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Dare Me: Megan Abbott’s Indirect Challenge?

July 9, 2012

I read Megan Abbott’s new novel Dare Me with considerable apprehension. First, it’s about cheerleaders, and secondly, unlike her previous novels it’s set in the unromantic, technological present world of Facebook, texting and tweeting. To me, that seemed a vacuous combination.

Abbott, however, does not give us dumb cheerleaders, and Dare Me owes a debt to other examinations of the dark side of High School such as Heathers. The story opens with the cheerleading squad anticipating the arrival of their new coach. Beth, the captain of the squad, expects to rule over her in the same way she controlled the last coach. But this new coach is hardly a push-over, and her training regimen is both modern (smoothies and yoga) and incredibly tough. Addy, Beth’s best friend and the protagonist of the story, is drawn to the new coach, whilst Beth schemes to bring her down.

Yet what Abbott does so thrillingly in The End of Everything, namely believably maintain her protagonist’s sometimes-wonder-sometimes-surprise-sometimes-facination with the situation wherein she finds herself, seems forced in Dare Me. This flaw led to a lack of sympathy for Addy, who although more naive than Beth, seems complicitly involved in a hard-boiled world. Strangely, it is the mostly absent, almost-a-cipher, work-a-holic husband of the coach that I felt closest to. Like Nick Papadakis in James M.Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, he is the hardworking man who has done little wrong besides make the mistake of marrying a woman who is selfish and self-obsessed. When Coach embarks on an affair with an Army recruiter, she tries to explain her relationship to her ingenue Addy, who has earlier with Beth witnessed them in flagrante. But Coach’s explaination feels as hollow and self-obsessed as the cheerleaders she coaches:

People will always try to scare you into things. Scare you away from things. Scare you into wanting things you can’t help wanting. You can’t be afraid.

Just as frustrating was the almost pure evilness of Beth, Addy’s best friend and the captain of the team. Perhaps this is because I was an athlete: I played elementary, middle, high school and even university sports, but I never heard a woman talk like Beth nor scheme like Beth.  Aside from being a prime manipulator, Beth talks to her squad like the expletive-laden  Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket:

Let’s get started, kitties, Beth says. The Celts wait for no sad-ass chicken hearts [...]

Whip your heads, she says, and we do.

Make your clasps sharp, she says and we do.

Make your faces like you’re wired for pleasure, she says and we gleam ecstatic.

Give ‘em the best blow-job smiles you got.

And

Hella bitches, she bellows, rocking her feet on the bench so that is shudders. Our scout, I can feel her out there, waiting. And, bitches, she is so ready to be fucked.

All this to say that I found the social vision too bleak and too unbelievable. In comparison, the TV show The Wire, whose troubling yet superbly executed season 4 confronts the harsh realities of inner-city Baltimore’s school system, still retains amidst its bleakness the hope of compassion, of justice, even of morality, that Dare Me lacks. Dare Me presents a dystopic society, wherein Coach corrupts her charges with wine and boys whilst hypocritically claiming the upper moral hand to their own fumbling high school experiments with the same. Even deaths or near-deaths, which James M. Cain used as a kind of reckoning, mean very little in this confused world, and relationships, forged out of feelings of possession, self-hatred or selfish desires are difficult to find sympathy with.

Abbott’s impressive back catalogue, her skill and her vision all ‘dared me’ not to like this book. But I will, in this one instance, prove her wrong.

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