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The Elusive Centre: Megan Abbott and The End of Everything

January 2, 2012

Abbott's novel is loosely based on her upbringing in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Megan Abbott’s dreamy and compelling The End of Everything explores the strivings  for an elusive centre: the central place, the definite reason, the moral certainty of childhood.  Abbott’s narrator, thirteen-year-old Lizzie, begins the narrative almost without an individual identity:  Lizzie’s personhood is bound up in Evie, her next door neighbour and best friend, whom Lizzie has known since infancy. Until Evie’s hair darkened and Lizzie’s body began to become more womanly, they were hard to tell apart. Their knowledge of one another has become instinctual, or so Lizzie believes, until Evie’s disappearance makes her reexamine her friend and thus herself.

Before Evie disappears,  Lizzie and Evie seem on the periphery of things, marginalised by the relationships around them. Lizzie’s parents are divorced and have little time for her (as does her grunting teenage brother), whereas Evie’s home is dominated by Evie’s mysterious, sexual sister, Dusty, whose close relationship with her father is the envy of both girls. The Dusty/Mr Verver relationship upsets the household dynamic, excluding Evie’s and Dusty’s mother to a cipher-like existence.

When Evie disappears, the balance shifts dramatically, and Lizzie is both disturbed and guiltily excited to shift into the centre.  Evie’s kidnap heightens Lizzie’s mother’s maternal instincts, and Mr Verver craves her companionship as Dusty becomes reclusive. But just as this seems a redressing of the balance, it is also another version of a distorted world, as Lizzie’s unspoken sexual feelings for Mr Verver and the fear of Evie’s molestation, rape, torture and even murder at the hands of her captor come to the front.

Abbott’s description of Lizzie’s physical and visual impressions, float before the reader like dreams, yet these powerful evocations are part of the fabric of reassessing and becoming as made evident by Lizzie’s attempts to find words, to find the truth, in these fleeting impressions and to describe what happened to her friend:

I’m watching through the kitchen window, the coffee pot chugging.

Sometimes, at night, he’s out there.

That’s what Evie had said.

When she said it, it was just a  cold-spiny feeling, a bit of nighttime spookiness. But later, it snuck back into my thoughts, and I wondered about all the boys who trailed Dusty, who swarmed her in the school corridors, who wedged notes into her locker and buzzed about her. So many of them might flit around at night […]

Mr Verver walks into the kitchen, his whole body jumping with energy.  “They think it could be something, ” he says. “They don’t know, but they think it could be.”

I feel a tingle on my tongue. I feel it because I think, Doesn’t he see what this means? Isn’t this scarier, a hundred times, the idea that wherever Evie is she might be with someone who watched her, for nights on end, from the dark sweep of a backyard tree, who watched, unhurried, unbothered, puffing and breathing and watching and–

Something clicks and shutters in my head, and there it is, there it is, tumbling from my half-opened mouth:

“The car. Twice. I saw a car go by twice.”

Abbott’s power lies in her descriptions, but also in what remains elusive to the reader, the tantilizing spaces which we are compelled to fill and adjust and reassess along with her characters. Although The End of Everything is a departure from her noir settings, Abbott retains her powerful style. My only reservation is having taught middle school myself, Abbott’s perceptions may exceed the capabilities of her narrator, although the wonder, the cruelty, and the uncertain striving of that age is powerfully present.

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