Dare Me – Megan Abbott
October 31, 2013 § 1 Comment
You know how people ask those questions about where you were when something monumental occurred, and you can immediately recall the day, the hour, the very moment that you heard the news? I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I turned the final page of Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS. Sitting on a bus, with one of my headphones in, Placebo wailing away in the background, trying to come to terms with the fact that I had to start a shift at my retail job and carry on as usual after having just finished one of the most incredible books I’d ever read. Finishing THE MAGICIANS was, in some inexplicable way, a life-changing event for me: a new kind of reading experience, fiction with a different kind of resonance.
THE MAGICIANS is, if not my favourite book, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Oddly, this book is a kind of sacrilegious mix of Harry Potter and The Secret History, both of which are my favourites. Since I finished it about a year ago, I hadn’t come across another novel that had the same kind of impact (although THE MAGICIAN KING came pretty damn close). Today, I finished Megan Abbott’s DARE ME, and for the second time, my world has ever-so-slightly shifted.
Football players throw a ball around. We throw each other.
At first, the squad is reluctant to accept the new Coach. Regal, closed-off and hard as nails, she is everything the cheerleaders aspire to. Under her regiment, they begin to flourish: as their bodies shed excess fat in favour of hard muscle, their determination to better their routine turns to obsession. Every girl wants to be the lightest, the fastest, the lithest, so that she may be chosen as the Flyer. Before Coach, there would have been no doubt that Beth would be Top Girl, the apex of the pyramid. Captain of the squad and dictator of the group, Beth and Addy have been best friends since before they even had a choice.
But now that Coach has commanded Addy’s loyalty, Beth finds herself backed into a corner. No longer Top Girl, Captain or even Addy’s priority, she sinks into a maelstrom of destruction and betrayal. Beth invests her body, mind and soul in bringing the Coach to her knees, and never once stops to consider the cost.
The fraying rope in a tug-of-war, Addy is forced to decide who to trust, maybe with her life: her lifelong best friend, or the Coach who remade her?
The world of cheer makes Tyler Durden’s Fight Club look like a casual warm up. The physical demands of a cheerleader’s body are akin to a ballerina’s, and each and every stunt is a calculated risk. To successfully pull off the stunning moves they aspire to, Addy and her squad are dependent on their own strength and the capability of their teammates. I don’t think anyone would underestimate the athleticism involved in being a cheerleader, but before I read DARE ME, I never considered the fact that so many of the stunts we see cheerleaders do are truly a matter of life and death. If someone falls from the top of a pyramid, or lands badly from a basket toss, they could very easily break their neck. At least with Fight Club, if someone goes limp, taps out or says stop, the fight is over…
Eyes on the Flyer’s eyes, shoulders, hips, vigilant for any sign of misalignment, instability, panic.
This is how you stop falls.
This is how you keep everything from collapsing.
You never get to see the stunt at all.
Eyes on your girl.
And it’s only ever a partial vision, because that’s the only way to keep everyone up in the air.
… Standing back, it’s like you’re trying to kill each other and yourselves.
In DARE ME, Abbott brutalises female relationships. She unflinchingly portrays the co-dependency of female friendships with such honesty that I actually found it a bit uncomfortable to read. Addy and Beth’s lives are so entwined, their personalities so enmeshed that they are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. I found Collette (Coach) and Addy’s friendship a little disturbing, however; a twenty-seven year old woman should not need a seventeen year old girl to affirm her life decisions. In a lot of ways, I saw Coach as Beth, ten years after high school graduation – living a cold, empty life, with little to be happy about and much to obsess over.
I don’t think there’s a single, truly likeable character in DARE ME. Like DIE A LITTLE, I didn’t trust or fully invest in the narrator, but for entirely different reasons. DIE A LITTLE is quite clearly a mystery novel, so I was suspicious of Lora from the outset. Entering into DARE ME, however, I wasn’t entirely sure of the novel’s genre. Something about the way that Addy cowed to everyone’s agenda, and then secretly seethed about it set my teeth on edge. It just didn’t feel right, and it was very unsettling. I loved it.
Gone is the affectionately critical portrayal of female adolescence (not that it wasn’t appreciated, Tina). Here is the truth, the essence of competitive femininity. Here is female power, and its cost. Here is the cult of cheerleading. I’m still not sure if I want to join.
DARE ME is an odd mix of Fight Club, Black Swan and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It taps into a culture of vicious obsession and explores the relationship between determination and desperation. It’s the second novel I’ve read by Abbott, and I’m possibly even more impressed with it than DIE A LITTLE. Buy the book, set aside a few hours and prepare to be impressed.
I pair the books I read with the music I listen to…
Sixteen year old New Zealand singer LORDE is wise beyond her years. Her breakout record Pure Heroine is topping charts left, right and centre, so if you don’t know her name by now, you will soon. Lorde’s first single Tennis Court is the perfect musical representation of DARE ME, particularly when paired with its stark, unsettling film clip. Lorde, who writes about the “loneliness, fake friends and real friends” that are all a part the life of a sixteen year old girl, is the ideal accompaniment to Abbott’s brilliant novel. Check out the video by clicking on the photo below.
We are phalanx-spread four deep across the floor. Oh, the roaring, if only you knew.