May 2014

Walter Biggins


The Fever by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott's The Fever whips up a frenzy of activity and anxiety but the first time I was affected by it was halfway through the novel, during a rare moment of stillness. Eli Nash, a studly and popular hockey jock of Dryden High School, loses his smartphone. In a teenage world inundated with texts, blogs, Vines, and Facebook walls, Eli should count this as a minor tragedy. But he experiences something different, on a quiet morning:

It was maybe five, the light looked like five, but without his phone, Eli had no idea.

There was a freedom in it.

It was warmer than in months, as if the temperature had risen during the night, and the bike ride through town felt delirious and wonderful.

His hand kept reaching for his pocket, the phantom buzz.

But nothing.

Maybe he'd never have a phone again.

At Dryden High, during a morning class, a female student (Lise Daniels) suffers what appears to be -- but can't be -- an epileptic fit. The next day, her friend Gabby Bishop goes through the same. A few days later, another girl, this one only tangentially involved with Lise and Gabby. This being the social media age, all of this hysteria plays out on phones. Kids capture videos and photos of the fits, post the stuff on YouTube, comment on them, text about them, gossip and speculate and spread fear, all with their phones. For Eli to lose his phone, then, means losing his connection to the world. This should cause him alarm. Instead, he finds peace, a brief release from the emotional fever gripping the suburb. I think we all know the feeling. We all need disconnection from time to time, if only to remind us that the "connections" we're constantly making are often not real.

Indeed, much of Abbott's novel churns with speculation, half-seen things, and misperceptions caused by poor memory, poor vision, poor hearing, and misunderstood gestures. The world of Dryden High -- from teens to ostensible adults -- is a world that doesn't seem quite substantial, even though everyone in that world is "connected" to everyone else. Everyone knows every nook and cranny of the town and school -- well, they think so, anyway -- but all it takes is female hysteria to make everyone in The Fever lost at sea.

Abbott amplifies that waviness in her prose, by jumping from the perspectives (always third-person limited) of the members of the Nash family. There's the aforementioned Eli, his sixteen-year-old sister Deenie, and their single father Tom, who teaches chemistry at the school. The Nash family unit serves as the novel's collective protagonist, and Abbott is deft at conveying the interior machinations of each individual member and the psychology of the family as a singular entity.

Deenie, because she's close friends with both Lise and Gabby, worries she'll be the next one to go into hysterics but also that she hasn't may mean that she's a carrier of the virus, whatever it actually is. As it turns out, all of her interior thoughts and all her fears turn out to have little to do with Dryden's trauma. She imagines herself as central to the narrative but, when looked at from the outside, turns out to be inessential and increasingly alienated from the events, even as she strives to get closer to the action. Eli turns out to the fulcrum for the entire trauma, in a way that critics would probably (and perhaps rightly) call misogynist if this novel had been written by a Maxwell Abbott rather than Megan Abbott -- more on this in a bit. That being said, despite Eli's popularity and handsomeness (on which every major character comments at some point), he feels left out, misunderstood, and unable to connect. And then there's their father, Tom, a brokenhearted man still reeling from divorce, who interacts with all these students and teachers every day and yet still feels so set apart from them. In a novel full of panicky kids and parents, Tom seems to be the most stable, least churning force around, and it's that groundedness that isolates him from his more frantic peers.

Again, Abbott is quite strong at conveying internal family dynamics. That's why I wish she had chosen to delve into the perspectives of characters outside the Nash family. The Nashes, alas, aren't very interesting in and of themselves. Though Abbott portrays Deenie richly and movingly, Eli seems like a cipher for Abbott's thoughts for a paper entitled "Female Agency as Cultural Signifier" or "Teenage Sexuality as Ontological Virus" or "Technology as Disease." At multiple points, Abbott even has Eli comment that he looks vaguely like Sean Lurie, a hockey player at a competing high school. Confusion between Eli and Sean, in some ways, causes the entire events of The Fever to occur. Tom comes across as little more than a contemporary reject from a bad John Updike story, the concerned but impotent father pulsing with undigested divorce rage. At a point, Lise's mother screams at him about the Dryden virus, "all of you [men], spreading your semen anywhere you want. That's the poison." It seems that Eli and Tom are in this novel primarily so that that statement can be made, can be projected onto them, and so they can be reduced to talking points about odd social phenomena.

