What Can We Steal From Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything?

Title of Work and its Form: The End of Everything, novel
Author: Megan Abbott
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: At fine independent booksellers anywhere.  Fine.  Okay.  The book can also be purchased on Amazon.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:

Edgar Award-winning author Megan Abbott’s first novels are pulp fiction tomes that somehow capture the flavor of a time that passed decades before she was born.  Her work is evolving in very interesting ways; this book certainly can’t be called a pulp novel and is not as much of a crime/thriller as it is simply a literary coming-of-age story.  The first-person narrator of the book is thirteen-year-old Lizzie, a young woman who is lucky enough to have a friend like Evie Verver.  The two grew up together and shared everything.  Well, not everything.  (There would be no book otherwise.)  In very short order, Evie has been kidnapped by Harold Shaw, an insurance salesman who has a family of his own.  Appropriately, Lizzie is the driving force behind the investigation that brings Evie home and learns an awful lot about herself, the Ververs and life itself.

Ms. Abbott took on a number of challenges by putting Lizzie in control.  Although Lizzie-in-the-first-chapter is looking back on the book’s events with the wisdom granted by the passage of time, the rest of the book is told from the perspective of a very young woman who is still unversed in the ways of the world.  On one hand, Lizzie cannot figure everything out too easily; on the other, Lizzie must be able to navigate the mysteries confronting her.  Ms. Abbott makes the wise choice to simply trust her narrator and to give her the time she needs to realistically work through her many problems.

One technique Ms. Abbott used to create this kind of successful narrator was to vary the length of her sentences and amount of psychological insight contained within.  Here’s the opening of third chapter:

The phone rings.  It’s ten thirty at night.  I’m brushing my teeth when it happens, and I hope it’s not my dad calling from California, calling from his apartment balcony, a sway in his voice, talking about the time we rented canoes at Old Pine Lake, or the time he built the swing set in the backyard, or other things I don’t really remember but that he does, always, when he’s had a second glass of wine.

The concrete details are contained in punchier sentences.  Okay, so the phone rang when it was a little late.  Not much analysis needed on Lizzie’s part, right?  That long third sentence, however, does a great deal of work.  The reader learns:

  • Lizzie has some unresolved problems with her father
  • The father feels some measure of regret for their current situation
  • Lizzie remembers many of the good things he did
  • Lizzie understands that these memories are often evoked by an extra drink

When all of the “raw data” is put together, the reader gains a deeper understanding of what Lizzie and her father mean to each other.  This process also mimics the process by which we all mature; we absorb data, think about emotions and boom: we gain a little pearl of wisdom at some point.  We can truly call ourselves adults when we have enough of those pearls.  (I’m about three dozen short at the moment.)

People don’t arrive at epiphanies easily in real life and neither should Lizzie.  Look at a some of Lizzie’s thoughts that arrive approximately three quarters through the book.  (Don’t worry; it doesn’t really give much away.)

They’d been there, been there behind one of those clotty red doors, and done such things…and now gone.  And now gone.  And every night they stayed there when he left to get her food, did he lock her in – did he lock her in?  How could he?  But he would leave there and she would be there and would she wait, reader for her dinner, ready for him to click open the door and provide her with her dinner, like a jailer with no keys, with no locks, with no prisoner at all.

The first few sentences remind me of a gymnast working through his or her moves before a routine.  The gymnast takes a step or two, twirls his or her arms and legs about a little and runs through the routine mentally.  That last sentence?  The gymnast (Lizzie’s thought) is off and running and nothing can get in the way.  Narration such as this unites narrator and reader; both are trying to understand what is happening in the story and in the hearts of the characters living it.  (Even better, the sentences are beautiful and musical and maintain dramatic momentum.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Match your character’s lines and thoughts to his or her maturity level or mental state.  Nineteen of the twenty chapters in The End of Everything are written from the perspective of a relatively bright thirteen-year-old woman.  Ms. Abbott makes sure Lizzie always sounds and thinks like one.  Lizzie asks a million questions as she tries to fill in her understanding of the world and of love and is even somewhat cryptic when relating information a young lady may not want to talk about…
  • Construct your piece in a manner that serves the story you wish to tell.  In different hands, The End of Everything would have been a far different book.  While Ms. Abbott is very good at describing the “mystery/crime” elements, she devotes far more time to telling Lizzie’s story against the backdrop of the novel’s events.  You have to decide which is most interesting to you: the explosion or its aftermath.

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