These days there are so many varities of noir that it can be mind-boggling. Way back whenever, it was easy; the genre was pretty much divided between urban and rural noir, while, with the exception of writers like Andrew Coburn, suburban noir hardly entered into it. Similarly, other than stories written specifically for the teenage market, not much noir fiction has centered specifically on children. What makes Megan Abbott's The End of Everything unique is that it's set in suburbia and it's about childhood. Moreover, it affirms that both can be extremely dark places. After all, who knows what evil lurks behind those curtains. Likewise, who really knows what goes on in the mind of a child, particularly during what's commonly called the latency period, between childhood and adolescence, with its high-drama, longing, obsessions and confusion.
The plot of The End of Everything revolves around the disappearance of Evie, a thirteen year old, and is narrated by Evie's best friend, Lizzie, herself on the cusp of puberty, though not quite as precocious as her friend. Both are in awe of Evie's older sister, Dusty, a beautiful but hard-edged seventeen year old. But Lizzie is also infatuated by Evie and Dusty's father. Distorted through Lizzie's view of things, the novel is, as the title suggests, about the end of childhood and the final days of that heightened and circumscribed state of awareness that accompanies it, terrifingly perfect, to which one can never return.
Abbott has already been responsible for a handful of excellent novels- influenced by Hollywood film noir and set mostly during the mid-20th century- but I think this could be her best. At any rate, it's her most daring. Reading it, I was reminded of the Swedish horror film, Let the Right One In as well as Rian Johnson's strangely evocative Brick. They, like Abbott's novel, portray young people as existing in a world of their own, separate from adults, trapped in an in-between existence. The only possible disconnect here is that the reader has to suspend disbelief when it comes to Lizzie, who, at thirteen, is able to articulate what isn't often articulated. Wearing her emotions as well as her misperceptions on her sleeve, Lizzie is particularly adept at describing the physical, including her own body, which she regards with with fascination as well as dread. Fortunately, Abbott's prose is as seamless as it is fevered, resulting in something that reads like a nightmare in which reality is flimsy yet hyper-real. Accordingly, Lizzie's uncertainties are transferred to the reader. Is the neighbor's father a perv? Is her mother's boyfriend the voyeur? Is her friend's sister involved in an incestuous relationship with her dad? These are just a few of the mysteries that may or may not be revealed.
Actually, I'm not sure Picador, the book's British publisher, has the right line when it comes to marketing such an evocative and intelligent novel. Comparisons to The Virgin Suicides and The Lovely Bones are, for me, slightly wide of the mark. In fact, it sells The End of Everything short. Because Abbott's novel is not only more believable, but closer to the edge, while the other two are literary products, more concerned with presentation and style than substance. But even if I'm wrong, it still points to the fact that Abbott has entered a genre that still barely exists, no matter that young adults have been reading a version (Lois Duncan, Robert Cormier, S.E. Hinton, VC Andrews) for some time. Abbott's book might be set in suburbia and about childhood, but, by investigating obsession, sex and everything else associated with the unexamined life, it goes straight to the heart of what noir fiction is about, while, at the same time, helping to reset its parameters.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.