Die a Little, by Megan Abbott
Die A Little is a work of noir fiction by Megan Abbott, an American author with three fiction titles released in the US, of which Die a Little was her first and which is also her first to be released in the UK.
Die a Little is an unabashedly genre novel, not so much an homage to the golden age of noir fiction as a deliberate attempt to write a classic noir novel in a style that would have seemed perfectly in place had it been published back in the 1950s. Largely, it succeeds, Abbott plainly knows her genre and delights in it, and indeed her website (also a good source of noir links) reveals that her first major work in print was a study of White masculinity in hardboiled fiction and film noir.
However, Die a Little departs from the traditional noir template in one very interesting way, it is written from the point of view of a female character. Noir protagonists, generally speaking, have tended to be White men. By adopting a female narrative perspective, Abbott does not subvert the noir genre (and does not I think intend to subvert it), but she does succeed in adding something fresh to it, and for any genre as old as this one that is very welcome.
Abbott also shows a great affection for the golden age of noir/hardboiled covers, with the cover art for Die a Little and for each of her other novels (see the front page of her website, linked to above) being rather gloriously lurid. Lurid because golden age noir is of course a deeply lurid genre, full of sex, jealousy, intrigue and murder. The original covers reflected that, being reminiscent of the pulps in which many of the early authors first got themselves published, and I rather like to see the garish tradition of the pulp cover embraced by at least one contemporary author.
Moving to the book itself, Die a Little is set in 1950s Los Angeles. Lora King is a schoolteacher who lives with her brother, Bill, who is in turn a junior investigator with the DA’s office. The novel is written in Lora’s internal voice, she is speaking directly to us, and she is speaking to us after the fact (though after the fact of what is not initially clear). The very first words of the novel are “Later, the things I would think about”.
Lora and her brother are close, indeed although nothing untoward is happening or has happened between them, they seem rather too close in some regards. By just page 2 Lora is reminiscing how she used to cut Bill’s hair, remembering:
“Hours afterward, I would find slim, beaten gold bristles on my fingers, my arms, no matter how careful I was. I’d blow them off my fingertips, one by one.”
A passage which seems more sensual than perhaps a sister’s memories of her brother entirely ought to be. The very next paragraph she refers to his honeymoon with his new wife, in Cuba, a destination Lora seems not wholly to approve of (we later learn that it was an expensive choice, but the objection seems more to the fact of the marriage than the choice of vacation).
So, by the second page it already appears that Lora is fonder of her brother than perhaps is entirely healthy, that she is jealous of his new wife, and that she has been displaced in his affections and his life by this interloper whom we soon learn is glamorous and beautiful. Bill is a handsome man, tall, with razor cheekbones and square jaw, blond and well built. His new wife is thin and dark and full of nervous energy. She is Lora’s opposite, Lora being herself blonde and though perhaps beautiful a homebody whose love life is a quiet matter of occasional trips to the movies with other teachers, dates which never seem to get past an occasional kiss in the car on the way home.
Lora then, like her brother, is a shining piece of 1950s virtue. She a teacher, he a fighter against crime, they each serve society in their own way and each lives a life of quiet honesty and decency.
Bill’s new wife is named Alice Steele, she is a Hollywood wardrobe assistant, already a profession a world away from those of Bill and Lora. She comes apparently without family, without a past, the only guests from her side at the wedding being a few coworkers. Thus we have the three central characters of this work, Bill, Lora and Alice. But really, this is a novel about Lora and Alice, Bill has no narrative voice, he is bordering on a mere McGuffin, it is Lora’s jealousy of Alice’s usurping her place in Bill’s life that drives the narrative of this novel. Alice is Lora’s antithesis, or at least seems to be such, as the novel progresses however it becomes increasingly apparent that the women have more in common than perhaps Lora is willing to admit.
Abbott evokes the 1950s in a number of ways, but one of the key methods she uses is by reference to the things which Alice acquires as wedding gifts and in her attempts to be the perfect bride and perfect housewife. Alice is hungry for normality, to belong to the perfect world which Bill represents, and the purchase and consumption of things is a key part of how she pursues her goal.
