Briefly Noted: “The Fever” — Megan Abbott

I’ve already reviewed The Fever—it’s just under the title Dare Me, with its similar subject matter (high-school girls, transformation, darkness in women, sexuality) and style (half-knowing, unwilling to admit, chopped up narrative). This is not a criticism, Dare Me readers who want more of the same will find The Fever delivers. Like Dare Me the principle concern is female rivalry over high-status guys and female judgment of each other’s sexuality. I won’t say it’s a critique of those topics, though it could be read that way. It could also be seen as a commentary on the eternal conflict between children and parents.

Similarity is not always a bad thing—Elmore Leonard’s many caper novels consistently delivered similar characters, styles, and plots, and again that could be read as weakness or strength as he played with variations around a central concern or set of concerns (which I read as coolness and silence—subjects for an academic paper yet to be written).

the_feverThere is a Paglian tinge to Abbott’s last two novels (sample: “In the school’s hallways, Tom could see it: Gabby carried the glamour of experience, like a dark queen with a bloody train trailing behind.” Unlikely, but poetic, and it tells us about Tom’s overwrought perspective). They may be of less interest to those far from high school or offspring in high school. Abbot is willing to probe darkness in a way rarely seen in TV or movies, which tend to lag books by decades in terms of their willingness to portray what lurks within. Even the better TV stations like HBO and Showtime need to appeal to “Heads of Households,” which explains why the teen series tend to be on network TV or basic cable.

There are comparisons to be made with Caitlin Flanagan, and Abbott wins them; Flanagan’s book Girl Land was published in only 2012 and already the hardcover is justifiably available for $.01 from Amazon. I think I read a library copy. Both the Flanagan essays and the Abbott novels show how little we tend to know about things when we’re young and have no context or framework for understanding them. One could argue that the knowledge for understanding the world is out there, and most teenagers choose not to access it. This leads to confusion. That confusion is reproduced to good effect in the narrative voice and structure of The Fever:

I’m next, Deenie thinks, a few minutes and it’ll be me.
If only she’d gotten it over with a year ago. But she’d heard about how much it hurt and no one else had done it yet, at least not anyone she knew.
Now she’s one of the last one.

The tense moves from present to past back to present, with the “it” deliberately ambiguous in that it sounds like sexuality but may actually be the fever of the title. Naturally hypocrisy appears too, with slightly incestuous overtones, when Eli thinks that “Since then, he could only ever think about his sister, one wall away. And how he hoped Deenie never did things like this. With guys like him.” To be thinking about his sister in this context seems like a mistake of focus. About some things there is little to say; people are people and want what they want, as teenagers are probably taught not to know or admit. The characters are also mostly ignorant: Deenie thinks, “Why did everything have to be about sex, she wondered. Didn’t it make a lot more sense that it was something else?” She hasn’t read or probably even heard of evolutionary biology or Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. I hadn’t either in high school, and I don’t remember my first introduction, but I do know that a couple books on the subject made a lot of previously puzzling behavior fall into place. It’s true that not everything is about sex but so much is about it because we’ve evolved to pay close attention to matters relating to survival and reproduction.

Simple principles give rise to dizzyingly complex behaviors and patterns. Deenie doesn’t know that and in some ways her society conspires with her towards ignorance. One reading of Abbott’s last two novels could be as a move from utter ignorance to slightly greater knowledge. Jealousy is a perpetual companion because there are so few real status ladders to climb in high school (“Everything was so easy for Skye, with her older boyfriends, the way her aunt bought her cool old-time lingerie from vintage shops, the strip of birth control pills she once unfurled for them like candy.”) Skye, however, probably doesn’t think things are easy for Skye, but few high schoolers have the ability to get out of their own heads and into the heads of their companions. The last two paragraphs may be unfair, like saying that Faulkner is merely writing about the machinations of slack-jawed southern yokels who need education and functioning political infrastructure, but there is also some accuracy to them.

The question of whether the fever has supernatural, psychological, microbiological, or other origins does get resolved, but its mechanics are dubious.

