmer that slowly captures you, the reader. It starts off with Alice and Bill getting married—saw that coming, didn’t you?—and, just like that, Lora has a sister, a new family member, and someone with whom to share Bill and his attention. Alice dives into being the best housewife in the history of housewives, throwing lavish parties, baking all day, and, presumably, satisfying Bill in bed, probably every night. However, Alice’s domestic actions hide a past, a past that Lora starts to question and investigate. She’s the regular person who has gone through the dark door. Unlike other protagonists in some stories, Lora steps in willingly. And stays. And looks around. And then goes deeper, looking for the truth. What she finds disturbs her, makes her worry about her brother’s safety. And then people—men—start noticing her. But it’s not the men she’s worried about. It’s Alice.

Megan Abbott has earned rave reviews for her first three novels, Die a Little, The Song is You, and Queenpin, the last of which earned her an Edgar Award. In her first book, she takes us back to 1950s Los Angeles. Like many old-school authors who actually wrote in that decade, Abbott’s book evokes the Eisenhower era in a pitch perfect manner. Honestly there is a certainly timelessness to the tone of the novel. I listened to the audiobook version via Audible so I didn’t read the dust jacket. I didn’t know if the 1950s was referenced or not. I just went with it knowing it was a period piece. It wasn’t until some character mentioned Maime Eisenhower that I knew it was in the 1950s. But the book lives in that wistful feel of yesterday, when all was better. Or so we thought.

The little nuances Abbott inserts into the prose really give this novel a sense of place and time: the Philco TV, Doris Day records playing at a party, Louis Prima on the radio. Even the little nicknacks of a 1950s housewife—copper baking pans, Joy of Cooking cookbook, themed parties—enveloped me as I listened to this story. If you can’t quite get a mental image of the 1950s reading Die a Little—don’t know how you couldn’t—just watch “Mad Men” and then bring some of those images back with you. I know the years of the TV show “Mad Men” are the early 1960s before Jack Kennedy was shot. But historical eras are not always defined by years. The “1950s” as an era lasted from Ike’s election in 1952 until the gunshots rang out in Dallas, TX, in 1963. As such, the visual quality of “Mad Men” and the visual prose of Die a Little share a common bond.

The prose style is interesting and subtle. The main characteristic of the prose is the voice. This is a first person story with Lora telling us everything. When she is relaying current events, she uses the present tense. When she’s letting you know something that happened in the past, she uses the past tense. I’ll admit that it certainly made the flashback scenes immediately evident. Sometimes, third person narrators have to use the past perfect tense to note flashbacks: “When L. B. Jeffries had seen his neighbor, Lars Thorwald, apparently kill his wife, he reacted with shock and dropped his binoculars.” (Bonus points for anyone who can identify that movie.) As easy to understand as the tense shifts are in this novel, I’ll admit that they usually work better with a third person narrator. The conceit of all first-person narrations is that the “I” person is telling you, the reader, the story. Thus, by definition, it’s all in the past. Having the “I” narrator—Lora King—tell you “I move across the room and pick up the phone” breaks down the conceit. It’s not altogether bad, it’s just apparent.

One of the modern rules of writing we authors have ground into us is to avoid adverbs. If the adverb is not evident from the dialogue, then rewrite the dialogue. Or fix the prose. Back in the day, when Chandler, Miller, Keene, and others were banging out their Gold Medal books, adverbs were all the rage. Well, not really but adverbs were used in place of extra prose and, in the days where these old authors wrote hours a day and finished books in mere weeks, this was acceptable. Not so today. The beauty of Abbott's prose is the profuse use of adverbs. They’re everywhere. Adjectives, too. But this merely adds to the nostalgic quality of this book. It really reads as if it were written back in the 1950s, with a deadline staring Abbott square in the face.

Unlike other noir books, this novel is not fast-paced. In many noir books, the action starts on page one, maybe even paragraph one, and never lets up. It’s easy to do with 60,000-word books. Not so with Die a Little. Remember that frog I mentioned earlier? Well, you, the reader, are the frog. You know there is something wrong with Alice, you just do. You probably even know it merely by looking at that gorgeous cover. But Lora doesn’t. She proceeds slowly—at times too slowly—as she investigates things she isn’t supposed to know about: drugs, prostitution, rape, violence against women. She takes tentative steps, each time delving deeper into a part of LA she had not idea existed. But it’s to save her brother so she’ll go wherever she has to go to save him.

The climax of the book—not giving anything away here—is not some shoot’em up blockbuster where Lora stands with a gun in her hand, a wounded Bill at her feet, with cops and gangsters converging. No, just like the rest of the book, the ending is restrained, almost like the decade to which it owes its origin. But it’s not without tension and resolution. It is entirely within the framework presented. Lora is a schoolteacher, not an action hero. The methods she uses to get what she wants is entirely within her character. To be honest, her methods are somewhat in the same vein as Angel Dare, the lead character in Christa Faust’s 2008 novel Money Shot. In both books, Lora and Angel are true to themselves. Angel, at the end of her story, as I mention in my review of the book, has a choice: be herself or be something she’s not. Either way, she has to live with her choice. At the end of Die a Little, Lora faces a final taunt from Alice. Alice, you see, confesses that she’s played Lora from the get-go and, Alice thinks, Lora liked what she saw when she opened that door to the darkness. Alice gives example after example, up to and including the sex Lora had with a man from Alice’s past. Through it all, Alice believes, Lora liked it all. Lora’s answer is, well, you’ll just have to read this entertaining book.

What I Learned As A Writer: Word choice and pace. Word choice is the easier one. Abbott clearly is in love with words. She uses them expertly throughout the book, evoking exactly what she wants in the reader’s mind. It’s the kind of treatment of words and prose that makes a wannabe author like me grab the book and a highlighter and just mark through gorgeous passages. Come to think of it, I just might.

Pace is a tricky thing. Old school authors started at a fast pace and maintained it through to the end of a book. But those books were nice, short, 180-page affairs that cost dimes or quarters. Nowadays, we are faced with the 500-page tomes that cost $25 in hardback or $8 for a paperback. As such, it’s almost impossible to maintain a fast pace through 500 pages and some authors have tried and failed. The beauty of the slower-paced novel is that the writer can build momentum toward a thrilling conclusion. Tension becomes present on every page. Is this the scene where Lora blows everything open? Is this the scene where Lora learns something she wishes she didn’t? And it’s not just tension, it’s suspense. Die a Little is a suspense novel in the old style, with the threat of evil lurking just on the next page. I did that with my first novel, a historical mystery, and Abbott did it with her first novel. I like the slow-burn, gradual suspense build-up pace of books like this one as long as it delivers. Die a Little delivered.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Great review, Scott. certainly the most thorough I've seen. Glad you liked it.

eejut said...

i've been meaning to check these out for some time now, and not got round to it.

I'll bump them up the list, it'll be a good change of oace once i've finished my current book.