Abbott’s novels are often described as crime fiction, and, while indeed she works with mystery and suspense and draws on noir and Gothic tropes, her goal seems less to construct intricate, double-crossing plot problems than to explore the dark side of femininity. Her prose is often incantatory, her dialogue lightly stylized. Frequently her tone has a strong flavor, pungent and fermented. In other words, Megan Abbott is a mood. Two of her best-known previous novels (“The Turnout” is her 10th) featured teenage cheerleaders and gymnasts, spiritual cousins to ballet dancers. Her most recent, “Give Me Your Hand,” concerned rivalrous female scientists studying an extreme form of PMS. Blood is not rare in Abbott’s work, both from sudden violence and the purposeful risks and sacrifices of her characters. “The Turnout” has a bit of gore, but its deepest preoccupation is with bodies and sex.
“How a dancer prepared her pointe shoes,” Abbott writes, “was a ritual as mysterious and private as how she might pleasure herself.” A shoe broken in by a hammer-wielding dancer had “its pinkness split open, its soft center exposed.” Not coincidentally, a dancer mastering the outward hip rotation called turnout that is essential to ballet finds herself “split open, laid bare.” When Dara glimpses Marie having sex with Derek, she sees him “turning her inside out. Turning her out.” These connections — the pinkness of shoes and of women’s genitals, the submissions required by ballet and by sex — are neither subtle nor meant to be so, and the novel is so relentlessly saturated with sexual imagery and innuendo that at times it can feel like too much. “It only hurts the first time,” Derek says before driving a hammer through the wall of the damaged studio, and in life it would be almost impossible not to tell him to give it a rest. I found myself wondering if a dancer reading “The Turnout” might be made to feel uncomfortable, even stripped of some dignity, by the description of 10-year-old Dara recognizing the feeling of turnout from “her own furtive confusions, in the claw-foot bathtub, under her bunk bed blankets, her hands tingling, her thighs gaping like a keyhole, and that feeling after, like her whole fist would not be enough.”
But the key to this novel is that while the narration sometimes feels omniscient, the story is refracted through one particular lens: Dara’s. Her consciousness is given to the reader impressionistically, through memories and associations and washes of emotion, rather than through detailed accounts of her thoughts, partly because she is living in a habitual, self-protective fog and perhaps also, more practically, because the book’s ambient mystery might otherwise be spoiled. What becomes clear is that the queasy, too-pervasive sexuality is inseparable from a haze of wrongness and trauma that suffuses Dara’s mind. To Dara, pointe shoes are “pink satin fantasies we beat into submission so they can be used and then discarded.” To Dara, “The Nutcracker” is not a pleasant holiday entertainment but a story of a “brave girl venturing into the adult world of dark magic, of broken things, of innocence lost.” It’s not that the novel is saying ballet is only about sex and degradation. It’s that, for reasons that eventually become clear, Dara has lost her ability to see it any other way.
Like a ballet, “The Turnout” revels in its own bigness, its drama, its relish for cataclysmic passion and its appetite for the grotesque, but some of Abbott’s deftest work involves an underlying interplay between strength and fragility. The Durant sisters are outwardly fortified by the rigid routines and conventions of ballet, but inwardly they are bending under the pressure of maintaining a facade. Anything might cause them to break or combust, just as a lone hairpin, fallen unnoticed to the stage, “might bring down a dancer, might take everything away.” The strain on the Durants is not unlike the inherent strain of ballet’s artifice: To portray a vision of lightness and loveliness, a delicate swan or dainty Sugar Plum Fairy, a dancer must stoically endure years of hard work and frequent pain, must hide her calloused, sometimes bloody feet in pink satin fantasies. In Abbott’s work, womanhood might be a grand illusion all its own, one we can’t help suffering for. After all, according to the motto of the Durant School of Dance, “Every girl wants to be a ballerina.”