In business there are very few true partnerships

When founders are starting out, partnership inquiries sound really exciting. In theory, a successful partnership with a larger company could help your company get more customers. What you realize, though, is that partnerships are rarely a real thing. When you work with another company, either they are your customer or you are their customer. Anything other than that usually just eats up time and energy.

—From Brad Flora’s “I Sold My Startup for $25.5 Million: Here’s how I did it,” which is interesting throughout despite the sensationalist title.

At Seliger + Associates we’ve learned that anyone who talks about partnerships is wasting our time (and theirs). People who need a good or service and can pay for the good or service are usually prepared to move quickly. They don’t need much if any convincing from third parties. And they don’t need an intermediary between them and the good or service provider.

Think of it this way: if your friend knows you love Thai food and tells you that there’s a great Thai restaurant nearby, you’re not going to wait for your friend to take you there. You’re just going to go. By the same token, when existing clients make referrals, they often don’t even tell us. They just do it. The referral isn’t hard and it isn’t complex and it usually involves very little negotiation.

Being in business taught me that there are two factors that matter more than anything else: who is paying me money and who I am paying money to. “Partnerships” or “alliances” that don’t involve contracts and money and services or goods don’t mean anything.

Oops, perhaps, and several points on The Logic of Life

* Carrie Frye quotes Neil Gaiman, who writes: “I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don’t Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre.” I try not to but occasionally do, as with The Logic of Life. But maybe Gaiman and Frye are only carving out their rule for fiction, as with nonfiction it seems more appropriate to survey existing work to ascertain whether an author is merely duplicating what already exists. I’m also on the record agreeing with the gist of what they say.

* Two readers wrote to ask in effect why, if I didn’t like the idea behind The Logic of Life, I bought and read it. Several answers:

1) I haven’t read all the econ-for-dummies books I listed and so thought I would still benefit from another one.

2) I didn’t realize the problems with The Logic of Life until after I read it, at which point they became more apparent.

3) Tim Harford was visiting Seattle, and I wanted to have the background for his discussion before he arrived.

4) Some of the chapters are also helpful professionally because some topics Harford discusses are perennials in grant writing.

Without number three, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Number four is probably just a post-purchase justification.

* A friend who edited my post on Logic of Life said apropos of it, “Your beginnings are always very abstruse and hard to follow.” Really?

If I accept the premise that they’re harder-than-some-kind-of-average to follow, I would say that it’s because they often set up important context for what’s to follow. I’ll be more cognizant of this, especially because I began keeping a list a while ago of things reviewers often do that can annoy me. Number one, was, naturally:

1) Reviewing the author’s preceding ouevre before getting to whatever the reviewer is supposed to be reviewing or discussing the genre/similar books more generally. I did it in my discussion of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers. This is essentially what Frye and and Gaiman were discussing.

2) Developing grand theories: I found myself writing about what makes a good history book when I really wanted to deal with The Pursuit of Glory.

3) Tangentially discuss a book while instead focusing on political or social commentary. This essentially describes The New York Review of Books, to the extent they still write about book, as opposed to galleries, political essays, movies, the universe, pornography, navel gazing etc. And yes, I’m a subscriber.

I’m sure other patterns exist, and I might start pointing out examples as I see them. All three have happened in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, I’m sure.

* Overall, the issue of context for reviews makes me think about why trusted criticism and publishing gatekeepers are so important: you’re more likely to read a book or review about a subject if you have a preexisting indicators that you aren’t wasting your time and that someone has vetted whatever you’re reading. This could be generalized to the chicken-and-egg problem of blogs more generally: you don’t have credibility until you have enough fame to generate credibility.

The Bad Girl, digested

The Guardian posted a digested read of The Bad Girl that does more justice to the novel than I could:

“I’m working as a translator and interpreter now,” I boasted.

“That’s a rather obvious metaphor for someone who lives his life through others,” she [the bad girl] observed.

“I’ve been in love with you for 10 years,” I swooned.

“Well, you’re a complete idiot then,” she said, “but if you want to go down on me, be my guest.”

(Found courtesy of Bookslut.)

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