Reading Like a Writer: Perspective, Intimacy, and Dare Me
Megan Abbott's Dare Me is an intense novel about friendship. It's also about power, desire, and cheerleading. I've written about it previously. But after my class (How'd They Do That: A Craft-Based Book Club for Writers) discussed it, I can't help writing more.
The book is written in first person, but it's a special kind of first person. Even though we are ostensibly in Addy's head the whole time, we get frequent access to the thoughts and emotions of other characters. Addy tells them to us.
An example is when Sargent Will tells Addy a story that she doesn't quite understand. Addy internalizes it, takes it into her own imagination, and then describes it for us.
We are both quiet for a moment. I'm thinking of the old woman. I can see the poppy-blooming hat, and her face, her eyes inked black and all-knowing.
It's not that Addy is omniscient but that she's insightful. We see her processing what she's been told. Earlier in the conversation, Addy tells the reader: "I'm not sure I'm following" and "I'm listening, but I don't know what I'm hearing." So when she finally "sees" and describes what Will has told her, we know it's her interpretation.
Yet her description is real and vivid. The details have come from Will: "this hat with a big red flower, like a poppy" and "these black eyes, like lumps of coal." But Addy's description—a "poppy-blooming hat" and "eyes inked black"—is stranger and much more alive. Of the two images, it's the one I'll remember.
Addy is more direct and more confident when she gets into the minds of other cheerleaders.
I can tell from RiRi's face that she would not care to do so at all, but it's the prairie whistle of the Old West, high noon at ole Sutton Grove High. You can hear Beth's tin star rattling against her chest.
I'm interested in this instance, first of all, because Addy is clearly reading RiRi's face. It often feels wrong to let a narrator do this—we think we should describe the facial expression and let the reader judge its meaning. But in this case, I'm glad to get Addy's interpretation. She's good at intuiting feelings. And that "prairie whistle" is much more interesting than a snarled lip or a twisted eyebrow would be.
Addy's ability to express RiRi's feelings in these words is telling in itself. Addy must feel what RiRi does to put it into such tin-rattling language.
We also know that Addy is not merely speculating because of the way the first sentence shifts. It starts as an interpretation of RiRi's feelings, but becomes a statement about what just is. The part that she "can tell from RiRi's face" is only "that she would not care to do so." When we reach "but," the sentence turns into a statement of fact: "it's the prairie whistle…" So who is hearing this whistle? It's not just RiRi; Addy hears it, too.
Addy begins the next sentence with "you," which she means in the sense of "anyone." Of course, it especially means her, and it also means the reader. Described as it is, who can't hear that whistle? Who can't hear the tin star rattling?
Even more interesting, the "tin star rattling against her chest" gets us some of Beth's perspective, too. Of course, the tin star isn't real—Addy is comparing Beth to a sheriff. And the badge would be on the outside. But a rattle against a chest? It's impossible not to understand it as a heart beat. So it feels like Addy is moving physically inside of Beth, describing not only RiRi's feelings about Beth, but the sensations that Beth herself must feel.
When Addy relates the experience of another character, we get simultaneous access to two people. More exciting, when Addy goes right into another girl's head to explain her thoughts, she must also be having those thoughts. Thus, the two share something profound and the reader gets to share that, too. It's in that peculiar space between one mind and another—the space where Addy is figuring things out—that we feel a special relationship between the characters. It's a powerful way to create intimacy and make the reader feel it.
The sense of intimacy is both most profound and most natural with Beth, Addy's best friend and also, perhaps, her nemesis. Addy interprets Beth's actions, knows her well enough to describe and even predict them.
But it's always complicated with Beth and me, where her desire ends and mine begins. Because when we first hear the sound, I realize it's me who wants it more. Wants something to happen.
There are still secrets and intrigue, but they're made more intense—more dangerous—by how well these girls know and understand each other.
In some books, first person can be stifling because we're stuck, always, with the same character. A narrator like Addy—intuitive, empathetic, fearless—is a great way to combat the claustrophobia and make a novel more expansive.
But Addy's insightfulness also does the opposite. It implicates the reader in her thought process and positions us in the space between her and the other characters. Doing so creates a thrilling, even frightening, sense of intimacy.
Allison Wyss is teaching two classes at the Loft this fall: How'd They Do That: A Craft Based Book Club for Writers and Beneath the Surface: Exploring Subtext. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.