So, by way of wedding gifts and objects Alice orders for her new home with Bill, we have:
“A full set of smooth pink and gray Russel Wright everyday dinnerware, my mother’s Haviland china in English Rose, a series of copper fish Jell-O Molds, a large twelve slice chrome toaster, a nest of Pyrex mixing bowls, a gleaming bar set, tumblers, old-fashioneds, and martini glasses with gold-leaf diamonds studding the rims, a bedroom set with soft, dove gray, silk quilted coverlets, matching lamps with dove gray porcelain gazelles as their bases, a vanity with a round mirror and a silver deco base, a delicate stool of wrought curlicues holding up a pale peach heart seat cushion, a tightly stuffed and sleekly lined sofa, love seat, and leather wing chairs in the living room, with its green trim, jungle-patterned curtains, and a large brass cage in which a parrot named Bluebeard lived.”
A few pages later, as Alice settles into her new role as Bill’s wife, we get a similar list – this time of presents the neighbourhood wives buy each other. Much later, as Alice throws an oriental themed party, we see Japanese paper lanterns, vases with moon lilies and bamboo stalks, hanging temple bells and much, much more. What is noticeable about the sentence quoted above (and it is just one sentence), and the similar description a few pages later in the novel, is the sheer volume of goods and the way in which as a reader one starts to get lost in the description. There are no full stops, no pauses, simply a wave of consumer desirables washing over and representing a life which can be bought and which being bought is made perfect. It is the 1950s dream, a litany of sorts, it is also of course written from the perspective of Lora and as such is also a litany of that which another woman has and which she does not. Additionally, for a woman of the 1950s and with the choices available to women in that age, the acquisition of these objects is a form of success – a form of achievement which other women will envy and which forms one of the few tangible goals (beyond children) open to them.
At the same time as we encounter these lists of objects, we also see Alice settling into her new life, a life she throws herself into with a level of energy and enthusiasm which soon makes her the most popular and arguably the most successful wife in the neighbourhood. Alice appears driven, being the perfect wife is everything to her, her very ambition to be so perfect itself starts to make us suspicious of what she is driving away from and as she chats with Lora she makes passing references to a childhood which seems far from the perfection she now seeks to establish.
We also encounter what will be one of the most commonly recurring elements of the novel, the gap between surfaces and interiors, the divide between the façade presented to the world and the decay which it masks within. We first see this one evening when Lora has slept over in the spare room, rising during the night she encounters Alice reading in the living room:
“I stop suddenly at the archway and find myself stifling a tight gasp. Under the harsh lamp, in sharp contrast to the dark room, her eyes look strangely eaten through. The eyes of a death mask, rotting behind the gleaming façade.”
Later, after they have spoken for a while, the conversation turns to Alice’s past and an anecdote of childhood which turns uncomfortably to past horrors:
“As Alice tells me this, I turn away from her. I stare hard at my hands, wrung around each other. I am afraid to look over at her because I know what I will see. I will see her eyes turning, always turning to rot.”
Eyes feature large in this novel, eyes which are “glossy, dark like brine, fixed and waiting”, eyes “like bullet holes”, “twitching, blinking eyes”, “guilty eyes”, the wide open and beautiful eyes of a murdered woman who had seen far too much in her life. Characters stare out of photos, eyes lock together, eyes act as reflective surfaces behind which nothing can be seen or as apertures to the fearful and decayed interiors that people do not wish the world to see.
Similarly, mouths become “like a wound”, “give way to a gray-blackness like something has crawled inside them and died there”, lipstick becomes the “bleeding edge of her painted mouth”.
Abbott describes characters not just in terms of physical appearance, but also in terms of the clothes they wear (which generally reflect the way they wish society to perceive them, teacher, executive, good-time girl) and on more than one occasion the colognes they use. Lora notices how men smell, the warm and peppery scent of Bill’s aftershave, the (also) peppery cologne of Mike Standish – a studio publicity man that Alice introduces Lora to and with whom Lora embarks on a physical affair.
And that takes me to another key strand of the novel. Just as we see Alice embracing Lora’s world, the world of clam bakes and good neighbours and ultimately even getting a job as a teacher at Lora’s school, so too Lora starts to be drawn to Alice’s world. Alice wants a life like that Lora possesses, and acquires it to a degree with the acquisition of Lora’s brother. Lora was happy with that life, but has more in common with Alice than she admits to herself and is increasingly drawn to the darkness that Alice introduces her to.