So, men don't come off well in The Fever. That's fine -- neither do women. But, no one other than Deenie comes across as a fully articulated, rounded human, either. Deenie's ineriority, especially her jealousy, is well-conveyed but the other girls seem more like blanks, defined more by their appearances and gestures than anything else. No one else is really memorable. They all talk in teenage-girl-ese, which makes for snappy dialogue but also a sense that they all sound like the narrator's voice.

This narrative voice, so articulate in negotiating female friendships, often also feels maddeningly -- and maybe intentionally -- vague and unsure of itself. Here's Eli, ending a chapter: "Sinking back onto her pillow, he lay there for a moment, staring at her ceiling, wondering about his missing phone, or something." Here's Eli, talking to Sean Lurie: "Eli couldn't figure out what it all meant, but he knew it meant something." There are all these "somethings" throughout The Fever, as if Abbott's trying to cheat a sense of sinister significance by withholding information and writing with delicate vagueness. There's so much verbal fuzziness and misdirection that I began to sense that there was little to The Fever underneath all the gauze.

From this point forward, we're on high spoiler alert. As this is a mystery novel of sorts, skip to the final paragraph if you don't want key plot points revealed. I'm revealing them because I think they articulate my issues with The Fever, with what I perceive as latent sexism and a shoddy dodge of its genre roots.

Underneath all the misdirection here, there's a simple case of mistaken identity that leads to an instance of raging teen-girl jealousy. There's no virus. There are no effects of pollution from the nearby toxic lake. It's just this: Gabby is obsessed with Eli Nash, thinks she witnessed Eli having sex with Lise, and decides to poison Lise by putting jimsonweed in her coffee thermos. That's it. Gabby then fakes her own hysteria to throw folks off the scent. Three other girls use the mounting hysteria as a cover for broadcasting their own sexual crises. The panic that engulfs the town, then, is basically caused by a teenage girl's insanity over a boy, and it turns out that she witnessed someone else (Sean Lurie) having sex with Lise Daniels, anyway, so it's misplaced jealousy. Misplaced obsession, too -- Eli isn't even aware of how Gabby feels about him.

So, The Fever turns out to be a high-toned YA version of Fatal Attraction, with all the implied misogyny but few of the genuine exploitation thrills. The novel explains away, unsatisfactorily, the hysteria of the girls not within the Lise-Gabby-Deenie nexus as "mass psychogenic illness," in an expository news report. The novel also sets up a potential sequel by stating, from the same news article, that Lise is a "ticking time bomb." And so the novel unravels into a cloud of dark, vague, ill-defined void.

That void, though, has useful dimensions that Abbott could have explored. There's a long, long tradition of genre fiction and cinema that conflates burgeoning sexuality with contagion -- basically, every horror movie about viruses ever made. There's an equally long tradition of conflating new technology with invasive, icky disease. (See: David Cronenberg's body-horror films Videodrome and eXistenZ, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever.) The rapid spread of hysteria has been useful for everyone from Stephen King (Under the Dome) to Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery") and Arthur Miller (The Crucible) as a means of exploring societal breakdown. These genre efforts have the courage of their convictions, following the initial crazy thought all the way through so that it gains the right to be hyperbolic and allegorical.

Abbott, instead, pulls her punch here, clinging to psychological realism while not giving the novel over to its outsized, and more interesting, premise. She tries to make a single poisoning into something larger than it is without going through the effort -- on a macro or micro level -- that The Fever needs for it to work. By hedging her bets, Abbott falls into the same traps of any writer trying to imagine adolescent girl life without histrionics or condescension. In the end, The Fever breaks, but we never discover satisfactorily what caused it, and it turns out that it's not even a fever at all.

The Fever by Megan Abbott
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316231053
320 pages