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La Petite Morte: Megan Abbott’s Die a Little

September 1, 2010

The title of Megan Abbott’s debut novel, Die a Little, whilst sounding appropriately noirish, is most likely a reference to La Petite Morte, the little death (a French metaphor for an orgasm) as seen through the almost surrealist imagery in the novel. Women are flowers, their mouths are gaping holes, a murdered victim’s dress blooms while she floats in the pool and one character, when she goes off the handle, warns her sewing class of teenage girls: ‘once they find the dark holes be-be-be-between our legs, no matter how good it is, everything turns to s-s-s-s- shit’.

 Die a Little portrays the sexual awakening of a young teacher and her cop brother  to the sexually deviant underworld of 1950s L.A. wherein the Hollywood veneer is mirrored by an equally duplicitous domestic realm of fruit-cocktail gelatin rings, Singer sewing machines, hatboxes, and Mai Tais. Bill and Lora, who dote on each other like an elderly married couple (when he is wounded, she is asked by several people if she is his wife and there are incestuous undertones to Bill and Lora’s relationship), are orphans from the South invited to L.A. by their godparents. But although Bill has become a detective, he seems untouched by the city he lives in, until he meets Alice. It is fitting that a car crash brings the sultry, mysterious Alice, a Hollywood seamstress, and Bill together, as his compulsive attraction to Alice brings him closer to self-destruction.  Yet, in a deviation from the femme fatale storyline, Alice’s electric sexuality also stirs Bill’s sister Lora, who describes her sister-in-law’s ‘sweetly spreading pale thighs’, ‘her alabaster skin [...] spread across the frame, pillowing out of the silk and curving sharply into her dark hair’. Lora’s attraction/repulsion to Alice and to the darker side of L.A. is channelled into her relationship with Mike Standish, a Hollywood fixer, who rescues studio actors from bad headlines while also discreetly catering to their fetishes. Perhaps it is because Alice pushes Lora to date Mike, and because Lora is already a keen observer of her brother’s relationship,  that Lora is detached even in sexual encounters with Mike, who is uncharacteristically touched by Lora. When she finds another woman’s lipstick on Mike’s bed, Lora asks him, after he clears the bed covers,

“Is that the usual routine?” I say walking toward the center of the room, then turning and facing him again.                        

“Not always, but with you…” He smiles suddenly and, head still tilted against the wall, he twists around to catch my gaze. “Aren’t I a bastard? Or maybe I’m a powder puff, You see, Lora King, turns out I’m surprising myself this time. Turns out I’m disappointed how little you care.”

I find myself offering a sharp giggle of shock.

“Hard boiled”. He winces.

Covering my mouth, I concede, “You’re rotten,” before letting the smile spread, blowing smoke. I run the tip of my thumb along my lower lip, brushing away a stray wisp of tobacco.

“Well, then.” He folds his arms and matches my stare, grinning like a snake. “Put out that cigarette, beautiful, and take off the fucking dress.”

It is because Lora’s emotional detachment accompanies her birth into this dark underworld that she can save her brother by understanding the darkness and using it to her advantage, yet her morally dubious actions–framing Mike Standish and inadvertently bringing about Alice’s death– are ironically accomplished in an attempt to shield her brother from emotional pain and return him to their celibate sibling marriage.

Diana Powell is a native of Detroit, Michigan. She spent four years working as a teacher in Bangkok, Thailand and is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Liverpool on the influence of Sir Walter Scott on the Tractarian Movement and has published several articles on this subject. She has research interests in American crime fiction authors such as Megan Abbott, Arthur B. Reeve, Lawrence Treat and John Dickson Carr.

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