Until Alice, Lora’s life has been one of propriety, but with the arrival of Alice she meets some of Alice’s old friends and acquaintances, many of whom are distinctly disreputable. She meets Mike Standish, a “clean and cool container of a man”. By a short distance into the novel, Lora is sleeping with Mike, but shows no interest in advancing their relationship on to any deeper or more conventional footing. Lora meets Lois, a minor actress and B-girl and an old friend of Alice. Joe Avalon, a Hollywood fixer though exactly what he fixes is not too clear. As Lora becomes embroiled with these people from Alice’s world, so too Alice starts to have an impact on the people in Lora’s.
As the novel progresses, we see then two worlds colliding, the world of Hollywood sleaze and corruption and the world of suburban virtue and public service. We see too that Lora, for all she starts in the world of virtue and service, has darkness waiting within her and we become uncomfortably aware that Lora is not a heroine, that in fact there is no hero or heroine. Alice is a femme fatale, a classic one, fully formed and quite traditional in that. Lora is more interesting, in her we see the birth of a femme fatale, something I don’t recall seeing in any other noir or hardboiled novel, we see Lora moving from being a girl next door to a woman who wants to meet “men with smooth cheeks smelling of tangy lime aftershave, who would order you a gin and soda before you even knew you wanted one.”
Glossy surfaces, whisky with soda from a “smooth green bottle”, men in sharply pressed suits who smell as good as they look, consumer goods in abundance, Hollywood and suburban perfection side by side. And, at the same time, eyes and mouths that open only on to decay, rot and emptiness. In a sense, this is a depiction of a cancerous society, still beautiful on the outside but rotting away inside with reeking breath that is increasingly difficult to conceal.
I have, deliberately, said little about the plot. It is giving away little to say that Lora sets out to investigate this new woman in her brother’s life, that she becomes a sort of amateur (very amateur, happily she doesn’t suddenly transform into Sam Spade) detective and that she does not like what she finds very much. But really, it is a novel about two women, both of them passionate and intelligent and both of them with very firm ideas of what they want and few limits as to what they will do to achieve it. It is noir, there are no heroes, no paladins fighting for an elusive justice. Here there are simply clever animals driven by lust and greed and fear.
All that said, Lora does of course present the story, and in doing so though she does not quite make herself the hero she does manage to show a tremendous talent for self-justification in respect of every decision she takes, no matter how questionable some might seem. For all that I would not call her an unreliable narrator, it is true that there are times we see more than she might wish us to and perhaps more than she is willing to see herself, but there is also always the suspicion that she understands herself in ways that she is not prepared to directly voice.
Die a Little is a quick read, I read it in one sitting while flying between London and Madrid and I am not persuaded it would benefit from being spread over many days (I’m not persuaded many good pulp novels would actually, it’s not the nature of the form). There are places where I felt the technique possibly a little obvious, where I could see as a reader how Abbott as a writer was looking to achieve certain effects, but that may be as much a fault of this blog (in making me overanalytical) as it is of Abbott and certainly I intend to buy her other novels when they reach the UK (not least given that the same criticism could easily be made of Spillane). Only once did I feel jarred from period, when the word “homemaker” was used when I would have thought housewife still the period expression, but that’s a harsh quibble and generally I thought the period well evoked and brought to life, as indeed was LA itself in all its seedy glory.
Above all, I found it interesting to read a noir novel from a female perspective, a novel of constrained lives and choices, lives defined in large part by relationships with men, a novel of female desire and female ambitions and of determined women unwilling to compromise. It is a novel which includes dark pasts, illicit pornography, sex (which is never directly described, classic noir referred to sex but did not depict the act itself, the importance is in the passion and its consequences, not the practical detail), death and all manner of vice, but in which the most terrible truth of all is that “The hardest thing in this world is finding out what you’re capable of.”
As I said at the opening of this blog entry, this is a genre novel. However, it is a novel which understands the genre it is part of, which embraces that genre and which celebrates it. James Ellroy helped reinvigorate the classic noir of novelists such as James Cain or the extraordinary Horace McCoy. Ellroy’s novels are brutal, staccato affairs full of casual violence and graceless lives. Die a Little is not that sort of novel, these characters would not fit well into an Ellroy novel and the focus is more on the personal than the historical, but this does share with early Ellroy an immediacy and a paciness which marks good pulp noir and which I found refreshing and which reminded me of quite why I am as fond of pulp literature as I am.