Megan Abbott: Writing Noir in a New Way

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One of the reasons I love editing The Quarterly Conversation is that it opens up so many authors I would never find out about otherwise. Having some of the best, most open-minded, engaged readers in our world writing reviews and essays of top notch writers is a little like having my own private research staff cluing me in to great stuff. For a writer who thrives on creative influence as much as I do, this is incredible.

Case in point, last issue Angela Woodward (a very interesting writer herself) intro’d me to Megan Abbott with this essay. After editing it and publishing it, I knew I had to check Abbott out.

The elevator pitch for Abbott is that she does feminist noir. That’s a reductive label, but it’s a powerful way to coordinate what makes Abbott’s fictions feel so interesting to me, so I’m just gonna go with it.

Abbott is the author of several novels, all noir-like in their structure and feel, but insofar as I’ve read her it feels like no noir I’ve ever read before. The narrators are female, and though the stories play on familiar noir tropes (the femme fatale, the private investigator, etc, etc) the books are resolutely feminine: the focus on women’s relationships, they view masculine relationships from a female perspective, and (perhaps most interesting to my mind) the narrative voice has a very “female eye” for detail.

Let me focus in on that last point for a minute. Typically noir constructs a very masculine world, not just in things like the protagonist (who is usually male), his desires, his methods, etc but also much more quietly in the very texture of the story. The items the noir trades in (the guns, the cars, the clothes) are masculine items, the approach the protagonist takes is a man’s approach. The very word choice and incidental detail is geared toward evoking a masculine sensibility.

With Abbott’s novels, all this is couched in a feminine perspective. For instance, as I was reading Abbott’s Die a Little, I was struck by all the little details here and there that continuously created a female world:

And I take his arm. And my hand doesn’t even seem to make it halfway around his thickness.

Their fingernails are painted dark.

“Oh?” I say politely, taking my hand back and burying it safely in my dress pocket.

One night, lice is putting delicate finger curls in my hair . . .

Two pencils poked out of her upswept hair.

On and on, these details are endless, and I think there’s an important purpose to them in Abbott’s writing. Die a Little is very much about Lora the narrator’s journey, how this subversive woman named Alice comes into her life and shows her a kind of femininity she never before knew existed. All these little details establish Lora’s world—what she pays attention to, what she notices, what seems normal to her, and what’s dangerous—and as Lora develops her eye begins to catch other details. Whole new realms of signification open up to her. She comes to understand what these things signify, she even tries some of them on her own body, or wants to possess some of them as objects. She takes the typical noir plot of a rough woman shaking up a man’s life and she reimagines it for a relationship between two women.

There’s another important thing that I think Abbott is doing with Lora’s eye for detail. All of these little things that are a part of Lora’s world—how the dress she wears feels, how Alice’s makeup connotes danger, how little her hand and body is as compared to a man’s, how she inhabits space and moves around a room—these details are working to establish Lora’s vulnerability. And I think this is one of the most interesting things about Abbott’s noir. She creates a world in which Lora feels very, very delicate and vulnerable in a very true and deep way. Because most likely a woman like Lora in the 1950s was in a very vulnerable and subjected position, and in establishing this and integrating it into the plot and very texture of the story, Abbott gets across something very important about how women exist in our world and why they act as they do, why they choose the strategies they choose, why they communicate as they communicate, etc, etc. What Abbott does is to help someone who doesn’t know this world begin to understand it, which seems to me a very important thing.

Abbott is first and foremost a storyteller. She’s not preachy, she’s not didactic. I’m sure lots of readers just enjoy her books as stories and never come to think of the things that Ive found in her books. But I do think she writes with something along the lines of a purpose or an agenda, made just call it a powerful point of view that guides her literary sensibility. This moment from Die a Little has stuck with me:

It reminded me of a conversation I witnessed between Bill and Alice right after Edie’s miscarriage. Bill had talked about how these women, they were so delicate, like those flowers that look too heavy for their stems to support, that seem to defy their very structures.

“I’d say you men are the fragile ones,” Alice had replied. “Too soft for this world.”

When she said it, I thought she was teasing. but I could tell Bill was affected, that he found the remark surprising, penetrating. Even if he couldn’t put his finger on why.

The look in Bill’s eyes had been: She knows things. Things I can’t begin to know.

I think what Alice “knows” is simply what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, which is to have to give the impression of great delicacy while also having to live with the fact that all the people of power and status in your world view you as a delicate object. And so who is really the strong one, the one who stands up to that pressure every day, or the one who benefits from and controls that arrangement?

I think that Abbott’s book is such that, by the time we reach this moment, anyone who has been paying attention can likely read this subtext. And this is why I call her work feminist: it gets across this perspective, simple by very powerfully evoking this world and this lifestyle for anyone to see.

I would just add in conclusion that it seems that fiction like this is still greatly called for. I happened to read Die a Little almost exactly as the revelations about Donald Trump’s sexual abuse of women were occasioning a flood of testimony about sexual abuse that the women I know in day to day life had experienced at some point. So I think that even though Abbott writes about a society that is decades old and that we can think of as something we have left behind, certainly many tenets of the female experience she brings to the page have not aged at all. I would hope that in reading her books the genders can come to understand each other better.



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